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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Beshalach: Hearing God Whisper

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

As the throngs of Jewish refugees from Egypt are pursued by Pharaoh and his charioteers, they find themselves stranded on a beach, much like the retreating British army at Dunkirk, with their backs to the sea.


As if the scene wasn't tense enough, the Rabbis go to some length to heighten the tension still further. Indeed, the Midrash imagines them surrounded on three sides: "for the sea had closed them in, and the enemy pursued them, while the wild beasts [also threatened them]." Where did these wild beasts come from? They're not mentioned in the text, but the Rabbis were able to squeeze them out of it!

Pharaoh gleefully describes the Jews, even before they arrive at the sea, as "wondering in the land, while the wilderness closes in on them" (Exodus 14:3). The Hebrew word he uses for the wilderness closing in on them is "סגר", and that very same word is used to describe the closing of a lion's mouth in the book of Daniel (6:23). So, obviously, since the word "סגר" is used -- in the book of Daniel -- in connection to a wild beast, and it's used here too, the Jews must have been surrounded, not merely on two sides, by the sea and the enemy soldiers, but on three sides, by the sea, the soldiers, and by wild beasts too!

The Midrash goes to these lengths, I guess, in order to encourage us to hear, in the cry of the Israelites at the sea, even more desperation than we might initially imagine. It's as if the Rabbis are saying: however bad you're thinking it was for them, imagine that it was worse.

This Midrashic intensification of the terror at the sea is a prelude to one of the most disturbing Midrashim I've seen. I'm not certain that I can excavate, from this Midrash, a palatable message. But the image is so raw, and so disturbing, that it calls me to explore it. Even if we don't find resolution, from this Midrash, the discord that it creates might simply be worth living with, and musing over. And so, in that spirit, I share it with you.

The Midrash is going to relate to two times in the book of Exodus when the Jewish people cry. The first time was at the height of Jewish suffering in Egypt:

The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.(Exodus 2:23)

They weren't necessarily crying to God. In a sense, they didn't know Him yet. But their cry "rose up" to Him, and he heard. God's hearing their cry was a pivotal moment. In the very next verse, God recalls His covenant with the forefathers, and in the next chapter, He appears to Moses at the burning bush. It's in response to their cry that the long walk to freedom begins.

The second cry occurs when the Israelites were trapped by the sea -- between the water and the soldiers, and (apparently) the wild beasts.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the LORD. (Exodus 14:10)

This time, they know to whom to cry.

Having set the scene and instructed us to dial up the terror, the Midrash tells us that God engineered this entire scene; the water, the soldiers, and the wild beasts of the wilderness. But "why did the Holy One, blessed be He, do this to them?" the Midrash asks. And it answers: "it was only because the Holy One, blessed be He, yearned for their prayers".

The disturbing notion that God puts his beloved in terrifying or painful situations simply because he wants them to pray, can be found in other Midrashim. For example:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: For what reason were our forefathers [initially] infertile? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, desires the prayers of the righteous... Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were [born] tumtumin [i.e., people whose sexual organs are concealed and not functional], as it is stated: “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1), and it is written [in the next verse]: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:2).

Putting the opinions of Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Ami together: God created Abraham and Sarah with a severe form of infertility. Why? Because he desires the prayers of the righteous. And only after their prayer, did he grant them fertility.

The notion that God would cause us to suffer simply because he wants us to pray to him, is difficult to stomach. And yet, our Midrash about the Israelites, on the seashore, makes thing even worse, with the following comparison:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: It can be compared to a king who was travelling by road, and there was a princess screaming to him: 'Please, I beseech you, save me from these robbers.' The king heard and he saved her. After some time, he wanted to marry her. He desired that she should talk to him, but she didn't want to. What did the king do? He incited the robbers [to capture her again], so that she might cry again and he should hear. As soon as the robbers approached her, she began to cry to the king. He said to her, 'For this I have been yearning, that I may hear your voice again.' Similarly, as long as Israel were enslaved to Egypt, they cried to God and raised their eyes heavenward, as it says, And it came to pass in the course of those many days… and they cried (Exodus 2:23). Immediately, we read, And God saw the Children of Israel and He began to bring them out from there with a strong hand an outstretched arm; but God wished to hear their voice again and they were unwilling. What did He do? He incited Pharaoh to pursue them, as it says, And when Pharaoh drew near… and the children of Israel cried unto the Lord (Exodus 24:10).

At first, this shocking comparison makes things worse. But, in the long-run, I think that it makes things better, even if I'm not exactly sure how much. As I have mentioned before, when the Midrash offers us a parable, or an analogy, it tends to offer us a comparison that actually collapses upon inspection -- a comparison that doesn't work. The Midrash is often more interested in the difference between the analogy and the analogue than it cares about the similarity. The King in this Midrash is an immoral, abusive, brute. It is inconceivable to me that the authors of the Midrash thought otherwise. And yet they compare him to God. How is that okay? What are we supposed to do with this image?

First of all. If God is perfectly good and he desires something, then that something must be good too. So, if God desires our prayers, our prayers must be good -- not good for God, who, in His self-sufficient perfection, doesn't need them, but good somehow for us. So, there's already a difference between the King in the Midrash, and God. The King desires intimacy with the princess, but there's no indication that he's interested in her good. He's interested in himself. But if God desires the screams of the Israelites then it must be because those screams are somehow good for them, or good for the world, or simply, good.

So far, we've come close to a view that's known as the "soul-making theodicy". According to this view, we'd be wrong to judge God's creation according to how pleasurable it is to live here. The purpose of creation isn't human enjoyment. The purpose is human growth. Accordingly, John Hick wrote:

John Hick
Men are not to be thought of on the analogy of animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality.

In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis related to pain as "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world" -- he was aware that "God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument"; why can't God wake us up with laughter and music? The playwright, William Nicholson, answers this question, on Lewis' behalf, in his play Shadowlands. God cannot rouse us from our slumber with gentle sounds, "Because the dream from which we must be wakened, is the dream that all is well."

C. S. Lewis

I've always been inspired by people who are able to relate to their own pain and suffering as an opportunity, somehow, to grow. But, what our Midrash makes vivid is that the theology that relates to pain as "God's megaphone" runs the risk of rendering God a bully or a brute. How is the God of Hick and Lewis any different to the King in our Midrash? We've already made one suggestion: God acts only for the good, whereas the King acts only for his own good. But that difference isn't enough.

If I knew that you would become a much more refined person if only you had suffered some more, that wouldn't give me any right to torture you, somehow for your own good. Even if a relationship with the King would be objectively good for this princess, and even if the King knows this for sure, it remains highly immoral for him to torture her into submission, for her own good. Why is God any different?

I think that our that Midrash actually wants us to ask this question. But I'm not sure that it has a clear answer. Its hint, I think, is this: it wants us to meditate upon the ways in which God cannot be compared to a human king.

It is said that Leo Tolstoy cried as he wrote the final scene of Anna Karenina's life. But why? If he was so sad about how it ended, surely, he could have written her a different ending. I can imagine her pleading with him, as he brought her narrative to an end. "Count Tolstoy. It doesn't have to be this way. You can give me, and all the people I love, a happy pleasant life." But Tolstoy would be right to ignore her pleas and to continue to write the story through his tears.

Anna Karenina

Even if Anna Karenina would have been more happy with an uneventful life, she wouldn't have been Anna Karenina.

No human being should inflict pain upon another human being without their consent, even in order to make them more perfect. The King, in our Midrash, is a tyrant, even if he's acting for the good of the princess. But here's the thing: the difference between the King and the princess is negligible in comparison to the difference between Tolstoy and Anna Karenina.

The King is certainly more powerful than the princess. But she is no less real than he is. The power that the King wields over his subjects gives him no moral right to force people into submission or to ignore their consent. But the gap between Tolstoy and Karenina is different. First of all, she is less real than he is. But it's not just that. Tolstoy exists in a world that transcends Karenina's. This somehow gives him a perspective that allows him to understand what it is she needs in order to be the person she is. Moreover, it gives him an authority that nobody in Anna Karenina's world could ever have over her. It gives him the right to write the story as it occurs to him, however sad some elements may be. He doesn't do things for his own good, but he does them for the good. He does things as they have to be.

In a famous Talmuic tale, Moses sees into the future, and he witnesses the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva. He confronts God about this searing injustice. God's response is dumbfounding and profound. "Silence! So it arose in my mind." The fact that God tells Moses to be quiet suggests to me that God is, so to speak, uncomfortable. God gets no pleasure from Rabbi Akiva's pain. He is disturbed by it too. But after telling Moses to be quiet, God actually offers a more discursive response. "So it arose in my mind." It's as if he's saying to Moses, "Look, I hate how Rabbi Akiva's story ends. It pains me. But I understand more than you ever could. And I understand the idea that Rabbi Akiva expresses. And I understand that his story, with another ending, simply wouldn't be him." And like Tolstoy, God's creation moves Him to tears, but He knows, from His transcendent perspective, that this is how things have to be.

That perhaps is the difference between the tyrannical King, and the God who sometimes wants to hear our tears. It's not that, heaven forefend, our tears give God pleasure. It's that our tears are often our most authentic and real moments. Only God can know this. And only God has the authority.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel, Breakfast of Champtions appears to his character, Kilgore Trout. Confronted by his own author, this is Trout's response. He says: "Make me young. Make me young. Make me young." When I imagine Anna Karenina confronting Tolstoy, I imagine her saying, "Make me happy." But the right response, I think, for Vonnegut, and for Tolstoy, should be, "It's more important for me to make you you."

Trapped between the sea, and the soldiers (and the wild beasts), the Jewish people cried out to God. And, at that moment, they were at their most real. It's relatively easy, I think, to be authentic, God forbid, in the midst of great pain. The real challenge, posed by this Midrash, perhaps, is to be authentic in our joy, and in our day to day lives, and not merely when we're trapped in the grasp of terror. As C. S. Lewis put the point: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain." May we merit to hear His whispers.


With thanks to Ariel Meirav and Gaby Lebens, for discussing these thoughts with me, and making them clearer in my mind.

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