Does God need us?
Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with rabbis tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series, and here to browse the collection.
I both believe it and resist it — the idea that God is acting through us or needs us.
It feels presumptuous to think we could be adequate to God’s tasks, skilled or wise enough for God to enlist us. I’ve also seen how the concept of being God’s soldiers can be bastardized by those who do destructive things in God’s name.
At the same time, during this pandemic, I’ve been witnessing acts that feel Godly to me. Tiny gems of generosity and rescue, gestures of game-changing deliverance or relief. Covid doctors who sleep in tents outside their own home to keep their children safe from possible infection. Young students who fashion face masks out of yarmulkes for the homeless in Houston. An elderly husband who borrows a cherry picker to get close enough to his sick wife on the high floor of a nursing home.
I’ve heard it so many times — that we are God’s hands in the world and it’s up to us to figure out how to help end suffering, to complete God’s creation.
But what does that mean —to be God’s extra helpers? And where’s the evidence that God relies upon us?
Laura Shaw Frank, 52, is Modern Orthodox, has a law degree, just completed a PhD in American Jewish history, and just recently became Director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC’s) Contemporary Jewish Life Department. Before that, she held educational and administrative roles at SAR High School — the Orthodox day school in the Bronx that was an early epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in New York. She was also director of admissions and placement at Yeshivat Maharat, the groundbreaking seminary for Orthodox women clergy.
In preparation for our conversation, Frank sends me the Exodus text that recounts how Miriam helped save her brother Moses. As soon as I reread the verses, I understand where Frank is headed: God acted through Miriam to save the Jewish people. Miriam was, as Frank puts it, one of God’s “agents on the ground.”
When we spoke, I felt myself warming to her contention that we’re supposed to be God’s actors on earth. Our Biblical ancestors didn’t wait for the miracle or the savior. They somehow knew that deliverance required them. Maybe this international crisis is a stark reminder that we’re supposed to stay involved.
‘This little girl, Miriam, is this magical creature’
Laura Shaw Frank: I love Miriam because I think that she represents the epitome of that idea that God wants and must partner with human beings in order to bring about redemption and transformation.
Abigail Pogrebin: Is that your personal take or also the ancient rabbinic perspective?
LSF: The Rabbis definitely promote this idea that human beings act as partners of God, which I think is really important. You could assume that religious leaders are those who are going to sit back and wait for God to reveal God’s self. But in fact, that’s not what the rabbis are transmitting at all; they believe we are integral to God’s work.
AP: Where do the rabbis talk about Miriam’s actions specifically? I know the Exodus text recounts how she watched over Moses in the basket and made sure their mother was recruited to essentially be his caregiver, but is there more of a backstory to her ‘interventions?’
LSF: Yes, in the Gemara — the second part of the Talmud — in the tractate of Sotah, the Rabbis tell a story about Moses and Miriam’s father, Amram. They say that when Pharaoh decreed that every son who was born would be cast into the river to die, Amram essentially said, “Oh my God, I can’t stay married to my wife. Suppose we give birth to a son?”
AP: You mean he panicked about possibly conceiving a son because every boy born would be killed?
LSF: Yes. So Amran left his wife. And because he was a leader of the children of Israel, all the other men got up and divorced their wives, too. And Miriam said to him, “Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s decree, because Pharaoh is only killing the boys, and you are killing the girls and the boys because now there won’t be any children born.”
AP: By “killing,” you mean halting births.
LSF: Correct. And she convinces her father to go back with his wife, Yocheved, and that’s how Moses is conceived and born. So from the very beginning, this little girl, Miriam, is this magical creature. The Rabbis say in the Talmud that Miriam knew that her mother was going to give birth to the redeemer of the Jewish people.
AP: Miriam foresaw the peril if her father botched God’s plan.
LSF: Yes, Miriam says to herself, “I’ve got to make sure that the child is born. I have to help God’s hand here. My brother can’t be born without my help.” And so this little girl convinces them to come back together. It’s an amazing thing.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: Amazing, too, because Miriam doesn’t traditionally get top billing in the Passover story, but you’re telling me she’s a crucial reason Moses came into being and that the Passover story even happens.
LSF: And she did more than reunite her parents so they could produce Moses. When Moses is born, the Rabbis tell us the whole house was filled with light. And Miriam’s father, Amram, says, essentially, “Oh, Miriam was right! She really must be a prophetess!” He kissed her on her head and said, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” But then when Moses is put into the basket down the river—
AP: You mean once Moses is sent down the Nile, with a real chance he won’t survive—
LSF: Yes, Miriam’s father got up and he hit his daughter across the head. How quickly his faith dissipated! He said to her, “Where’s your prophecy now? You said this baby was going to redeem us and now he’s going to die in the river.” And Miriam must have been standing there thinking, “Oh ye of little faith.” What does she do? She goes down to the river and waits there to see how this redemption is going to happen, because she believes that it will. She wants to be there and be ready to partner with God to see it.
‘We don’t have prophets anymore’
AP: So Miriam seemed to know her assignment. How do we figure out ours?
LSF: It’s hard. We can’t hear God’s voice. We have to intuit what God’s voice is and we have to have faith that God wants what is right and best for humanity.
AP: Do you hear God’s voice?
LF: I wouldn’t say that I hear God’s voice. But I feel God’s presence very powerfully. There are there particular moments in my life — emotional or miraculous — in which I very much feel God’s hand and presence. But I am very leery of ever saying that I hear God’s voice. And I am also very leery of others saying that they hear God’s voice, because I think that we can’t have that hubris today. We don’t have prophets anymore. And we can’t have the hubris to say that we know precisely what God wants.
I always think of the example of that guy years ago who said that Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans because they had a gay-pride parade. He thinks that was the message that God was sending. I fundamentally disagree with that in every cell of my being. And I think that you can get yourself into a lot of trouble in this world today thinking you know exactly what God wants.
‘God was going to escort him now’
AP: When you say that there were times where you’ve felt God’s presence, were those the most joyful moments or also the most painful?
LSF: Maybe the holiest moment of my life was when my father died. He died on Rosh Hashanah. He’d had brain cancer for two years and was at home in hospice and we were all there — the dining room had been converted to a hospital room — and I felt so powerfully the presence of God in that place.
It was staggeringly sad, but also staggeringly holy. I felt in that moment that we had turned him over to God and God was going to escort him now.
AP: That’s beautifully described. Can you give any examples of where you’ve seen God’s partners acting during this global crisis?
LSF: I see it all the time. Some of the things that have made me cry the hardest and touched my soul the most have been the video of an Arab nurse singing Ma Nishtanah to the Jewish patients of a Covid ward on erev Seder in the hospital in Israel; and there was a still photograph of an Arab nurse putting tefillin in on an elderly Jewish man in the hospital. When we talk about seeing every person as being in the image of God, that’s it; that is the epitome of it.
Or the stories of these doctors who — I’m going to start crying — but they print out these pictures of themselves and hang them on their PPE. It’s like those doctors are saying, “I know that you can’t see me, but this is what I look like. I don’t want you to be scared. I have a face and you have a face and we’re both human beings.” To me, that little act is an act of partnering with God to bring about redemption.
‘I don’t think we get to know why’
AP: What do you say to those asking why God let this pandemic happen?
LSF: I don’t think we get to know why. I think that all we can do is say, “What now? How am I going to believe in a future that will be better? And how can I then help bring about that future?”
AP: Why do you believe we don’t get to know why?
LSF: For me it feels chutzpadik and dangerous. Trying to understand the will or mindset of the divine, if one could even use the words “mindset” and “will” to talk about the divine, is impossible because of our limitations as humans.
AP: One of the texts you sent me to prepare for this conversation is the Talmudic commentary that when Miriam left Egypt, she brought along her timbrels — her tambourines. Despite the fact that the Israelites were running for their lives, she made sure to pack her tambourine.
LSF: Right. She believed in God’s redemption that much, that she brought along her tambourine to celebrate it on the other side.
Think about Miriam in the moment that she’s leaving Egypt: Pharaoh’s army starts to chase them once they’ve left and she has no idea what’s going to happen to them. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to lay their heads at night? How are they going to get food? Is there really a land of Israel? And they’re supposed to believe that some ineffable, unseeable God is going to save them?
In that moment of abject terror, complete lack of knowledge of the future, Miriam basically says, “I have faith that God is going to redeem us, and therefore I will be ready; I’m packing my tambourine.” It’s amazing.
‘I’ll be ready with my tambourine’
AP: And you’re suggesting we can take a page from Miriam now — have faith there will be a better day and do our part to get us there?
LF: We’re in this moment of such horrible anxiety, when everything is so bleak. People are dying, sick, unemployed, poor. I’ve never lived with such a lack of surety about the future ever in my life. And I guess the only way to march forward is to say, “I have faith that we will be redeemed from this.” And I have to think about how I’m going to partner with God to bring about that redemption. What can I do to protect the vulnerable? What can I do to bring about justice? What can I do to remember that each person is created in the image of God? And if I use my time to advance those principles, then the redemption will come and I’ll be ready with my tambourine.
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Laura Shaw Frank is the Director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC’s) Contemporary Jewish Life Department and on Twitter @shawfrank.
Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.