The Story of a Nation
The great thirteenth-century biblical exegete Nahmanides, noting that the book of Exodus is a direct continuation of the narrative that concludes the book of Genesis, asks why it is that Exodus is designated as a separate book of the Torah. He answers by observing that Genesis is the story of families, while Exodus is the story of a nation. Genesis relates the history of Abraham and his descendants, whereas Exodus begins with a description of the transformation of Jacob’s clan of seventy souls into a “numerous and mighty nation,” and then proceeds to delineate the events that befall it.
One of the ways that the shift from family to nation is expressed in Exodus is through the disappearance of patriarchs. After the death of Joseph and his brothers, there is no one to take their place. Israel becomes numerous but also anonymous. Moses’s father, although elevated to patriarchal status by the Rabbis, is identified in Exodus simply as “a man from the house of Levi.” There are women who arise to ensure that Israel will survive the cruel decrees of Pharaoh, but in the patriarchal world of the Hebrew Bible they can be only temporary saviors, not the architects of liberation.
It should not surprise us, then, that the man designated to lead Israel out of Egypt has many fathers, yet none. His biological father is mentioned briefly and then disappears from the narrative. Israel’s savior is himself saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, who gives him an Egyptian name, Moses. As an Egyptian prince, Moses is presumably in some sense the ward of Pharaoh. When he arouses Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses flees to Midian and is taken in by Jethro, whose son-in-law he becomes. Moreover, Moses is connected to three different peoples through these three fathers. He is a Hebrew by way of Amram, his biological father; an Egyptian by way of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace—indeed, Jethro’s daughters report to him that they were saved by an “Egyptian man” (Exod. 2:19); and upon Moses’s marriage, he is absorbed into a Midianite clan. Indeed it is while he is engaged in herding sheep, a primary occupation of the seminomadic Midianites, that he encounters God at the burning bush.
At this encounter God announces to Moses that he is “the God of your father.” In saying this, God is informing Moses of two things. First, Moses is being told that he has only one true father, the Hebrew father who conceived him. In a sense God is only confirming a choice that Moses had already made as a young man when he left Pharaoh’s palace and went “to his brothers and witnessed their labors” (2:11). In recognizing the Israelites as his brothers, Moses had already identified himself as a Hebrew and, by implication, the son of his Israelite parents.
However, this assurance is not enough. Amram may be Moses’s biological and ethnic father, but he is one that Moses has not known and will never know. Thus Moses the Hebrew is still, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. It is at this moment, therefore, that God Himself, in Amram’s absence, takes on a parental role. Yes, God now tells Moses, the age of patriarchs has passed. There is no one from whom you can inherit the mantle of leadership. Therefore, as the patriarchs had done for their children, I will confer this privilege and responsibility upon you.
God assumes the role of father not only for Moses but for the entire people. When the people “were groaning under their bondage and cried out” (2:24), they had no one to whom to address their cries. God, however, hears them, and remembering His covenant with their ancestors, and seeing that they have no earthly father to redeem them, renews the covenant and becomes both father and liberator. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh,” God instructs Moses, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Israel is my first-born son'” (4:22). It is not only as deity but also as Israel’s father that God demands Israel’s freedom from bondage.
We know, of course, how God manifests himself as redeemer through the exodus from Egypt and as renewer of the covenant at Sinai. How is God’s fatherly role expressed in his relationship with Moses and Israel? I wish to suggest that at least part of the answer lies in the name God announces to Moses during the epiphany at the burning bush. When Moses asks for the name by which he should identify God to the Israelites, God replies, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh” (3:14). Several interpretations have been offered for this name. I am particularly struck by the interpretation offered by Martin Buber, an interpretation very much of a piece with his dialogical theology. He translates the name as, “I will be present at the time that I will present,” which Buber interprets not as limiting God’s presence to particular moments but rather as assuring God’s ongoing presence in the future. What God offers Moses and the people is his face, his presence. As painful as the suffering of the Israelites has been, that pain has been increased sevenfold by their sense that their suffering has gone unnoticed. God now turns to them and says, “Yes, I have seen and I have heard, and I am here with you.” Like a loving parent, God assures Israel that she is always in His thoughts and that He is always available for counsel and comfort.
The God of Exodus has the power to prevail over despots and over nature itself. We human beings are not so empowered. What are we to do when we encounter those who are oppressed and tortured and who cry out for help? Help them we must if we can, but our powers are less than divine; sometimes the salvation we seek to offer comes only after much time and effort, and sometimes it never arrives. What we can always offer is our presence, our assurance to those who suffer that we witness and experience their suffering and that we will never leave them to suffer alone. We can never turn away from suffering simply because we despair that we do not know how to alleviate it. The first step in diminishing the pain of others is to share it through our presence.
I am, in part, led to these thoughts by the present events in Gaza. There is a striking, though not surprising, contrast between the world’s intense anguish and anger over the suffering of Palestinians as a result of Israel’s incursions and its profound silence during the eight years of Hamas rocket attacks against the inhabitants of Sderot and other towns and cities in southern Israel; attacks that caused its victims to live in constant fear of death and destruction. What is galling about the contrast is not simply the skewed sense of justice and morality—not to mention the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment—that underlies the asymmetry of these responses; rather, it is the sense that, for many in the world, Israeli suffering is invisible. The discussion of the events in Gaza is sometimes conducted as if nothing had occurred previously that could be seen as a basis for Israel’s action. Indeed, one Hamas official interviewed by Robert Siegel on National Public Radio (NPR) claimed first that no rockets had ever been fired against Israel and then that if they had been launched it was the work of collaborators employed by Israel to besmirch the sterling reputation of Hamas.
I do not know how to make the rest of the world listen, but I find myself asking if I was really listening while my sisters and brothers were living under the gun for eight long years. There is no way that I could have stopped those rockets from falling, but there are countless ways that I could have told the residents of Sderot, “I see and hear your suffering and I am with you.” I will never forget the example of the Israeli who arranged weekly shopping trips to Sderot. His actions helped revive to some small degree the moribund economy of the town, but just as important, his empathetic presence and the presence of others announced to those in Sderot that they were remembered.
Suffering is always with us, whether in Israel, Darfur, Tibet, Zimbabwe, or elsewhere in the world. We must decide whether we in turn care enough to be with those who suffer, through ameliorative action if at all possible, but also and at least through telling those who suffer that they are not alone. Our rabbis tell us that God has many messengers. God assures those who are suffering, “I am with him in distress” (Ps. 91:15). As God’s agents of healing and repair, let us offer that gift, the gift of presence, whenever and wherever we can.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld