Jeremiah boldly pointed it out over two and one-half millennia ago in the haftarah for this week’s parasha:
27 They said to wood, “You are my father,”
To stone, “You gave birth to me,”
While to Me they turned their backs
And not their faces.
But in their hour of calamity they cry,
“Arise and save us!”
We turn our backs on G”d, or we worship other gods – until things go wrong, and then we plead with G”d to save us. It’s a pattern we repeat over and over.
Over the millennia, our sages have sought other ways to teach this lesson. Their efforts continue to fail to this day-sometimes because we fail to heed them, and sometimes because the sages themselves confuse the lesson or the message. For a classic example of that, we need look no further than blessings for before and after eating. The lesson the Torah teaches is clear. The Torah does not command us to say thanks before we eat – it commands us to say a blessing after we eat. The rabbis of the Great Sanhedrin, in their wisdom, determined that to partake of anything in this world without first thanking G”d is akin to stealing from G”d, thus their entire system of brachot (blessings) to be said before something. That makes sense, of course. However, in insisting on blessings before we eat, they potentially minimize the impact of the lesson in saying a blessing after we eat. The Torah’s wisdom in this is almost self-apparent. When our bellies are empty, it’s easy for us to be motivated to thank G”d for our food. It’s when our bellies are full that we are more likely to forget to acknowledge the Source of All. This is another side of the wave that is our penchant for disobeying G”d yet still believing G”d is obligated to us.
The rabbis had good intentions, and their expectations were, of course, that we would all say blessings before and after eating (though, with typical rabbinical narishkeit, they make more exceptions for when we don’t have to say the blessing after meals than they do for when we wouldn’t have a say a blessing before eating something.)
The end result, at least in our own time (though largely more prevalent in non-Orthodox settings) is that many Jews are familiar with and might be likely to say blessings before eating (though I still feel that, in the liberal community, there are an abysmally low number of adherents to this practice.) At the very least, many liberal Jews will at least experience the wine and bread blessings on Shabbat, if not at home, at least in the synagogue (yes, that’s my eyes rolling.) I would venture to guess, and I have no research to back this up, that, with the exception of synagogue and camp functions, the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals is not commonly said – even though the Torah clearly mandates some kind of after meal blessing.
However, this is not a musing on the subject of food blessings or the Birkat HaMazon. It is a musing about our tendency to ignore G”d (or worship other gods) yet cry out to G”d for assistance when things gang aft agley, as they do. (I love using “gang aft agley.” It sounds so Yiddish, though the phrase comes to us courtesy of a Scottish dialect used by Robert Burns in his poem “To A Mouse.”)
The idea that there are “no Atheists in foxholes” is one of many more modern understanding of this issue. Oddly enough, it can be just as easily argued that the horrors and conditions of war are more likely to challenge a believer and strip away his or her faith in a high power. I think our ancient ancestors were just as familiar with that concept as they were with Jeremiah’s complaint against them. (That’s one explanation for why the book of Job is in the canon.) G”d’s allowing Israel to be punished and destroyed was no less easily spun either way by the spin doctors in the times of our ancestors. Though it does trouble me that few, if any, of our ancestors, saw the potential for a mixed or reverse message being heard by the people. One does wonder how many of our ancestors, shocked by the horrors of war and destruction (man-made, G”d-made, or natural) actually lost their faith or saw it severely challenged? That we so often hear the opposite message – that it is because of our own failures to do what G”d asks of us that we are suffering – may be a testament to just how prevalent the opposite thought was in those days. At the very least it could be argued that surely some lost their faith or belief in G”d as a result of the very tragedies and horrors that they were being told were deliberate on G”d’s part as punishment. What a self-feeding, cyclical situation we have woven with our rhetoric and our behavior. Believe because that which challenges your belief is but punishment for all our failures to believe and do what G”d asks of us. Must have driven some of the Greek philosophers crazy.
Today are we any different than our ancestors? We destroy our own planet, we kill each other with reckless abandon. Some proclaim a faith in G”d but the gods which they actually worship are a poor substitute, idols of wood and stone, of paper and ink, of precious metals and jewels, of bits and bytes. In the midst of our own horrors, we observe them and cry out to G”d to save us (or some of us cry out that what we see is the evidence that there is no G”d.)
Some argue that if G”d created us, then G”d is responsible for what happens to us, free-will be damned. Others argue that it is not unreasonable for the G”d that created us and gave us free will to ask for something from us in exchange for having done so. For those who embrace a concept of G”d, but are unsure that G”d created us or the Universe, it’s more problematic. (These last two situations are both reasonably addressed by the oft repeated expression that the question is not “where was G”d?” but “where was humankind?” ) For those certain that there is no G”d, it’s a pointless discussion. For those who believe, in any form, it’s an inescapable discussion.
We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to be free of the restrictions of any agreement or covenant we have with G”d yet still expect to be able to turn to G”d for deliverance. Jeremiah told us over 2500 years ago how foolish this notion is. Would Jeremiah be surprised to learn that we still don’t get it?
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik. We’ve reached the end of the book of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers.
© 2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Matot-Maei 5773 – The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 – And the Punting Goes On
Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 – First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot–Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot–Masey 5762–The Rebel’s Complaint and Promises, Promises