Here we are again, in the middle of the Egyptian plagues, in the middle of winter. As I write this there are gale force winds in Scotland, snow covers Jerusalem and I don’t even want to think of the sufferings of the refugees further north in their flimsy housing. These days for us even an overwhelming snowstorm generally signals only relatively minor inconvenience, but in ancient times it would be felt as a signal that the heavens were angry, punishing the land and the people for ‘who knew what’ sin – a real plague.
Plagues are terrifying and overpowering phenomena; a hammer blow, completely beyond human power to understand or manage in any way. Today we might draw a parallel with the onslaught of AIDS or Ebola; the devastation wrought by terrorists in, for example, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and now Paris; and climate change brought about by mis-management of the environment. Yes, these days we can, with luck, gain a measure of control with time, research and patience – or by the skill of counter-terrorist operatives. But in the ancient world they were simply the wrath of the heavens – most of us understand such things differently today.
What of the plagues visited on Egypt by our God? What do we think of a God who imposes such evils as disease and death on humans and animals and the very land itself? In fact, what do we think of a God who imposes such an evil as 400 years of slavery and hard labour upon His very own people? Put that way, the Passover story has a very different impact on us to our usual comfortable Seder night recitation, doesn’t it? And when God reminds us, as He often does in the Torah that we owe Him loyalty and obedience because ‘I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ [Exodus 20:1] do we perhaps think in our most secret depths that we want nothing to do with such a ferocious and deadly Deity?
So what might this story mean to us in the 21st century, some three and a half thousand years later? At the very least we have to find a new meaning for the old tale that we can accept as relevant to our lives. One way of doing this is to realise that the Exodus story is an example of an establishing myth-history that unifies a group of people into a single community. What is important about such a story is not whether it is historic truth, but whether it is believed to be such in later times by a group of people who acknowledge their kinship through it. And looked at in those terms, the Exodus narrative has certainly proved outstandingly successful.
There are many religions, all with dissimilar understandings of God; and within each group that understanding develops through time. We all walk towards God on separate paths, converging, I believe, as we approach the Ultimate. Didn’t the Rabbis tell us, much later, that when the angels rejoiced as the waters closed over the Egyptians; God rebuked them, saying ‘Are not these my children also?” Such a God could not have acted as the biblical One did. The God of the Rabbis is one we can applaud, heaving a sigh of relief to find He was not so cruel after all.
Each age understands the Eternal in its own way. Our greatest challenge, the one that equates in enormity with the biblical plagues, is to find an interpretation of God that can explain the Holocaust, the 20th century plague – and not just for the Jewish people.
All I can offer you is my own understanding, what makes it possible for me to be a Jew, committed to my people, my community. I do not believe humanity can have any understanding of the Eternal, that it is not even our task to attempt to comprehend the Transcendent. I cannot approach the meaning of the catastrophes that happen in the lives of nations and individuals alike; or apprehend the creative Power that has given us such an amazing Universe and beautiful planet to live on. I am a human being and I cannot have been created with the ability to understand the Divine. But I do believe; no I actually know that there is one aspect of God that is available to me, and that is that aspect of God that is within me, given me by God and where God dwells – within me as He is similarly within every other living creature. Occasionally I find God’s presence in my inner life and those moments are outside the ordinary, the time I know clearly that God is One with me and with all Creation. For the rest I am content to be a member of the faith community I was born into: I know what we are committed to do as Jews and as human beings.
We cannot know the reason for the Holocaust; we cannot even be certain that any real meaning can be brought out of it. Perhaps, although unfortunately not a myth, it too will in time prove to be a unifying force for the Jewish people. Or maybe the Holocaust is simply the evil in human nature made manifest. But we are committed, as humans, as Jews, to try to ensure that such catastrophes do not happen again.
The latest example of such a disaster is what happened this past week in France. I do not believe that Charlie Hebdo was right to ridicule the dearest beliefs of a faith community: but for sure nobody has the right to take lives because of it. We need to use our understanding of God to work hard for inter-religious and inter-communal peace and friendship. It’s a long and hard road and while we’re treading it we must remember that while we do not have to complete the work, neither are we permitted to stop trying [Avot 2:21].
Roberta Harris Eckstein
Rabbinic Student Leo Baeck College
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.