Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The God of the Powerless


Ruth swearing her allegiance to Naomi, Jan Victors, 1653, Oil on Canvas

“Loser” is a nasty epithet in a culture that honors winners. And America loves winners. General George Patton once said in a rousing speech to the troops, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi epitomized this attitude when he said, “Winning is not just everything, it's the only thing.”

This focus on winning is certainly an excellent motivator. As Patton put it, “Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war.” The mindset of winning is transformative.

But there is a dark side to a culture that focuses on winners; it changes the way we see the losers of life, the weak and the powerless. At best, they receive pity; at worst, they are treated as unwanted, uncomfortable reminders of the possibility of failure and defeat.

The Torah has a very different perspective regarding those who live on the margins of society. It commands us as follows: “You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the orphan, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). On the surface, this is a commandment for judges, who must be sure not to mistreat the widow, stranger and orphan who appear before them. One is obligated to treat the powerless and vulnerable with equal rights.

Several commentaries wonder why there is a unique commandment against perverting justice for the stranger and orphan. Isn’t any perversion of justice considered to be wrong? The commentary of Rav Yoseph Bechor Shor explains that “It was necessary to command specifically about them, because the wicked will often pervert the judgment (of the orphan and stranger).” It is easy for the unscrupulous to exploit the powerless; that is why there needs to be a specific law protecting the stranger and orphan from miscarriages of justice.

But others take this prohibition a step further. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that this verse goes beyond the administration of justice in courts and speaks about the judgments of the human heart. The attitude we take toward the unfortunate is a judgment as well; and it is a perversion of justice to treat them with condescension and prejudice.

This command insists that we uproot the subtle discrimination the vulnerable face. Don’t subvert the social standing of the stranger, widow and orphan; welcome with open arms those who have faced failure and defeat, and integrate them into your community.

What is also unclear is how the reason “you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” connects to treating the widow and orphan properly. Ibn Ezra, among others, says this explanation only refers to the stranger; the Egyptians exploited the Jews, who were strangers, and enslaved them. Chizkuni says that the connection relates to vulnerability. The slave, along with the stranger, orphan, and widow, are all subservient to others; and former slaves should feel a particular sense of connection to the widow and orphan as well.

Both of these explanations focus on empathy; a Jew should feel a sense of compassion for the vulnerable, because we were once slaves in Egypt.

But another group of commentaries, including the Ramban, Seforno, and Rav Yoseph Bechor Shor, offer a very different interpretation. They explain that the reference to slavery reminds us that God cares about slaves, and all who are weak and downtrodden. God heard the calls of the slaves in Egypt and redeemed them, because God cares for the vulnerable.

It is instinctive to associate the might of God with the mighty; and that is precisely what happens in the pagan imagination. But Judaism takes the opposite route. God is not the God of the powerful; He is the God of the powerless.

The Talmud (Megillah 31a) explains: “Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the powerful might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility.” What is meant by ‘God’s humility’? The Talmud explains that it refers to how God cares for the orphan, the widow, and the brokenhearted. God stands in service of those who have been humbled, and cares for those who need His help the most.

For this reason, the Jewish retelling of history is unique. Rabbi Jose Faur has argued that “Western historiography expresses the perspective of the persecutor…. From its early period and throughout the ages, Judaism expressed the perspective of the persecuted.…. Indeed, the history of the people of Israel begins when they were slaves under Pharoah. It continues as the history of a nation ravaged by aggressors…As it is recited in the Haggadah on the Passover night, ‘In every generation and generation they stand up against us to exterminate us, and the Almighty Lord saves us from their hands.’"

Faur offers multiple citations from rabbinic literature in support of this thesis. He cites the Midrash, which explains why certain animals are Kosher, and brought as sacrifices: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The ox is pursued by the lion, the goat is pursued by the leopard, the lamb by the wolf; do not offer unto Me from those that pursue but from those that are pursued.’” (Vayikra Rabbah 27: 6). The only animals fit for the Temple are the weak and the meek. 

Similarly, Maimonides, when discussing the proper attributes of Torah scholar (Deot 5:13) says, “The rule is that he should be among the pursued and not the pursuers, among those who accept humiliation but not among those who humiliate [others].”

Faur argues that these texts represent a uniquely Jewish perspective, which becomes the foundation of how Jews see history. Underlying this idea is the belief that God listens to the call of slaves, widows, and orphans, and that He is the God of the powerless.

This recognition sustained the Jews in exile. Once defeated, the Jews should have assimilated, and taken on the gods of the victors. Ezekiel mentions that some Jews did advocate assimilation during the times of the Babylonian exile. And this was the logical path; like the old proverb states, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

What held the Jews back was an abiding belief that God was with them in exile. They heard God’s voice call, “I will be with him in his distress” (Psalms 91:15). A God of the powerless would stay with the Jews while they were being persecuted; and He would one day redeem them and bring them home. 

The idea that God listens attentively to the widow, orphan, and stranger changes one’s perspective on history, exile, and theology. And it teaches us a lesson about prayer as well.

The Talmud in Taanit (24a) tells a story of rabbinic failure. There was a drought, and in response, the great Babylonian Rabbi, Rav, decreed a fast; but rain did not come. Then, in the synagogue, “a prayer leader descended to lead the service and recited: ‘He Who makes the wind blow’, and the wind blew. He continued and said: ‘And Who makes the rain fall’, and the rain came.

Rav said to the prayer leader: What are your good deeds? He said to him: I am a teacher of children, and I teach the children of the poor as to the children of the rich, and if there is anyone who cannot pay, I do not take anything from him. And I have a fishpond, and any child who neglects his studies, I bribe him with the fish and calm him, and soothe him until he is able to read.”

The schoolteacher quietly cared for the humble and needy; and in doing so, he was truly doing God’s work. This merit raised his prayers on high, far above those of the great rabbi.

Rav prays but fails; but then a simple schoolteacher brings about a miracle. How is that possible? Because God is the God of the powerless. And God listens to those who speak his language.

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