Wrestling with God’s Violent and Destructive Hand
“And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
-- Deuteronomy 26:8
Well-known and often-quoted, this phrase recalls the long-awaited liberation from Egypt, the ultimate symbol of God’s power to save the Jewish people by lifting us out of bondage with just a single hand. But this popular image provides only half the picture, begging the question, what was God doing with the other hand?
This week's Torah portion, Eikev, offers a glimpse into a broader perspective of this moment. Answering the Israelites' concerns for safety amid strange and numerous nations, the Torah says:
You have but to bear in mind what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians: the wondrous acts that you saw with your own eyes, the signs and the portents, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God liberated you.
Even as one of God's hands is reaching out to liberate the Jews, this passage animates God's other hand, the hand of Egyptian death and plagues, the hand that causes those it touches to perish, rather than walk free. This is the hand that remains largely invisible at the Passover seder. We sing about frogs and lice, beasts and boils. Nightmares like blood and darkness are reduced to humorous drawings on matzah covers decorated in Sunday school. Death of the firstborn is glossed over with a single drop of wine on a dinner plate. Nowhere in the Passover story is the hand that delivers these plagues the focal point.
This year, I welcomed a friend to my family's Passover table. In explaining the traditions and story to her for the first time, I found myself forced to confront the image of this second hand. The relish with which we rejoiced in the work of the other hand, the death and suffering of the Egyptians, even if they were “the enemy,” was an unpleasant tradition to share.
The violent and destructive God has always deeply troubled me. A God that, in the words of this week's portion, has “no pity,” a God that provokes “utter panic,” a God compared to “a devouring fire” – this is a God to whom I feel no connection.
But skirting around these acts of cruelty feels just as uncomfortable.
I appreciate that this week's passage forces me to view both hands – the hand of salvation along with the hand of violence – in one frame. This week, we acknowledge the “other hand” rather than avoid it. The wondrous acts of liberation sandwiched between narratives of destruction are inexorably linked to the Egyptian deaths. These deaths, unnumbered and unnamed, usually quickly forgotten within the larger celebration of freedom and fresh starts, are pushed to the forefront. Only by zooming out and recognizing the work of both hands does the story of Passover become whole.
Just as viewing the Torah's complete picture is critical, if difficult, so, too, does Judaism require a wider view than that of the lighthearted songs and stories I experienced at Passover. Appreciating and celebrating the holiness of our story is an important, but, ultimately, incomplete form of worship. Only when we recognize and confront the harder issues, does Judaism become whole.
Participating in social justice work gives me a way to confront the issues that all too often or all too easily are ignored. Among them are the juvenile justice system, in which children as young as eight are punished alongside adults, or homelessness in cities in which people living on the sidewalk is so commonplace it becomes expected.
Neither of these issues affects me directly. My experience with homelessness has been indirect, and I have been privileged to learn about the wrongs of the justice system from behind a desk. Speaking up is hard and speaking out is scary, especially when I remain so removed from these and other issues.
Remaining silent, however, is unacceptable. If celebrating Passover's festive meal while ignoring the violence living invisibly between the lines bothers me, how can I ignore the human beings living invisibly on our streets and in our prisons?
As a Jew, as an activist, and as a Jewish activist, I can, by educating myself, discussing difficult topics, and acting – on the streets and in the voting booth – take steps to interrupt this silence.