Three moments from this week:
1. A student who I have known peripherally for a while, who is a committed activist concerned about poverty and inequality, comes to me for advice. “I know all these activists who are deeply rooted in their faith,” he says. “It gives them strength. I’m Jewish, but I didn’t really grow up with much in the way of Jewish practice, and I want to find a way to tap into that same strength that my friends have.”
2. A friend and colleague writes to a listserv of Jewish communal leaders under the subject line “Haiti,” in a matter-of-fact sort of way, “Who’s going? I know civilian flights aren’t getting there, but maybe we can get on a military transport?”A discussion ensues on the listserv about the appropriate place for unskilled volunteers, about what is the best way to do good right now.
3. Reuters runs a news story with the following description: “In the frightening pitch black of quake-stricken Haiti’s night, religious songs rise from groups of people huddled in open spaces for safety and solidarity.”
It is impossible for us to read Parshat Vaera, which accounts for seven of the ten plagues in Egypt, without thinking of Haiti this week. Yet the ways in which we reflect on the catastrophe there through the prism of the parsha require careful thought (to be contrasted, for instance, with Pat Robertson’s remarks).
The Passover Haggadah builds a midrash on the verses of Deuteronomy 26,8: “And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, with signs and wonders.” On the words “awesome power,” the Haggadah states, “This is the revelation of the Divine Presence, as it is stated, ‘Has God done such things, to take one nation out from another… like all that which the Lord your God did before your eyes in Egypt? (Deut. 4:34)” As Rashi points out, the phrase “before your eyes” indicates that this was a visual experience, and that therefore the apprehension of the Divine Presence was a visual one: the Israelites saw God in this moment.
How are we to understand this? Is the Divine Presence in the destruction itself? A careful reading of the text reminds us that the answer is no. God is not interested in wanton destruction. Though the purpose of the plagues is to humble Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and to show that “there is none like Me in all the Earth,” the power displayed through the plagues is not God being capricious. On the contrary, the point of the plagues is precisely to show the mightiest nation on the earth that they are accountable to something greater, that they must remember that we are all members of the same Creation.
I would propose that the apprehension of the Shechina, the Divine Presence, is to be understood in this way. Seeing the Divine Presence means deeply experiencing the ultimate frailty of human life, and simultaneously affirming the meaning of our existence. It is a radical response to suffering.
The Midrash states that what the Israelites saw in Egypt was a unique occurrence in human history: “A handmaiden at the Red Sea saw more than the prophet Ezekiel” (Mechilta Beshalach Shira 23). But in our affirmation of the possibility of human life in the face of suffering on such a magnitude, we partake of the same spirit as the ancient Israelites. In our zeal to help–even if that zeal is not precisely what is most useful right now–we tap into the same Presence as they did. And in doing so, we remind ourselves that we are not alone, that generations before us and generations to come have dealt and will deal with suffering and horror and pain, and yet human life will continue and we will still make meaning of it.
I do not know what the Haitians are singing at night, but imagine the words of Psalm 23 may be on their lips: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Granted, it is easy to say these things from far away. But as we enter this Shabbat and read the story of the plagues, we are called on to find the Divine Presence and bring it out for all to see.