God’s Human Partner
This week marks the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l. When visiting mourners in the immediate days after their loss, we comfort them by invoking God as Ha-Makom, the One who is present in every Place, as if to affirm that even when darkness befalls us, God is not absent. The absolute omnipresence of God in this unique divine name captures the very essence of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s resolve and courage to believe after the Holocaust.
At the end of their gripping biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel (unfortunately chronicling only the European phase of his life), Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner report that he arrived in New York on March 21, 1940 aboard the Lancastria. For a moment, after reading that tidbit, I wondered if uncannily the Schorsch family had come on the same ship. I dimly knew that the month of our arrival had been March 1940. A check of my family files, however, turned up an immigration ID card for my sister that recorded the fact that we disembarked on March 27, 1940 from the Georgic. What I remember on my own of that fateful voyage is that we were all felled by seasickness.
Soon thereafter my father came to the offices of the Rabbinical Assembly at The Jewish Theological Seminary to apply for a job as a Conservative rabbi. He had been ordained in 1928 by the Seminary’s German forerunner, the Breslau Seminary. He had distinguished himself as a rabbi in Hanover during the next decade and learned English as we waited in England for fifteen months for an American visa. At that time, a small congregation in Pottstown, Pennsylvania had also approached the Rabbinical Assembly for a new rabbi and invited my father to fill the post, where he would stay until his retirement twenty-four years later. In 1957 his son returned to JTS as a rabbinical student and in 1986 became its sixth chancellor.
In retrospect, early events in our lives often seem to foreshadow things to come. Ever in need of order, we scan patterns for meaning. This week’s parashah offers a striking example of this. Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush does not occur at a nameless, nondescript site. The Torah goes out of its way to mention that in seeking pasture for his flock in the wilderness Moses had arrived at “Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). It will be at this selfsame site in the Sinai wilderness after the Exodus that the Israelites will receive God’s law in a public revelation (Deut. 1:6; 4:10, 15; 5:2). Long venerated as a holy mountain, Horeb is the place where Moses was first drafted and ultimately vindicated. His personal experience of God’s compassion for an enslaved Israel anticipates God’s covenant with the nation once emancipated. The shared site signals that the culmination is implicit in the commission.
In both instances, God takes the initiative to find a human partner, and this is why I began with a reference to Heschel. In 1951, some six years after moving to JTS from Hebrew Union College, which had secured with great effort the indispensable visa that enabled Heschel to come to the United States (“a brand plucked from the fire of an altar to Satan on which my people was burned to death,” in his own bittersweet words), Heschel published one of the bravest theological books of the twentieth century. Man is Not Alone dared to affirm his deepest conviction that “God is not silent. He has been silenced” (p. 152).
“Man was the first to hide himself from God, after having eaten of the forbidden fruit, and is still hiding. . . ‘Where art thou?’ Where is Man? Is the first question that occurs in the Bible. It is man’s alibi that is our problem . . . God is less rare than we think; when we long for Him, His distance crumbles away”.Man is Not Alone, 152-3
For Heschel “the Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology”(p. 129), a compendium of religious experience that deals with the wayward nature of humanity from a divine perspective. In contrast to the abstract, immutable and disengaged God of the philosophers, Heschel argued for a God of pathos. The Bible reveals a God full of angst and anguish forever reaching out to an unreceptive humanity. “Philosophy begins with man’s question; religion begins with God’s question and man’s answer” (p. 76).
Thus Moses at the burning bush is a paradigmatic scene of “God In Search of Man,” as Heschel called his most encompassing philosophical treatment of Judaism in 1956. Unsettled by human defiance and depravity, God is driven to intercede, cajole, and admonish. The prophet exhibits a unique sympathetic capacity that sensitizes him or her to the turmoil of God’s inner state. Specifically, a series of four verbs in the prelude to the encounter underscores the degree to which God is stirred by Israel’s suffering (2:24-25). God turns to Moses because he has already acquitted himself courageously as a man who cannot bear to witness acts of injustice. Indeed, Moses may have been brought to Horeb by his own disquietude, triggered by news that the pharaoh who sought his life had died (2:23).
According to a wonderfully perceptive midrash, the absence of a single diacritical mark in the text points to the urgency of God’s appeal. Once the attention of Moses is arrested by the sight of a bush aflame but unconsumed, God intrudes to address him, “Moses! Moses!” (3:4). Elsewhere in the Bible, when God calls out to Abraham (Gen. 22:11), Jacob (Gen. 46:2) or Samuel (I Sam. 3:10) by doubling their names, a small vertical line separates the two words. In our case that line is missing, which suggests to the midrash a moment of greater intensity, akin to someone staggering beneath a load too heavy for him and beseeching his friend to take it (Exodus Rabbah 2:6). Literally, a radical analogy hanging by a thread! The torment of Israel is a burden God can no longer bear alone. Moses must come to God’s aid.
In short, God pervades the world, to be discovered by us in a common shrub as easily as atop a majestic mountain. In the spirit of Heschel, another midrash speaks of the significance of God’s confronting Moses via a bush as if to say that the choice means that no place is devoid of God’s presence (Exodus Rabbah 2:5). If we fail to sense that presence or to hear God’s voice, it is because we have allowed our lives to be overwhelmed by distractions. In the years after 1945 when others wrote of God’s eclipse or death, Heschel reaffirmed the possibility of a living faith with unmatched conviction and eloquence. Even the flames of the Holocaust could not consume the bush or obliterate God’s presence.
This piece is adapted from a commentary published in 2002 and can be found in Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries (Aviv Press: 2007).
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).