Job was a man of complete integrity. According to his eponymous book of the Tanach, no matter what happened, Job was the epitome of Jewish righteousness. Then hardship fell, and Job began to doubt God’s justice.
This was hardly surprising. God had stripped him of everything, ridden him with disease, killed his children and destroyed his livelihood to test whether or not Job would remain faithful.
As it turned out, Job could only endure so much. His friends comforted him with explanations of how God must be righteous after all, but they were insufficient. Finally, Job began to snap. What if God was not just?
Just then, God burst out through the clouds. “Who are you to question Me?” demanded God.
After a lengthy excursus from Job’s inadequate interlocutors, we might expect a more thorough explanation. God has arrived and will explain the nature of justice.
Instead, God goes off on one about mythical beings. God talks about the Behemoth, an enormous bull-like monster that can rampage fields. God describes Livyathan, a fire-breathing dragon that cannot be killed.
And this, apparently, satisfies Job. Well, I’m not satisfied. I don’t know about you, but if I’m having doubts about my faith, “have you heard about the monsters God tamed?” won’t really cut it for me. You can’t respond to rational concerns by piling on ever more improbable legends. Now I’m filled with even more doubts.
But perhaps that’s the point. The author of Job, arguably the most philosophically complex text in our Tanakh, probably knew that these myths weren’t really an answer to the question posed.
The real answer, hidden within these poetic arguments, is that we don’t know. Whatever God is, it is beyond our comprehension. Whatever justice is, we cannot fully reason it enough to grasp it. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ is what God is really saying.
Similarly, our parashah this week concerns Moses’s doubts. We have come to the book of Exodus, and Moses has already run away into the wilderness. Out of a flaming thicket, God summons Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.
Just as God answered Job from the clouds, so too does God answer Moses. But the answer Moses receives is no more comforting. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ says God, ‘you need to get going.’
“What if I’m not good enough?” asks Moses. “You will be,” says God.
“Who even are you?” asks Moses. “I will be whatever I will be,” God roars back. “Tell the Israelites ‘I will be’ sent you.”
“What if nobody believes me?” asks Moses. “They will,” says God.
“But what if I can’t find the words?” asks Moses. At this point, God loses patience. “I gave you your mouth, I will give you the words! Now get yourself down to Egypt and set those slaves free!”
Miracles might be convincing to some. Logic and reason might work some of the time. But, ultimately, you have to act. When faced with injustice, there is little time to contemplate the nature of sin and perfection and God’s role in it. You have to get out and do.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative theologian and civil rights activist, famously pictured alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the march on Selma. He said that Judaism does not require a leap of faith, but a leap of action. We are called upon, first and foremost, to act. Whatever we think about it can come later.
This might sound strange to us, educated in a Western thought system that teaches us to calculate and reason before making choices. But it was not strange to the Israelites. When God called on them at Mount Sinai, they replied “we will do and we will hear.”
According to the Talmud, a heretic accused Rava using this verse. Rava was sitting, so engrossed in study, that he didn’t notice he had trapped his finger in a chair leg and it was spurting blood everywhere. “You impulsive people!” the heretic said. “You still bear your impulsiveness of acting before you think. Listen first, work out what you can do, then act.”
Rava responded with the verse from Proverbs: “The integrity of the upright will guide them.” We trust in our integrity. We trust in our conscience. We can be moved by our faith that we know right from wrong.
I think, over the last few years, progressives have done a great deal of doubting. We have been introspective and thoughtful. We have wondered, internally and out loud, whether we are right after all. Perhaps, as nationalist ideas return and religious conservatism gains strength, we might be able to make compromises on our ideals and find a middle-ground with others.
This week, fascists marched on the White House. They carried Confederate flags into Congress. A Nazi showed up among the rioters wearing a shirt that said: “Camp Auschwitz” on the front, and “staff” on the back, as if taking credit for the mass murder of Jews. They proudly displayed nooses, the symbol of anti-Black lynchings. Every brand of far-right conspiracy theorist and white supremacist descended on Washington, and video evidence shows that the police not only tolerated them but let them in.
Where has all our doubt and consideration left us? In our desire to find common ground and engage in reasoned discourse, we now come across as morally ambiguous and uncertain in our principles. We have left an ethical vacuum, and fascists have stormed into it. Intellectual curiosity is little use against the blunt force of white supremacists seeking to violently cease power.
Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield has pointed out that our uncertainty is what differentiates us from fascists. Fascists are, by definition, absolutists. They do not interrogate their views or consider other perspectives. Our advantage over fascists comes from the fact that we give arguments due consideration and approach our own convictions with humility.
He may be right. Doubt might separate us intellectually from fascists. But it is action that separates fascists politically from power. There is no joy to be had in feeling superior if white supremacists gain power in government.
This week’s events may have been a terrifying climax to Trump’s presidency. But it is equally likely that they are a prelude to worse events. American white nationalists are emboldened and convinced that they can seize power through either ballots or bullets, depending on whichever method suits them. The situation in Britain is scarcely different, where racists have not felt so confident in decades.
Whether Trump now recedes into the background or his racist ideas come to dominate the world will depend on how we act. It will not depend on what we think, but on what we do. Events are calling us to action. If we want to eradicate fascism, we must be willing to fight it.
By all means, have doubts. Moses doubted. Moses was unsure. But God said to him, ‘go anyway. Get down to Egypt and free those people.’
We must be willing to face the Pharaohs of our time with the same vigour. We must be able to say: “I have come to act because God sent me. I am standing for justice because I know it to be right and true. I am standing against racism because I know it to be wrong. I will free these people. I will uproot tyrants. I will defend democracy and advance the cause of the oppressed.”
The integrity of the upright will guide us.
Although we may not fully understand these monsters before us, we will slay them.
And we will vanquish fascism for good.
I am giving this sermon on 9th January 2021 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Shmot.
 Job 1
 Job 40
 Job 41
 Job 42
 Job 11
 Ex 3
 Ex 3:11-12
 Ex 3:14
 Ex 4:1-9
 Ex 4:11-12
 Ex 24:7
 BT Shabbat 88a
 Prov 11:3
 BT Shabbat 88b