You find that whenever Israel is enslaved, so too is the Divine Presence enslaved: it is written [as part of the Exodus narrative], “And they saw the God of Israel, and under God’s feet, it was like a work of sapphire bricks.” [Just as the Israelites were engaged in making bricks, so too was the Eternal One engaged in making bricks.]
Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Pis-cha 14
When the Israelites were enslaved, God was enslaved.
“Was enslaved.” משועבדת. It’s a passive participle. It definitely means that God was enslaved.
The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, as we know. So who enslaved God?
God enslaved Godself. It’s the only explanation. When the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, God decided not to remain aloof and above it all, but instead to suffer alongside our ancestors – so God began to make bricks.
I find this rabbinic idea fascinating. Slavery in Egypt? God makes bricks. What would God have been doing during other periods of Jewish history? The York massacre? The expulsion from Spain? The Shoah?
A lot of people are wondering about (or questioning) God’s role in the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, I took part in an online panel where several of my teachers and I discussed that very question.
On reflection, I think the simple answer might be the rabbis’ one: When Israel is enslaved, so too is the Divine Presence enslaved. When humanity is self-isolating, so too is God self-isolating. God is in self-isolation.
But why would the rabbis have write themselves a God who seems so helpless? Ultimately, I think it’s all about creating stories that are good stories. A truly three-dimensional character requires a ‘sparring partner’: a character is no character in a vacuum, and it’s only through their relationships with others that we get a sense of what they’re like.
The Greek myths were able to call upon a large (and, where necessary, expandable) pantheon of miscellaneous gods to be these ‘other personalities’. Greek gods were always having dramas amongst themselves. But Judaism only had the Israelites. The Bible and the rabbinic texts have Jews quibbling with and disempowering God, because the Jews needed God to be quibbled with, and there were no other gods to do the quibbling.
A fallible God might not be God according to the strictest definitions of Jewish theology, and yet an infallible God cannot be God according to the emotional needs of Jews as human beings. We need Someone to identify with. Within the Jewish narrative, God created humans; outside of it, Jews created God. It is a relationship in the fullest sense of that phrase.
So, God and self-isolation… Doesn’t that ruin the relationship?
Yet, why shouldn’t God be feeling lonely at the moment? We’re all missing the companionship we get from our regular gatherings in community settings. That’s also when God gets to interact with humanity. Zoom is an important stand-in and a valuable way of connecting with each other in these strange times, but it’s not a real substitute. Similarly, just as we can pray individually or using Skype or FaceTime, perhaps it’s no substitute. It suffices, it keeps the relationship open, but if it doesn’t relieve us of the sense of being marooned, maybe it doesn’t relieve God either.
These strange times call for patience and compassion – and just as God’s conception of suffering is one that runs both ways, so too should our patience and compassion.