In A Tale of Love and Darkness, recently deceased author Amos Oz wrote about his childhood in Jerusalem of the 1930s and his mother, Fania, burdened with the depression that led to her suicide. At one point, describing the elderly maid from Fania’s childhood, Oz notes that she was “even more deaf than God in all His glory.”
The idea that the Divine can be deaf to suffering is articulated by a midrash based on the words of this week’s Torah portion: “Mi khamokhah ba-elim” (Who is like You among the powerful?) A radical rereading repunctuates the noun elim as if it were ilmim, so that the phrase’s meaning would become, “Who is like You among the mute?”
The midrash continues, “You see the humiliation of Your children, yet keep silent.” God may have intervened at the sea, but that offers no guarantee about future performance. Following the Second Crusade, liturgical poet Yitzhak ben Shalom composed a kinah (lament) that begins, “Who is like You among the mute, silent towards our tormentors. Our enemies are many and rise up.”
Last summer, at the study session convened by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in anticipation of Tisha b’Av, Rabbi Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion used a lament inspired by the Crusades to ask whether martyrdom is religiously required when facing forced conversion. While some say suicide would be a holy act, others teach that it is preferable to sacrifice faith rather than life. A third approach emphasizes continuing faith despite danger. Medan noted that those who chose death or conversion were lost to Judaism, but the third group had a future. Despite divine deafness and the despair that can characterize personal or communal life, we are constantly called to walk into the uncertain sea and choose life.