By Or N. Rose
Rabbi Or N. Rose, is associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston, a frequent contributor to Tikkun, author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: Man of Spirit, Man of Action (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), co-editor of God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Wisdom from Hasidic Masters (Jewish Lights, 2004), and most recently, co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights, 2007), from which this article is drawn.
Panther’s Story: Exodus Unraveled
EXACTLY ONE WEEK BEFORE PASSOVER, I spoke at a suburban Boston synagogue about the genocide in Darfur (western Sudan). My task was to convey to the assembled group of adults and teens the basic facts of the crisis and some Jewish teachings that might motivate them to take action. I shared the podium that evening with an extraordinary young man named Panther Alier, who was part of a group known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”
The Lost Boys were a group of child refugees who were orphaned or separated from their families in an earlier conflict in southern Sudan, in which government and paramilitary forces destroyed numerous villages in brutal counterinsurgency operations. The younger boys in these communities survived in large numbers because they were either away tending herd or were guided by elders into nearby jungles. Alone, with no family or financial support, the children banded together and made long and arduous journeys to international relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, battling starvation, disease, wild animals, and roving soldiers and bandits. Many of the Lost Boys later resettled in the United States and elsewhere in the West.1
While I had heard Panther speak several times about his harrowing experiences as a refugee, the story he shared that evening shook me to the core. He described how once, when the Lost Boys were traveling through a jungle, a group of militiamen allied with the Sudanese government pursued them, screaming wildly and firing their guns as they chased the children through a densely wooded area. As the boys ran from the fighters, they entered a clearing with a large swamp before them; the waters were infested with alligators.
Facing imminent danger in front and in back of them, the children were terrified. Some leaped into the swamp, others climbed trees, and some, paralyzed by fear, stood still unable to move. The outcome was disastrous: while a number of the boys managed to escape, others were maimed or eaten alive by the alligators, or taken captive and shot to death by the soldiers.
As I listened to Panther speak, I immediately thought of the epic biblical tale of the parting of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14-15). But unlike that mythical story, God did not intervene supernaturally on behalf of Panther and his companions. The waters did not split, the refugees did not cross over to safety, and the fighters did not drown in the swamp. There was no singing, dancing, or jubilation among the surviving Lost Boys. In fact, Panther’s reflection, though certainly not intended as such, made the Exodus narrative feel hollow.
I left the synagogue that evening dejected. Though I was not a literal believer in the Bible, the symbolic power of Panther’s story and the timing of the event in relation to Passover sent me into a theological tailspin.
Where was God in this story, and in the pursuit of justice? Could I, as a religious activist, develop a spiritual narrative that accounts for such instances of injustice? More importantly, could I help others—particularly those suffering from oppression and degradation—frame their experiences in meaningful theological terms?
A Turn to Tradition: Hasidic Inspiration
In attempting to respond to Panther’s experience and regain something of my spiritual equilibrium, I turned to several Jewish sources (as bookish rabbis tend to do) that have nurtured me over the years. One text that has been particularly important is a book called the Kedushat Levi. It is a collection of sermons on the weekly Torah portions and the Jewish holidays by the famed Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809).
What first attracted me to this text were the legends I had read about Levi Yitzhak in anthologies by Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel.2 In story after story, the Berditchever (as he is affectionately called by Hasidim) is depicted as person of great compassion, who supported and defended the poor and the downtrodden in his community. He seemed to embody a unique blend of mystical piety and righteous indignation. In exploring his sermons, I found that this same spirit permeated his teachings.
The following is a translation of a brief homily from the Kedushat Levi3 comparing and contrasting the revelatory experiences of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds and at Mount Sinai. This sermon is not simply an interpretation of these dramatic narratives, but a fascinating reflection on the roles God and humankind play in the creation of a just and compassionate society.
“At the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man, and at Mount Sinai He appeared to them as an old man” (Pesikta Rabbati 21:5).
Behold, the Holy Blessed One constricts (metzamtzem) Himself in the worlds. However, at the Sea of Reeds, where there was a change in nature, He was not garbed in the worlds, and the Children of Israel saw him unclothed. At Mount Sinai, however, the Holy Blessed One dressed Himself such that the worlds could maintain their natural existence.
Now in the writings of Isaac Luria of blessed memory [1534-1572] clothing is associated with hair. That is why at the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man without facial hair—without any worldly garb—while when giving the Torah He revealed Himself to them as an old man with hair—dressed in the garb of the worlds. This is alluded to in the words of our sages of blessed memory: “At the Sea even the maidservant saw that which the prophet Ezekiel did not see” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirata 3). For Ezekiel and the other prophets saw God clothed in the world, as it were, according to the measure of the worlds. But at the Sea, everyone saw God unclothed. However, at Sinai He had to garb Himself so that the Children of Israel would understand the Torah. That is why it is written [in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy], “You appeared in the cloud of Your glory”; that is to say, in clothing, by limiting His great light, for a cloud is a symbol of darkness… But does the liturgist explain why this was so? It is for this reason that he continues by saying, “… upon Your holy people to speak to them”; meaning, He needed to speak to them so that they would understand His holy words.
— Kedushat Levi, Yitro
The Berditchever opens this imaginative text by stating that under ordinary circumstances, the Divine reveals Himself to us subtly through the natural workings of the world. While God is present throughout the cosmos (“the worlds”), animating all of life, He is “garbed” or hidden within corporeality. However, at the Sea of Reeds, God revealed Himself to the Children of Israel in an extraordinary manner, by removing His worldly dress4 and upsetting the rules of nature. Using the imagery from Pesikta Rabbati (an eighth or ninth century midrash for festivals and special sabbaths), Levi Yitzhak envisions God as a young warrior, who, in Herculean fashion boldly saved His people and crushed their enemies, demonstrating His supreme might to all.
The Berditchever then links this rabbinic image to a teaching from the kabbalist Isaac Luria about facial hair—another form of covering—explaining that at the Sea of Reeds God was beardless, unclothed, God’s power uninhibited. So intense was God’s presence at the Sea that even the maidservant—the simplest person among the Israelites—beheld a vision of God more brilliant than the apparitions of Ezekiel and all other Israelite prophets.
If the theophany at the Sea is a model of Divine strength, the theophany at the Mountain is a model of Divine restraint. Unlike the earlier revelation, at Sinai God did not topple the natural order. While God’s descent upon the Mountain caused it to smoke and quake (Exodus 19:18), the earth did not crumble under the weight of God’s holy presence. Levi Yitzhak teaches that this revelation needed to be more deliberate than the previous one, because God’s goal at Sinai was to communicate with the people of Israel (directly and through Moses), to share with them the sacred teachings of the Torah. Using the rabbinic and Lurianic texts to support his claim, Levi Yitzhak now envisions the Divine as a wise elder (with a long flowing beard) who understands the importance of self-limitation, tzimtzum,5 in interacting with his youthful community. In symbolic terms, God was both “garbed” and “bearded” at Sinai, His power bounded and measured.
In the concluding sentences of this sermon, the Berditchever turns to the Rosh Hashanah mahzor (prayer book) to further buttress his reading of the revelation at Sinai. Why did God appear to the Children of Israel in a dark cloud (Exodus 19:18)? The answer, states Levi Yitzhak, is found in the liturgical statement “to speak to them,” meaning, the Divine “dressed” Himself in the thickness of the cloud so that He could communicate with the people of Israel without overwhelming them. While God’s heroic actions at the Sea of Reeds may have been necessary to impress the Israelites and to astound any would-be foes, at Sinai God wished to provide His people with the spiritual and ethical tools—Torah—to function as an increasingly independent community, no longer reliant on God’s supernatural intervention in human affairs.
Reading Levi Yitzhak Today
Though Levi Yitzhak does not say so explicitly, there is an obvious theological question that motivates this sermon: if God performed great wonders for our ancient ancestors, why does He not do so today? The Berditchever’s answer is that while the Divine acted supernaturally for Israel in its infancy, He intended this only as a short-term arrangement. It was God’s plan from the outset of creation to slowly recede from the foreground of history and allow people to grow as independent actors, capable of fashioning their own lives without the aid of miracles. Just as God grew from being a young man at the Sea to an old man at Sinai, so Israel was to undergo an extensive maturation process.
This is, in fact, a central theme in the Kedushat Levi. It is no wonder that the only sermons this preacher published in his own lifetime were on the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim—the two festivals in which human heroes—Mattathius and his sons, and Queen Esther and Mordechai—take center stage, while God is seemingly absent.
I find much of Levi Yitzhak’s presentation resonant with my own life experiences.6 While I do not believe that the Divine ever performed supernatural feats for Israel or anybody else, I do believe that God is both the Creator and Sustainer of all life. Experiencing such natural phenomena as sunsets, oceans, and snowfall, I sense the Divine at work in the world. Interacting with my children, I feel God’s presence in our midst. One of my favorite prayers is the Yotzer blessing in which we say, “In His goodness He renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.”
Importantly, this liturgical statement affirms not only God’s creative power, but also His goodness. The Divine is not a mad scientist or a solipsistic artist, but a loving Spirit who enters into the creative process in order to share His goodness with His creations. It is no accident that the Yotzer blessing is followed by the prayer Ahavah Rabbah, which opens with the words, “With abounding love have You loved us YHWH our God,” and continues by speaking of our desire to emulate the Divine by living as loving and responsible beings, guided by the teachings of the Torah.
Among the deepest expressions of God’s love and respect for humankind is the gift of free will. With this gift, we are invited to participate with the Divine in the establishment of a caring and equitable world. However, in order for us to live as free beings, God must restrain Himself so that people can make independent choices. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “God has set Himself the limit that He will not intervene to take away our freedom, including our freedom to hurt ourselves and others around us.”7
In thinking about the plight of the Lost Boys, I am reminded of a statement by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (a direct descendent of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev) about the Holocaust: “The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man.” Heschel, an Eastern European refugee who lost most of his family in the Shoah, refused to blame the Divine for the barbaric actions of the Nazis and their collaborators, and for the inaction of all those who stood idly by in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.
Translating this point back into the Berditchever’s language, I would say that to live “after Sinai” means that we must recognize that God will not swoop in, like at the Sea of Reeds, and destroy the Pharaoh-like forces that embitter our lives. The Divine may inspire, agitate, and comfort (from within a state of tzimtzum), but human beings must act to create a just and compassionate world, minimizing the pain and suffering of all God’s creations.
Protest, Mystery, and Faith
While this Hasidic text was very helpful to me in responding to Panther’s story and to other cases of human misconduct, I also recognize that it offers but a partial answer to the larger question of theodicy. Rabbi David Wolpe articulates the issue clearly:
For there are catastrophes we have not made and cannot stop, such as disease and natural disaster. Even were all human wickedness to be blamed upon us alone (and that too can be questioned, for we did not fashion human nature), there is still a large residue of suffering that is certainly not the fault of humanity.8
The matter was not lost on Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. According to legend, one Yom Kippur eve, just before the Kol Nidrei service, the great Rabbi stood before the ark and spoke these words: “Master of the Universe, I come before You on behalf of my community, as I do every year, seeking forgiveness for the sins we have committed against You. But in the past year we have caused no deaths—we have brought no plagues, no earthquakes, and no floods upon the earth. God, You have done these things, not us. Perhaps You should ask us for forgiveness.” After pausing for a moment to wipe the tears from his eyes, the Berditchever continued, “But since You are God and we are mere mortals, we have no choice but to pray.” With that, the Rabbi began the Kol Nidrei service.9
Like Levi Yitzhak, I am often confounded by the ways of the Divine. I do not know why people are stricken with cancer or are swept away by tsunamis. Is God unwilling or unable to prevent these tragedies? Are they a part of an inscrutable Divine plan? And yet, despite my feelings of confusion, anger, and disappointment, I continue to believe in a loving, ethical, and powerful God, clinging to the notion that, as Heschel put it, there is “a meaning beyond mystery.”
What I do know is that human beings cannot allow questions of theology to paralyze us. Even if we are unsure about the nature of our Divine partner, we must still uphold our half of the partnership. Inspired by the teachings of the Torah and other great sources of wisdom, I continue my work as a religious activist, listening carefully for the still, small voice of the Divine urging me forth in my efforts to help mend the world.10
1. To learn more about the Lost Boys of Sudan, see Alphonsian Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein), They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).
2. See, Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters, translated by Olga Marx (New York: Schocken Books, 1991 ); and Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
3. The texts of the Kedushat Levi were originally delivered as Yiddish sermons—the spoken language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, but were written in Hebrew—the sacred language of the Jewish tradition. This translation is my own.
4. Interestingly, Levi Yitzhak makes no comment about the erotic nature of his imagery—God disrobing at the Sea—despite the fact that the midrashic text he quotes does speak of God and Israel as lovers in the continuation of this teaching.
5. For more information on the mystical concept of tzimtzum, see Arthur Green, These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1999), 35-36.
6. Though I find this text meaningful, I am aware that its strong male and militaristic imagery may be an obstacle for some readers. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), 121-170.
7. Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 2001), 109.
8. David J. Wolpe, The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God (New York: Henry Holt, 1990), 151.
9. Versions of this story or complementary tales about Levi Yitzhak’s spiritual audacity (or “holy chutzpah,” as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach put it) are recorded in many sources, including in Wolpe’s book, 154-155.
10. For a helpful introduction to Jewish theology, including the issue of theodicy, see Neil Gillman, The Way into Encountering God in Judaism (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000).