The Book of Exodus (Sh'mot) tells two key narratives of Jewish sacred history: the Exodus from Egypt and the gift of Torah. When they are joined to the Creation narrative of Genesis, the three stories constitute the basic theology of Judaism, which is enshrined in the blessings before and after the Sh'ma prayer.
The opening parashah of the book, also called, Sh'mot (Names), presents us with many conundrums. Why has it taken God more than four hundred years to respond to the pain of His enslaved people? Why doesn't God simply go down to Egypt and rescue them without the help of Moses? Why does God harden Pharaoh's heart, preventing him from being morally responsible for keeping the people enslaved? Who is this God who when asked to identify Himself or Herself says, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh" (Exodus 3:14)?
It has always struck me as strange that God does not act alone: God works through human beings. In pondering this phenomenon I came to realize that God does not intervene in any direct way in human affairs. God's role is as a source of inspiration and encouragement to us humans to create a world of justice, compassion, freedom, and peace. Only if we are so moved by the harsh realities of human suffering and are committed to relieving that suffering can we hear the call. God says "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters. . . . I will send you . . . to free My people . . . " (Exodus 3:7, 10). When a person responds, "Here I am (Hineini)," as Moses does, God has the means to act in history (Exodus 3:4).
The choice of Moses is interesting. Moses himself had been rescued from death as an infant. He was raised in Pharaoh's palace as the son of Pharaoh's daughter and knew well the halls of absolute power and despotism, but resisted their attractions, identifying instead with his people of origin, the Israelite slaves. (Entire books have been written on the character of Moses alone!)
When Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster abusing a Hebrew slave, his response to oppression is to rise up in anger and kill (deliberately or by accident) the taskmaster. Then, when the deed becomes known, Moses flees to Midian to save his own life. His first act in Midian is to defend Zipporah and her sisters from the shepherds who try to prevent them from watering their father's flock. Moses's sense of justice is not limited to filial connections but extends to the stranger as well.1
Moses now marries Zipporah and becomes a shepherd. In the quiet isolation of the pastoral life of the shepherd, which requires compassionate vigilance to protect and care for the flock, Moses encounters a strange vision, a bush that burns but is not consumed. He is drawn to the light and then is summoned by God to become the shepherd of Israel. Humility and self-doubt cause him to try to reject the mission, but God overwhelms Moses's fear and natural inclination to remain with the sheep by invoking the same plaintive cry that awoke God from more than four hundred years of seeming indifference. Ultimately, it is Moses's and God's joint compassion that now drive them to go to Egypt and confront the daunting task of convincing Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves. They do this while taking on the even more daunting task of convincing the Israelite slaves – who by this time have little reason to believe that redemption is even possible – that they will be freed. God promises Moses that he will not be alone and, in effect, Moses promises God that God will not be alone.
Let us pause here for a moment to contemplate Moses's conversation with God.
Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh" (Exodus 3:13-14).
Moses does not believe the names "God" and "the God of your ancestors – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" are convincing enough. He wants something much more explicit. Moses needs a name that spells out the exact nature of this God who wants to redeem them. After all, everyone wants clear proof. It is wonderful to see – both at the beginning of his career and later when Moses faces the frustration of leading the Jewish people through the desert – that he persists in seeking even greater intimacy with God to give him the confidence to proceed with his mission. If doubt exists for Moses, it is not surprising that we ourselves have doubts.
God presents him with the wonderfully enigmatic name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. What has God told Moses and us about Himself or Herself? Volumes have been written in response to this question. I believe God said something like the following, "I am whatever you want Me to be. I am whatever you need Me to be. You cannot know My Essence but we will have a relationship, and you will tell stories about your encounters with Me. None of them will be totally accurate because I am not a concept. I am a living complex reality that can be experienced, but not defined or limited by language. That is Who I Am and Who I Will Be."
Why, when we seem to need God, does God often seem absent? I suggest it is we who are absent, not yet ready to take up the mission and make the world better. God is always present and calling, but only our action can make God's will, hopes, and dreams a reality. God seems to be able to act only when divine empathy and human empathy work in concert. The divine-human partnership makes tikkun olam, "repairing the world," possible. God's seeming indifference is the result of human indifference to suffering and injustice. God's responsiveness depends on human responsiveness.
- "The Character of Moses," W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 361-62
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Knobel teaches that human and divine empathy need to work in concert for God's will, hopes, and dreams to become a reality. His commentary raises the question, from where will human empathy arise that leads to acts of partnership with God in tikkun olam?
The answer begins with current neuroscience research establishing that human beings are actually wired for empathy.1 Drawing on a variety of new knowledge, Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In A World In Crisis,2 says that our capacity for expansive empathy has been the defining human characteristic and the foundation of the advancement of human civilization. For Rifkin, expanding human empathy will also be pivotal for securing the future of human life on this planet.3 Extensive research has already demonstrated that active teaching of empathy to children and adults significantly increases greater acts of kindness, generosity, and love.4
The study of Torah and the practice of other mitzvot are some of the greatest ways to develop human empathy. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Bava M'tzia 59b, we are warned at least thirty-six times in the Torah against offending a ger, ("stranger" or "convert"). For example, in Exodus 23:9 we read, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." This phrase calls us to empathize by identifying through historical Jewish suffering. On Yom Kippur we learn from the words of Isaiah that God calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and free the captive (Isaiah 58:6-7). The empathy that comes from fasting, combined with hearing the teachings of Torah, has led members of my congregation to provide food for the homeless weekly for the past twenty-five years. Our study of Torah and practicing other mitzvot are powerful ways divine empathy stirs us to human empathy and acts of tikkun olam.
- J. Decety, K.J. Michalska, and Y. Akitsuki, "Who Caused the Pain? An fMRI [Functional MRI] Investigation of Empathy and Intentionality in Children," Neuropsychologia 46, 2008, pp.2607-2614
- Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (New York: P Tarcher/Penguin, 2009), pp.1-3, 9-26
- ibid. pp.178, 612-616
- Greater Good Science Center, "Why Practice Empathy?" 2013
Richard M. Litvak is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aptos, California.
Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 382-414; Revised Edition, pp. 343-374;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 305-330