IN JANUARY, JEWS begin reading the book of Exodus again, which tells of the dramatic birth of the Jewish people.
So much is packed into just the first two portions. They include the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt, the Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew male babies be killed, and Moses’ rescue and adoption by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses learned of his heritage and killed an Egyptian slave master, resulting in his subsequent exile into the wilderness.
There he had a personal encounter with God who demanded he go to Egypt to free the slaves. He then demanded the Pharaoh release the slaves, whereupon the Pharaoh refused, and God sent the plagues to punish the Egyptians. All this in two portions!
Jewish scholars often speculate why God’s presence wasn’t more obvious during the years of the Hebrews’ suffering.
Where was God when they pleaded for help? However, praying to God to change our circumstances has never been encouraged in Judaism.
Rather, we must see ourselves as partners with God in creating the changes needed.
In the Exodus account when it felt God was absent, people intervened to steer the events.
The midwives, Shiprah and Puah, defied the Pharaoh’s order to kill all Hebrew male babies and saved Moses.
Jochaved, Moses’ mother, hid his birth and his sister Miriam gave him to the Pharaoh’s daughter to care for.
The princess, who surely knew this was a Hebrew baby, took him to raise as her own.
Moses reluctantly agreed to take on the mantle of returning to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves, and when finally freed, they were stopped at the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army closing in behind them.
As they wailed in despair, it was said that Nashon, a young boy showing faith, stepped into the water, walked in up to his nose, and only then did the the sea part.
Thus, at crucial points in the narrative, it was ordinary people who created turning points in the story.
Rather than seeing a void, with God missing in the beginning of Exodus, Rabbi Mary Zemore says, “there is plenty of evidence of compassionate, brave activism, including people willing to help others despite personal risk … In each of these cases, the person acted according to the moral compass embedded in the human spirit, part of God’s creation.”
Today, as we continue facing our own plague, we too are suffering, in despair and pleading for God’s help.
But rather than feeling abandoned, we should see God working through us, as Rabbi Zemore described, where people are acting with compassion, bravery and activism, revealing a God-given moral compass.
They include the nurses and doctors who risk their lives every day, working shift after shift to treat COVID patients.
The support network that keeps the hospitals clean and functioning also works long hours and are at risk for infection. The ambulance drivers, EMTs and other first responders continue to go to work putting themselves at risk to save lives.
Then there are all the ordinary citizens who have donated food and money to food banks.
Organizations, staffed by volunteers, have been created to provide assistance to those struggling to survive.
Seeing the miles of food lines is heartbreaking but watching all the volunteers working tirelessly to make sure those in need receive food is truly inspirational.
All these people are doing God’s work and saving lives.
A cornerstone of Judaism is the concept of pikuach nefesh, that saving a human life takes the highest priority.
That can mean volunteering, donating or something as simple as wearing a mask.
In the end, we should realize that God has not abandoned us but has embedded in our souls a deep sense of loving kindness towards others.
Rabbi Karyn Kedar teaches, “The self can not truly be full without tending to the needs of others. We live in relationship, not in isolation. Our quest for kindness and love must extend beyond the walls of self to the hearts and minds of others. Give and you get in the most fundamental way.” (God Whispers)
In Exodus, God tells Moses, “I am that I am and will always be with you.”
Rabbi Yael Levy tells us God is omnipresent. “I am the unfathomable mystery. And I am with you. And I need you. I need to come through you into the world. Together we face pain and suffering. Together we mend and heal. The Divine Mystery is everywhere. Calling. Waiting.”
We must answer that call with Hineini, here I am.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be my God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.