The continuing absence of manifest Divine Providence in modern times is often seen as the cause for much secularism. Since the Renaissance era, people have become more and more skeptical about Divine intervention. No longer, it is argued, are there enough indications of God’s interference in the national and private affairs of humankind. This viewpoint ultimately led to the collapse of much of religious authority and, in many ways, undermined the role of religion in people’s lives.
Divine intervention was most visible when the Israelites left Egypt. The ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and many other smaller and larger miracles provided evidence of God’s intervention in people’s affairs. Consequently, our general reading of those years leads us to believe that anyone living under such miraculous conditions would have had no option but to be a deeply religious person.
Rashi, however, in his commentary on the Torah, gives us a totally different version of the events:
As a result of the sin of the spies in which they spoke evil about the Land of Israel, the speech of God no longer secluded itself with Moshe for 38 years. (Vayikra 1:1)
Whatever the deeper meaning of these words may be, it cannot be denied that this is a most remarkable and far-reaching observation. What we are told is that most of the time that the Israelites traveled through the desert, there was no special Divine Providence. God did not speak to Moshe or to the Israelites in His usual way. As a result, the Israelites had to deal with the question of God’s intervention not much differently from how we do in modern times. Although the manna (miraculous bread) fell, and other smaller miracles took place, it becomes clear that these events no longer had any real effect on the religious condition of the Israelites. Not for nothing did they say that this manna was lechem hakelokel, repulsive bread (Bamidbar 21:5). They saw these miracles as common events, not much different from the way we view the laws of nature. Indeed, on several occasions the Israelites asked whether God still lived among them. We are reminded of Rabbi Dessler’s well-known observation that the laws of nature are nothing less than the frequency of miracles, a notion that it is also reflected from a secular point of view by famous philosophers of science such as Karl Popper. (Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Michtav Me-Eliyahu, ¨Nature as Hidden Miracles,¨ vol. 1; Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery [Hutchinson & Co. 1959] pp. 278-280; Conjectures and Refutations [Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963])
It is perhaps this fact that makes Pesach so relevant for our own times: The realization that even at the time of the greatest of miracles, many years passed without God revealing Himself openly.
Sitting at the Seder table, we often feel like we’re reading a story that has little in common with our lives today. We complain that God has become silent and that His spoken word is no longer available. How, then, can we believe in His existence, and why should we listen to His words uttered many thousands of years ago? We are today confronted with a Deus Absconditus (an “absent” God), and no story about God’s open intervention in history can reach us any longer. God’s silence has made us deaf. So we complain.
And even if we admit that God didn’t speak with Moshe and the Israelites for 38 years, we could still make the powerful point that we have not heard from Him in more than 2,000 years! So why ask us to reflect on an event of thousands of years ago, with which we have almost nothing in common?
But in hindsight, we may have to radically change our view. We need to realize that the silence of those 38 years must have been much more frightening than the entire period of Divine silence during our last two millennia. While we are, to a great extent, much more independent and able to take care of ourselves, this was not the case with our forefathers in the desert. They encountered the emptiness of barren land. There were no natural resources, no food or any basic items without which even the most elementary forms of life cannot survive. True, we are told that they miraculously had water and food. But once God stopped speaking with them in the middle of the desert, and with the realization that God’s thundering silence would continue day after day, and the frightening awareness that they would have nothing to fall back on if God were to stop providing them with water and food, this Godly silence must have been more dreadful than anything we can imagine. After being used to open miracles, suddenly finding themselves in the absence of any Divine voice, right in the middle of a desert, must have been too much to bear. God’s “indifference” no doubt created a devastating experience. (The absence of God’s word for all those 38 years throws a radically different light on much of the Israelites’ upheavals and complaints in the desert, as mentioned in the Torah.)
On the other hand, our parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced the Holocaust, which was far more calamitous than our forefathers’ 40 years in the desert. So why not argue that we are, after all, much worse off than the Israelites who had to feel God’s absence in the desert? Wouldn’t this make the Exodus story completely irrelevant and meaningless to us?
However, it was our generation that, despite God’s absence in the Holocaust, clearly saw God’s hand present in the establishment of the State of Israel only three years after the destruction of most of European Jewry. Without falling victim to the highly dangerous view that all this is certainly the beginning of the messianic age, it is impossible to deny that God’s miraculous intervention in the establishment of the Jewish State and the successes of its inhabitants, which are nothing less than sui generis and bordering on the impossible, remind us that despite the Divine silence during the Holocaust, God had re-entered history, and that is what makes the story of the Exodus and the holiday of Passover very relevant.
When we realize that the story of the Exodus was mainly one of Divine silence and that only occasionally a word of God entered the human condition, we become conscious of the fact that the story we read on the Seder night is most relevant. While the words of the Haggada relate the miracles, the “empty spaces” in between tell us of the frightening Divine silence of those 38 years. And just as our forefathers must have often wondered where God was all those years, so do we. But just as they made it through, so must we.
For reasons unknown to us, God disappears and suddenly re-emerges in this great drama called the history of humankind, making the Jewish people the ultimate symbol of this odd spectacle.
The art is to hear God in His silence and to see His miracles in His paradoxical ‘hide-and-seek’ with humankind. It is in the balance of these two acts that religious life takes place.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo