וְהִפְלֵיתִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַה֜וּא אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֗שֶׁן אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַמִּי֙ עֹמֵ֣ד עָלֶ֔יהָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י הֱיֽוֹת־שָׁ֖ם עָרֹ֑ב לְמַ֣עַן תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְשַׂמְתִּ֣י פְדֻ֔ת בֵּ֥ין עַמִּ֖י וּבֵ֣ין עַמֶּ֑ךָ לְמָחָ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה הָאֹ֥ת הַזֶּֽה׃ — שמות ח’:י”ח- י”ט
But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD am in the midst of the land. And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass. — Exodus 8:18-19
In the 21st century, it is difficult for us to see how God intervenes in our world. Sometimes, one wishes for ancient times when things were simple and God’s miraculous interventions in this world were obvious, as in the verses above. At the same time that God rained down plague after plague on the Egyptians, God ensured that the Children of Israel were kept safe and distinct.
One of our greatest sages, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, elucidated 13 principles which are fundamental to our faith. These principles might be viewed by some as limiting in that they can be used in their most literal sense as a “litmus test” to label people as heretics. In truth, however, these principles are a powerful way of thinking about our faith and are empowering, as well, in a world where God’s presence is no longer obvious.
Maimonides’ third principle is that God is non-corporeal. God is not of this world, and has no physical properties that are perceptible in our world. Neither can God be affected by any physical occurrences in this world, and, by logical extension, God has no way of directly intervening in this world in a physical manner.
Far from implying that God has absented Godself from this world, Maimonides makes it clear that the only way that God can instantiate in this world is through the human beings who populate this planet. Maimonides’ third principle is a clarion call to us to work to bring God into this world, and to help keep God’s children safe during the various modern-day plagues that affect us all.
The plague of sexual abuse is one such modern-day plague that affects us. While various statistics might be cited to determine the exact magnitude of the plague, what is most important is that about one of every five adults that you know has been affected by sexual abuse at some point in their life. Look around the sanctuary next time you are in synagogue: In a sanctuary that seats 250 adults, about 50 are victims. Unless you live on a desert island, you certainly are friends with victims, or are related to them, or might even be one yourself.
It is into the midst of this plague that Maimonides’ third principle mandates us to be present, and to do God’s work to keep God’s children safe. It is not at all obvious how we might be able to keep people safe. A mishna at the end of the tractate of Berakhot (9:3) is helpful:
הַצּוֹעֵק לְשֶׁעָבַר, הֲרֵי זוֹ תְּפִלַּת שָׁוְא. כֵּיצַד. הָיְתָה אִשְׁתּוֹ מְעֻבֶּרֶת, וְאָמַר, יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתֵּלֵד אִשְׁתִּי זָכָר, הֲרֵי זוֹ תְּפִלַּת שָׁוְא. הָיָה בָא בַדֶּרֶךְ וְשָׁמַע קוֹל צְוָחָה בָּעִיר, וְאָמַר יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ אֵלּוּ בְּנֵי בֵיתִי, הֲרֵי זוֹ תְּפִלַּת שָׁוְא:
He who prays over what has already happened, this prayer is in vain. How? If his wife was pregnant and he said, “May it be your will that my wife give birth to a boy,” this prayer is in vain. If he was coming on the way and heard the sound of screaming in the city, and he said, “May it be your will that these are not the children of my house,” this is a prayer in vain.
This mishna is commonly understood to be giving examples of prayers that are temporally inappropriate. This understanding, however, begs the question: Why two different examples of “prayers in vain” – isn’t one example sufficient?
One answer is that the second prayer is in vain not because it is temporally inappropriate, but because it is a prayer for the safety of one’s own family at the expense of someone else – it is a prayer that shows a lack of empathy for others. Implicit in this understanding of the mishna is that we can help to bring God into this world by showing empathy for those who are suffering, rather than distancing ourselves from them.
When we hear about cases of sexual abuse in our communities, we all have a strong desire to feel that we and our families are safe. Sometimes, we might seek a sense of safety by questioning individuals and families who step forward to report abuse, in an attempt to find out “what they did wrong” and how we ourselves are “different and wiser.” Another way we tend to seek a sense of safety is in denial of the obvious facts. Sometimes, our denial is so strong that we refuse to believe that an individual is a perpetrator of sexual abuse, since such an admission implies that we are not safe. All of these behaviors are forms of “prayer in vain” – we are seeking safety for ourselves and our families at the expense of others. In the end, as is painfully obvious from the statistics cited above, we are not really safe at all.
In order to bring God into this world, and to begin to truly keep people safe from the plague of sexual abuse, we must first begin with empathy. We must begin to speak with victims of sexual abuse and their families, rather than about them. Continuing to distance ourselves from the plight of victims of sexual abuse while the plague is already in full force is a prayer in vain.