John Paul A. Bolano
27 December 2018
In the beginning of the book of Shemot (Exodus) we see the context of the story of liberation and salvation of Israel by the LORD: a context of slavery and oppression. However, it is curious to see that in the opening chapters and verses from 1:1 up until 2:22, God’s character is nowhere to be seen except in his act of dealing favorably with the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. God’s character is unusually quiet, more so, painfully quiet. His silence in the face of the oppression of his people is appalling especially when it echoes the silence of those who we believe can do something in face of oppression, be it our own or others’, but could not, or worse, do not. People ask, where is God?
Then comes the pivotal texts of 2:23-25. After a long period of silence, God finally springs up and enters the scene, with his action following one after another in rapid succession: “God heard. . .God remembered. . .God looked upon. . God knew. . .” We ask, why the sudden shift? Has God realized that he might have forgotten his people for a time and is now making up for it? Most of the times, the attention has turned to questioning why God does not intervene. This has brought many scholars, theologians, ethicists to come up with a plausible and acceptable reasons why God was silent all along. In the face of suffering and oppression, it has always been an easy escape for humans to ask and turn to God and demand his reason for his silence, but hardly it has been an automatic reaction of humans turning to their fellow humans and demand them of their reason for their silence and indifference.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it poignantly: “When I first stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau the question that haunted me was not, “Where was God?” God was in the command, “You shall not murder.” God was in the words, “You shall not oppress the stranger.” God was saying to humanity, “Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” Rabbi Sacks observation that God was not anywhere but there, in the place of suffering, rings loudly in the sequence of actions mentioned in 2:23-25: God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God knew. In this line, we can say that God may be quiet, but God is there. Rabbi Sacks shifts his question: “The question that haunts me after the Holocaust, as it does today in this new age of chaos, is “Where is man?” The demand for an explanation for one’s silence should be, yes, directed to God, but there must be no time when it must not be directed to human beings.
In this day and age, there is the rise of populist leaders who scintillate the flames of racial, political, or even religious supremacy. As a consequence we see the vilification of those who do not belong to their party and those brave enough who speak truth to power, women abused and maltreated, migrants denied of asylum and safety, the poor tagged as criminals or as a burden to the society, and the oppression and neglect of groups of people and individuals coming from the opposite side. Alongside these, there also grows the widespread silence and indifference from those who think aren’t affected. It is as if telling the reader: “God may be quiet but he is definitely not inactive. How about you?”
In the dramatic fashion, the text immediately proceeds with the calling of Moses who, in disbelief, asks, “Who am I?” to which God responds, “I will be with you.” In the face of growing silence and indifference, Parashat Shemot provides a scathing challenge to those who sit idly and watch while people are suffering.
Reflection and Discussion: 1. Have I been quiet and indifferent in the face of suffering or oppression of fellow human beings? 2. What can we do to respond individually and as a society to the crippling indifference in our communities, countries and the world?
Bibliography: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Faith of God” in Covenant and Conversation Bereishit 5778. http://rabbisacks.org/faith-god-bereishit-5778/
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