Beshalach, 4th February 2023 – Marc Saperstein

We have listened to the words of our Torah reading from parashat Beshalach, Exodus 14 and 15, in Hebrew and English, and I would imagine that I am not the only one who found some rather strange problems with the words of our parashah, especially the presentation of God. I would like to examine what we should make of some of the words we have read.

For the ultra-Orthodox Jews there would be no problem. Every word written in the Torah reflects the words of God: there is no need to try to understand its significance or meaning, the only important thing is to read the Hebrew text correctly.  At the other end of the spectrum there are many Jews who don’t believe at all in the Bible, who never go to synagogue services, who would never bother reading the passage even in a good English translation, certainly not in Hebrew.

On the other hand, there are still many Jews committed to the Tanach–Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox), Conservative, Reform, Liberal, who are committed to the Hebrew Bible, but do not believe that every word in our Torah was written by God, nor even that every word was written by Moses. It seems to me that passages from our Torah reading today would fit this category. Let us look at some of the passages pertaining to God that we have recently heard in Exodus 14 and 15.

At the beginning of our passage, we read that God tells Moses to hold out his arm, and at daybreak, the entire Egyptian Army was hurled by God into the sea, while the Israelites walked through a special wall that allowed them to go around the sea on dry land. “The Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea.” As a response, Moses and all the other Israelites sing a special song to God – apparently they all knew the words in advance – including the wonderfully inspiring phrase, ‘Adonai Ish Milchamah, Adonai Shemo‘, “The Lord is a warrior, that is God’s name.”  This appears to be the main characteristic of God.

One final detail at the end of our reading.  The Israelites are now free from the Egyptians, but in their marching to get away from Egypt and head for home, they went into the wilderness of Shur, where they had to walk for 3 days without any water. They complain to Moses, and Moses asks God what is happening??? Moses complains, God provides some water, and then makes a final statement, ‘If you will do everything that God expects, then God will not afflict them with the diseases He gave to the Egyptians.’ That is end of our parashah.

What are we to make from all of this?  How can we take it at all seriously? How can we even think of this biblical concept of a God who is in control of everything that happens in the world? Was God responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews in the 1940s?  Why did God not open the earth and swallow Auschwitz and its crematoria, as the sea swallowed the Egyptians? Why does God allow all of the horrible sins that we learn about from the News every day? What can we believe about God’s relationship to history? I will mention briefly the position of 3 important Jewish theologians from a generation ago for you to consider.

The first was Richard Rubenstein. who wrote a book with the title, After Auschwitz. For Rubenstein the death camps destroyed forever the possibility of believing in God as the omnipotent author of history. He prefers a belief in a universe that is absurd and ultimately tragic to one which permits the conclusion that Auschwitz was God’s will. And yet he also rejected the secularist that places all our hope in human beings. From what we have seen, there are no more grounds for hoping in human beings than for praying to God. According to Rubinstein, we live in a world devoid of hope, and we must accept our tragic situation for the reality of what it is. According to Rubenstein, the only redemption from the struggles and frustrations of life is death.

The second theologian was the well-known Martin Buber. Buber never believed in God acting in history, controlling or directing events in the sense that is so obvious in today’s Torah reading. He did believe that through the events of history, we can at times sense the Presence of God, who addresses human beings not in words, but in the infinite language of events and situations. According to Buber, this did not end with the biblical period; the heavens did not suddenly become silent 2500 years ago. There is no essential difference between the biblical period and our own.

Buber claimed, however, that God does not speak continuously in history. Sometimes He breaks into the course of events, but there are other periods when all events seem empty of Him. At such times, the Bible speaks of God ‘Hiding His Face’. After the Holocaust, Buber developed this idea of God having concealed Himself, so that history was empty of the divine breath. Our situation now is like that of Job: knowing that we have been wronged, contending with God. awaiting His appearance in history once again. Buber was certain that this will occur, that some day we will recognize again the presence of our cruel and merciful Lord.

The third theologian is Emil L. Fackenheim, whose book: God’s Presence in History was published in 1971. Fackenheim accepted Buber’s concept of God having hidden Himself, for reasons that we cannot comprehend. But he insists that if God is to remain a religious possibility for Jews today, this separation from human beings cannot be total. There must remain some access, some communication. And Fackenheim believed that indeed there was. For him. the divine presence has been shorn of its power to save, shorn of its power except for its power to command. Through Auschwitz, we hear God’s commanding voice as it was once heard at Sinai.

What are the commandments for our time? To remember and to tell the tale. To survive as Jews and thus not to give Hitler posthumous victories. To fight the forces which made possible the death camps. To continue wrestling with God. For Fackenheim, God’s presence has only its commanding power, but this power is inescapable.

These then are modern positions on the God of history: to divorce God totally from the events of the world, to assume that God is hidden and at hat we must wait his reappearance, to sense God’s presence in new commandments for our tragic times. Reading the account of the exiles’ Song of the Sea from the Torah, praising God for having saved the Israelites from the pursuing foe, we feel a sense of envy for a primitive innocence of faith which can no longer be ours. The end of the God of history is a time for mourning. But it is not a time for despair.

We live on the hope that from the ashes of Auschwitz and the carnage of Hiroshima. and from all the nightmares of history that we encounter every day from the news reports in our time, somehow, if we sincerely do what we can to make the world better, God will indeed help us to build a better world.