The continuing absence of distinctive Divine Providence in modern times is often seen as the cause for much secularism. Since the days of the Renaissance, man has become more and more skeptical of the occurrences of divine intervention. No longer, it is argued, are there enough indications for God’s interference in the national and private affairs of mankind. This viewpoint has ultimately led to the collapse of much of religious authority and in many ways undermined the role of religion in man’s life.
When the Israelites left Egypt on their way to the land of Israel, divine intervention was very apparent. The ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and the many other smaller and larger miracles showed full evidence of God’s intervention in man’s affairs. Consequently our general reading of those years make us believe that anyone living under such miraculous conditions would not have had any other option but to be a deeply religious person.
Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah gives us however a totally different version of the events:
“As the result of the sin of the spies in which they spoke evil about the land of Israel, God no longer spoke with Moshe for 38 years” (Vayikra 1.2)
This is a most remarkable and far-reaching observation. What we are told is that most of the time that the Israelites traveled through the desert, there was no special divine providence. God did not speak to them and consequently the Israelites had to deal with the question of God’s interference not much differently from the way modern man does. Although the miraculous bread, manna, fell and other smaller miracles did take place, it becomes clear that these events no longer had any real effect on the religious condition of the Israelites. Not for nothing did they say that this manna was lechem hakelokel, repulsive bread (Bamidbar 21.5). They saw these miracles as common events not much different than the way we view the laws of nature. (We are reminded of Rabbi Dessler’s famous observation that the laws of nature are nothing more than the frequency of miracles, something which famous philosophers of science such as Karl Popper have fully endorsed from a secular point of view (1)) Indeed on several occasions the Israelites asked whether God still lived among them.
It is perhaps this fact which makes Pesach so relevant to our own time: The realization that even at the time of the greatest miracles, many years pass by without God making Himself known in any form or way! Sitting at the Seder table we often feel that we are reading a story which has little in common with our days and lives. We complain that God has become silent and that His spoken word is no longer available. How than can we believe in His existence and why should we listen to His words of many thousands of years ago? We are today confronted with a Deus Absconditus, an absent God, and no story about God’s open intervention in history is able to reach us any longer. God’s silence has made us deaf. So we complain.
And even when we admit that God did not speak with Moshe and the Israelites for 38 years, we still make the powerful point that we have not heard from Him for more than two thousand years! Not just 38! So why ask us to deliberate on an event which occurred thousands of years ago and with which we have almost nothing in common?
But with hindsight we may have to radically change our view. We need to realize that the silence of these 38 years must have been much more frightening than all the Divine silence of our last two thousand years. While we are, to a great extent, able to take care of ourselves, and be much more independent, this was not the case for our forefathers in the desert. They encountered the emptiness of desert land. There were no natural resources, food, water, or any other basic items, without which even the most elementary forms of life are impossible. True, we are told that water and food was miraculously provided. However, once God stopped speaking with them in the middle of the desert and they realized that this thundering silence of God could continue day after day, this Godly silence must have been more dreadful than anything we can imagine. This coupled with the frightening awareness that they had nothing to fall back on if G-d decided to stop providing them with water and food. Being used to revealed miracles and then suddenly overnight finding oneself in an icy absence of any divine interference, right in the middle of a desert, must have been too much to bear. God’s “indifference”, no doubt, created a devastating traumatic experience without precedence. (2)
When we realize that the story of the exodus was mainly a story of divine silence and that only occasionally a word of God entered the human condition, we also become conscious of the fact that the story which we read on the Seder night is most relevant. While the words of the Hagada relate the miracles, the “empty spaces” between the words tell us of the frightening divine silence of these very 38 years. And just as our forefathers must often have wondered what happened to God’s presence, during all these years, so do we. But just as they came through so must we.
The art is to hear God in His silence and to see His miracles in His “absence”. It is in the balance of these two facts that life takes place.
(1) Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. Michtav Me-Eliyahu 1
Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery
(2) The absence of God’s word for all these 38 years throws a radically different light on much of the Israelites’ upheavals and complaints in the desert as mentioned in the Torah.