My six-year-old son Jeremy recently became obsessed with Google Earth, a computer program which shows a satellite picture of the world. When you type an address, the program zooms in and displays an aerial photo of exactly where the building is located. Jeremy loves inputting the addresses of family and friends and watching the program go to each place.
Since Jeremy started using this program, he and I have been engaged in an ongoing debate. He was taught in school that we live on earth, but he doesn’t believe it. He claims that since when you zoom out you see the earth, and when you zoom in you see our house, this means that we don’t live on earth. I’ve been trying to explain to him that the program demonstrates that we do live on earth. So far, neither of us has managed to convince the other.
In this week’s Torah portion, God and Moses also reach a similar impasse. The Torah reading for Shabbat during Passover is appropriately from Exodus. It recounts that in a moment of crisis, Moses begged to see God’s presence. God explained that no one can see God and live but agreed to make God’s goodness pass before Moses. God instructed Moses to stand in a cleft of a rock and agreed to reveal God’s back (but not God’s face).
What does this enigmatic scene mean? The Hatam Sofer (of nineteenth-century Hungary) explained that we can’t see God directly, but can only recognize the difference God has made after the fact.
In this interchange, Moses conveys the essential frustration of human life. Hindsight is 20/20. Our choices are easily evaluated in retrospect. Yet since we don’t know the future results of our actions, we often can’t tell whether we’re making mistakes until afterwards. Moses’ plea to see God directly reflects the human desire for a sign to know in advance whether we’re making the best decisions. God’s reply — that one can only ascertain God’s presence in hindsight — is sad but true.
Yet, perhaps God was suggesting that to really see God, Moses needed a different vantage point. Often when we look at our lives close up, we get confused and mired in our daily struggles, but when we look from a distance, we get a better perspective.
In the Passover seder, there’s a song which helps us to attain a birds-eye view: Dayenu (which means ‘It is enough for us.’) The song reviews Jewish history and offers thanks for each particular blessing along the way. These blessings include: being freed from slavery in Egypt, given the Shabbat and the Torah, and brought to Israel. The song reminds us of the preciousness of freedom and of the Torah’s guidance — gifts which can so easily be taken for granted.
I recently read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks a moving novel about the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book recounts stories about people in different periods from the Haggadah’s creation in 1480 through the present — including the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the Holocaust. Viewing my life from the perspective of the characters in the story, I suddenly felt this overwhelming gratitude to be living in contemporary times. The day-to-day difficulties I face felt trivial in comparison to these epic struggles for survival.
This Passover, may we zoom out to recognize our blessings and zoom in to help those who are suffering, here on Earth.