How to respond to God’s absence

When we face misfortune, pain or suffering, we can easily ask, “Where is God? How is God allowing this to happen?”
Our ancient ancestors must have asked similar questions. This week’s Torah portion is Sh’mot, the start of the Book of Exodus. This portion describes the Israelites’ descent into slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. 
Sh’mot, which means “names,” begins by listing the names of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt with Jacob at the end of the book of Genesis. (I will return to the significance of the people’s remembering these names.) 
During the dark days of slavery, God is absent for 400 years. How can this be? There is no indication from the text that either the initial flourishing of Jacob’s descendants or their later enslavement were part of God’s will. But at the same time, it is not clear that the people had a relationship with God. We do not know if they even prayed to God. We only read that their groaning “rose up before God.” (Exodus 2:23)
The first indication that the people had any relationship with God was when Pharaoh, terrified by the large number of Hebrew slaves, orders the midwives to murder every male newborn. Their response? “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)
There is no clear reason why God decided to re-enter the scene and come to the aid of the Israelites. One Midrash offers an explanation: “The Israelites merited God’s favor because they … avoided slander, retained a knowledge of Hebrew, and kept their own traditional names.” 
Was this part of some mysterious plan? The Torah text is silent. All we know is that with God’s re-appearance, the story of redemption follows. The primary players in the early chapters of Exodus are not Moses vs. Pharaoh but God vs. Pharaoh.
As we begin the year 2024, God apparently continues to be absent. Personally, we and our loved ones continue to face illness, tragedy and suffering. Communally and nationally, antisemitism is on the rise, targeting businesses, synagogues and college campuses. Fascism is gaining power and influence, dredging up horrible memories of the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. And of course, we continue to face the collateral damage of Oct. 7, when Israel experienced a day of horror in a land where we assumed we would be safe from our oppressors.
How are we to respond to God’s apparent absence in our world? We can look to this week’s Torah portion and how our ancient ancestors responded to the terrifying reality of mass enslavement, with God seemingly nowhere to be found.
The midwives rallied together and drew strength and support from one another. They had the courage, in their own way, to say “no” to Pharaoh. And there is no indication that Pharaoh punished them for not following his orders.
We maintained respect for our elders. When Moses returned to Egypt, after receiving his marching orders from God at the burning bush, he first reunited with his brother Aaron. But immediately after that, Moses met with an assembly of the elders. The Israelites clearly looked to this assembly as their representatives and respected their collective wisdom and experience.
How else did the Israelites respond? We can look to a Midrash: They refrained from slander, they maintained their knowledge of Hebrew and they preserved their family names. In effect, they kept their unique and distinct identities intact. They knew who they were and where they came from. They could answer the questions, “Who am I? Why am I different?”
But I am more intrigued by how the Midrash emphasizes that the people did not engage in slander. They did not turn on each other to gain favor from their Egyptian oppressors. They did not allow Egyptians to divide and conquer them by self-sabotage.
That being said, the Israelites clearly expressed anger and frustration at their reality. They let Moses know that with his reappearance, the Egyptians only increased their suffering. But there is no indication that they slandered Moses (or the midwives or the elders). The Israelites remained a united community.
In their own way, the people were prepared for the pain and suffering that would follow, as God faced off against Pharaoh. How do we know? Because they were ultimately redeemed from slavery. As a result, they received opportunities to develop a relationship with God and to mature as a people during their travels through the wilderness.
We can look to this week’s Torah portion and the lessons of our ancestors’ slave experience to embrace a vision of hope and optimism for our future. Even when God appears to be absent from our world, we can still feel redemption and we can grow ever closer as a people.


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