God and Competing Goods

January 12th: Va’era
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

It is hard to know when the opening dialogue in this week’s Torah portion takes place. It seems the kind of conversation that would be part of the Burning Bush story three chapters ago. There, in Exodus 3, God tries to convince Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the Israelites’ freedom. Moses has all kinds of reservations, but, eventually, he accepts God’s mission. That was all last week. Now, as we begin the new portion in Chapter 6, we seem to be right back in that same dynamic: God is again trying to persuade Moses of the importance and eventual success of the mission:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord (YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my Name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord!’” (Exodus 6.2-8)

The repetitiveness could mean that this passage is another version of the original charge God gives to Moses. Or, it could be a pep talk. Though Moses is a man of faith, the task God sets for him is difficult and overwhelming, and even heroes need regular encouragement.

In any event, we have the situation of God trying to explain to Moses the origin of their relationship and the nature of the Divine. God wants Moses to understand all the factors at play in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

There are many Midrashim commenting on these encounters and this special working relationship, but I find one particularly helpful.

As God is explaining the whole Exodus plan to Moses, Moses realizes that this is going to take a long time. It’s just some twelve chapters in Exodus—or fifteen minutes during the Passover Seder, but God’s timetable in Exodus from the Burning Bush to the Red Sea is about a year. A year! On the one hand, freedom is wonderful. But, on the other hand, cannot God work faster? Moses challenges God on this extended time plan, and God has a mixed reaction. God’s right hand of justice lashes out to kill Moses for his impudence in daring to challenge the God of the Universe. However, God’s left hand of compassion catches the right hand before it can inflict any damage: God realizes that Moses is not challenging out of disrespect but rather out of concern for the suffering of the Israelites—some of whom may not survive to see freedom.

This Midrash teaches us a lot about God—and about our aspirations of godly behavior. Sometimes, our moral decisions involve the difference between right and wrong, but, sometimes, we must choose between two rights. Sometimes, values and principles that are good compete with one another, and we are forced to adjudicate the tension. Do we not see this in God’s situation with Moses? God is absolutely just, but God is also absolutely compassionate. What does God do when justice and compassion struggle? What do we do when we are faced with competing goods or competing principles? The answer is not easy, but we can feel close to God in this moral reasoning: working our way through the issues and principles is a godly thing to do. Indeed, God has put us on this earth to do this kind of moral wrestling. Thus can we help God to be manifested in the reality of the world.

I conclude with another Midrash. Since we are created in the image of God, and since we are supposed to pray, the question is asked: Does God pray? Of course! God prays just as we do—and, in the imagery of the Tradition, with Tallit and Tefillin. The question then becomes: For what does God pray? God prays that the Divine Sense of Justice (Midat HaDin) will always be overcome by the Divine Sense of Compassion (Midat Rachamim). Else, the world could not continue. God realizes our inadequacies, but God loves us nonetheless. God pulls for our moral progress and offers encouragement and instruction and inspiration. We’re all in this together: God and humanity!