A Flashlight Through History


Lately, my eldest son has become intrigued by God’s omnipresence. Lying in bed before going to sleep, he asks: “You mean God is under the bed? In the closet?”

Who am I to tell him no?

God, it seems, has replaced monsters, an idea I hope is a comforting one since God’s omnipresence is such an integral part of our tradition.

On no holiday are we instructed to feel God’s participation in our lives more palpably than on Pesach. The hagaddah teaches: “In every generation, each person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.”

Seder night requires every Jew to believe God has personally redeemed him — a belief, I must confess, that is hard.

Why? For one, I live in the United States. I live at a time and place in history when running water is easily accessible. I live in a land of freedom. Compared to the rest of human history, I live in the lap of luxury. But luck is not the stumbling block to my belief. What is harder is that the story of Pesach is the story of God who heard His people’s cries, of God who cared enough to alter nature’s course and perform miracles and save His chosen people.

But we live in a unique time in the history of our people. We face a challenge to our faith unique in the history of the Jewish people because we live after the Shoah. If we affirm the uniqueness of the Shoah as a tragedy, an evil unlike any other in Jewish (much less human) history, we face an equally unique challenge: how can we authentically relive the redeeming story of Pesach just 60 years after the Shoah? On Pesach, God should feel present. But how do we believe in God’s presence after a period when God was seemingly so absent?

“And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God” (Exodus 6:7). But how are we to know God if, in the midst of our greatest despair, we cried out but He could not be found?

According to the Jewish lunar calendar, Purim must be celebrated in the month of Adar but in leap years with an extra month, Purim could be celebrated in either Adar I or Adar II. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) argued that Purim is celebrated in Adar II to juxtapose two stories about how the Jewish people were saved, each of which helps us to know God: the story of Purim and the story of Pesach. Pesach, he says, is like a flashlight one can use to find his friend in a dark room. Pesach is a holiday when God’s presence was undeniable.

“A common woman at the sea saw God more clearly than any of the prophets did,” the rabbis say. Plagues. Seas. Pillars of fire. God has arrived. A flashlight in a dark room clearly lighting the way toward redemption.

But on Purim, Hutner says, there is no flashlight. We find our friend “through any sense other than that which can be seen or proven.” The room is dark and it remains dark — you cannot prove to me that God is there. Darkness surrounds us and destruction is all around. We grope around and feel nothing. We cry out and no one answers. We lash out at air and darkness. Finally in despair, we sit down and cry and grow quiet and still. And in that darkness and pain, and through our brokenness and tears, a voice echoes from within us — “I am here. You are not alone.”

That is Purim — and that, too, is a way to know God.

To be honest, of the two holidays, I prefer Purim. Because I do not live in a world of plagues and seas and miracles so plainly seen. Because, so often, when I call out, I cannot prove that God answers; I cannot see that God is here. But as I despair in the terror of Purim and God’s absence and the challenge of it all, I am reminded anew that Pesach is a gift that, if those who lived through the Shoah could find the strength to celebrate, then who am I not to?

Sixty years ago, the Jews of the Kovno ghetto asked their teacher, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, questions about unspeakable ethical and moral dilemmas. What blessing does one recite before going to one’s death as a martyr? Were there circumstances in which suicide would not be regarded as a sin? And 60 years ago in this season, they also asked him about Pesach. Could tea be used instead of wine for the four cups drunk at the Passover seder? Could the black beans that were part of the ghetto food ration be eaten on Passover? Filthy potato peels were to be mixed with a bit of flour to make matzah. Could the filthy peels be scrubbed with water — a leavening agent? The very asking and answering of those questions was an act of faith in the depths of hell. And their faith is a gift to me, to all of us, for they teach that God can be found, that God is here, that every seder table full of food and children and wine, that every argument over the kashrut of beans and chemicals and labels — it is all a miracle.

Their questions are our holy inheritance — a light through history. I may not feel I was taken out of Egypt, but I was. I need only open my eyes, switch on the flashlight and behold God’s majesty right in front of me or under the bed or in the closet.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.