December 16, 2018

My Passover lesson: Don’t wait for God

The Jewish people didn’t bring down the Ten Plagues on Pharaoh, nor did they split the Red Sea, which enabled them to escape Pharaoh’s soldiers some 3,300 years ago. These were God’s miracles, which we all celebrate during Passover.

This year, I found those miracles a little unsettling.

I wondered: How did European Jews relate during the Holocaust to these divine miracles? How do persecuted Jews of any era relate to God’s biblical miracles? Do they expect God will come to rescue them as He rescued our ancestors at Sinai? How do they explain it when He doesn’t?

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

With the growing threat to Israel posed today by terrorist regimes, this reflection on divine miracles seems especially pertinent. When a country like Iran, for example, talks about destroying Israel, who should Jews look to for protection — God or ourselves? How does our faith in God come into play when we have to deal with violent, anti-Semitic enemies?

Jews have been having this “God versus man” argument for millennia — even over the rebirth of Israel. Many religious Jews felt we should wait for God to take us home to Zion. The creation of the State of Israel, they argued, was a messianic act that was above the pay grade of mere humans.

But mere humans like Theodor Herzl decided they couldn’t wait for God to protect their fellow Jews. They had to create a Jewish homeland. By the time that homeland finally came into being and was immediately attacked by surrounding armies, the die was already cast — Jews would no longer wait for divine miracles to save them.

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

At our first seder this year, we read a beautiful meditation from my friend Rabbi Andy Bachman, a progressive spiritual leader and activist who lives in Brooklyn. Bachman took the seder theme of  “four” — four questions, four sons and four cups — and extended it to the “four legs” of being Jewish. 

Jews, he writes, are a family, a faith, a people/nation and an idea.

In the section on faith, Bachman writes: “We believe in the God of Argument. We believe in the God of Questions. We believe in the God of Doubt.” Our biblical heroes, he says, challenged God. At Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham demands of God: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?”

And when Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, defiantly: “And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?”

The sobering implication of Moses’ question is that “the very condition of the suffering and slavery may be an expression of God’s perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil.”

It is this perceived powerlessness that we so easily ignore at our seder tables — and who can blame us? God’s miracles in the Passover story are so colorful and dramatic that they inevitably come to dominate our master story. Part of me loves that. It’s comforting to feel that when our backs are against the wall, an almighty Creator will save the day.

But it is the perceived “powerlessness” of God in the face of radical evil that leaves me perplexed, as when God sat silently while 6 million Jews were being murdered in the Holocaust.

Is it possible that that silence shocked the Jews into taking their destiny into their own hands? I wonder what these “new Jews” of Israel were thinking at their seder tables in 1947 and 1948, when they had to fight off invading armies to protect their new home. How did they interpret the Passover miracles?

And when they successfully fought off their enemies, whose miracle was it? Was it God’s or was it theirs?

One of the lessons of Israel in the unfolding Jewish story could well be to teach us to create our own miracles — to have as much faith in our own power as we do in God’s. The ending of the haggadah —“next year in Jerusalem”— is misleading. It implies that we’re still waiting for our Creator to take us home. That’s no longer the case. Jews have made it back to Jerusalem, and they did it very much by themselves.

It’s not an insult to God to use our God-given talents to create our own miracles right here on Earth. It's a way of honoring Him. In fact, should it not give God a little nachas to see His children become so independent? Does He not also have faith in us?

Perhaps the greatest Jewish miracle, even greater than the splitting of the Red Sea or the rebirth of Israel, is the fact that 3,300 years after our liberation from slavery, we’re still sitting around seder tables in Los Angeles, Paris and Montreal, telling the same stories, reading from the same ancient texts and arguing with God.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at