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When Does God Step In? #707

12/31/2021 02:02:02 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Va'era
“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites." (Exodus 6:5)

When Does God Step In?

The Talmud tells a story of a heated debate between the rabbis about whether or not a newfangled oven is kosher.

As tempers flare, the great Rabbi Eliezer calls upon God to support his view that the oven is kosher. Meanwhile, all the other rabbis insist it is not.

While this occurs, God watches from the heavens, and ultimately attempts to settle the dispute.

“Why are you disagreeing with Rabbi Eliezer?” asks God. “Every time he expresses a legal opinion, he is in the right.”

But then, in one of the greatest examples of chutzpah in the entire Jewish tradition, Rabbi Yehoshua looks toward the heavens, and literally tells God to “back off,” reminding God that on matters of everyday law, humans, not God, must decide on the right thing to do.

Rabbi Yehoshua says to God, “You told us that the Torah is not found in the heavens.” Another rabbi reminds God that it’s up to “the majority” to agree on earthly law.

God returns to heaven — later noting that my children have triumphed over me.”

In other words, God is reminded that like many parents, grandparents and teachers, who often would like to settle the disputes of their children or students, that it is usually better — right or wrong — to let those who look up to us work things out for themselves.

But the question remains:  When is the right time for God to step in?

This week’s Torah portion provides a possible answer, as the Israelites continue to toil, enslaved by Pharaoh.

Some Sages calculate that the Israelites lived in exile for about 430 years. Many fix the period of their time in Egypt at about 210 years.

Either way, the Israelites toiled many decades before God became actively involved.

Our Sages often ask — sometimes repeated around the Passover table — “What took God so long?” And — in my view — the answer is that God stepped in after the Israelites cried out.

But wait. Shouldn’t God see all? Shouldn’t God step in to combat injustice? Or — returning to the story of the ancient oven — is there a time for God to observe from heaven?

I’ve often thought about this question in today’s terms.

So often, especially when someone in their senior years begins to decline in health, they often refuse assistance. They value their independence. It’s a matter of pride. They are reluctant to call for help.

“I don’t want my children or my friends to see me this way,” we often hear. “I don’t need anyone,” many insist.

And in so doing, they often deny those who love them — sons and daughters — the opportunity to help, and even return the mitzvah of decades of love and support.

But then in time, many learn that pride and vanity must be surrendered in the name of life itself. They ask for help.

This is often true when it comes to prayer.

Often when we pray to God, we are afraid of being disappointed. What if God does not respond? What if we get a answer different from the one we asked for? “God is too busy. I don’t want to waste God’s time.”

Many feel imperfect or unworthy of interacting with God.

So when does God actually descend from the spiritual heavens? Perhaps — the Torah inspires us to consider — when we gather the courage to ask.

In last week’s Torah portion, we read that “The Israelites groaned under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

And this week, as God prepares to send the first of seven plagues upon the Egyptians, we read, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. (Exodus 6:5)

When we become less enslaved to our egos and allow God in, often when we cry out to God, a relationship ensues. We feel centered. We feel supported. A higher power inspires us to be the best we can be — in difficult and good times.

Indeed, if we envision God as an elderly man, sitting upon a heavenly throne, pulling the strings of our lives – or worse, ignoring them — then I believe we will be perpetually disappointed.

But if we call upon God, sometimes even moan to God, when we let go of our price and vanity, then God can fill that space, and can walk with us.

Too often, when bad news comes, we call out to God, and ask, “Why?” But we do not often call out to God in thanks — perhaps for assisting us to survive another year of the pandemic — for the health of our families.

Too often, we call out to God and ask, “Why there is injustice in the world?” But we don’t find time to open our hearts to God for encouragement on how to be part of the solution.

This week’s Torah portion inspires us — as we close out 2021 — to initiate a heavenly dialogue.

In 2022, perhaps we need to love a little more. Perhaps we need to be more patient. We need to listen a little more — especially to those who may not agree with us. Perhaps we need to pray a little more.

Judaism, through the example of the ancient oven and the cries of the Israelites, inspires us to consider that there is a time for God to step in, and there is a time for God to observe.

God is there to comfort and support us through our challenging times. But there is also a time for humanity to take action and engage in Tikun Olam — the healing of the world.

As we close out 2021, there is more to consider than losing weight or improving our diets. Those are good resolutions. But let us also have the courage to support our spiritual fitness.

We may moan from time to time under our burden, but that is exactly when we need God most.

The Israelites in Egypt and Rabbi Yehoshua’s heavenly conversation teach us that we can enter into dialogues of many kinds with God. 

Yes, God is almighty, and God is the creator. But God is also a friend. There is a little piece of God in each of us, and that spark yearns for meaning and a connection with a higher power.

It takes some courage to engage.

But according to our tradition, God answers when we call.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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