Ten years ago, in the wake of the horrible earthquake and tsunami that destroyed so many communities along the Indian Ocean, I wrote this musing, once again discussing issues of theodicy. In the wake of the terrible tragedy that has unfolded in France over the past few days, culminating in today’s additional tragedies, I turn once again to these words. Also, recently, the folks over at Behrman House asked people to post about how “As a Driven Leaf” impacted their lives and careers as Jews, and I thought my references to it in this musing were equally timely.
Random Musing Before Shabbat – Sh’mot 5765 – Why Us?
Near the end of this week’s parasha, the foreman of the Israelites confront Moshe and Aharon for having angered Pharaoh and causing their labors to be harder now that they must obtain their own straw but still meet the same quota of bricks. What Moses or Aharon may have responded is, as is often the case in Torah, is left to our imagination. For in the next verse Moshe “returned” to G”d.
[Sidebar-what, exactly, might that mean? Where did Moshe have to “go” in order that he could “return” and speak to G”d? Or perhaps we should take less liberty with the Hebrew and read “vayashav” with the plainer meaning of dwell or reside. Thus, perhaps “vayashav Moshe el-Ad-nai” could just mean Moshe didn’t “go” or “return” anywhere, but rather went inside himself to that place where he could then be “toward” G”d. But I digress.]
So where were we? Ah, yes. The foremen of the Hebrews complain to Moshe and Aharon, and then Moshe asks G”d:
“Lama harei-otah la’Am hazeh?” “Why have you brought harm to this people?”
Now, Moshe goes on to ask another question, which we’ll get to in a minute. Right here, right now, those words stopped me dead in my tracks. With perhaps more than 120,000 killed and millions affected, how can any person of faith not be asking this same question of G”d today? It is being called an event of “biblical” proportions, and the obvious connections, at least in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, to water, floods, waves et al as sources of destruction and salvation cannot be ignored. And even though we live in an age in which we understand the natural forces at work which caused this disaster, those of us who profess faith in a G”d (or gods) of our understanding cannot evade that nagging doubt of Divine involvement.
In this post-Holocaust age in which we live, these questions of theodicy are a normal part of our discourse and our thoughts. We sometimes revel in the perspective that our expanding and increasing knowledge of how the universe works gives us. And thus we feel that our wondering about why such things happen is somehow superior to that of our ancestors whose understanding of science and nature was view as inferior. Yet it seems no less true for our ancestors when we examine their writings. We need only look at the psalms, Job, Kohelet and more – indeed, we need only look at Moshe’s question to G”d in this parasha – to see that this is so.
I don’t think for a second that our ancestors (in a global sense) were any more pacified by the stock answers that our varying faith traditions have developed, than we are, among them: G”d testing humanity G”d’s ineffable ways Suffering produces character (and can lead to redemption) Good can come from evil Punishment for misdeeds Suffering is just part of life G”d uses natural disasters to help maintain the natural order G”d has decreed Lack of faith can lead to punishment and suffering Suffering and Pleasure as counter-balances to maintain the order of things G”d suffers along with G”d’s creations Suffering and evil are the work of humans, and not G”d Ask not where G”d was but where humanity was G”d’s ability to act in the universe is limited by having given humans free will G”d’s ability to act in the universe is limited Which of these, if any, work for you? Ineffability, coupled with the concept a limited G”d seems to have become one of the most common understandings in our own times. Along with this, we have learned to warp the idea of good coming from evil by focusing not on the horrible disasters that happen, but the great moments of human action they produce. Roger Kamnetz, commenting on the question “where was G”d in this disaster”* uses this very argument, saying that G”d was not in the disaster, but in humanity’s responses. I have to admit that there is some comfort in (and pride) in this thought. It allows us to take the focus off the Divine and place it on ourselves.
But there is still part of me that sees this, for people of faith, as avoiding the question. And I think this stems from our fear that we might lose faith. As Jews, we know that, in relating the story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Abuyah, the Talmud singles out this question of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, as one that can ultimately lead to a complete loss of faith.
Yet, though we fear asking the questions, we cannot avoid them. Thus, it’s no surprise that Milton Steinberg’s “As A Driven Leaf” is seeing renewed interest among readers, and not just Jews. Steinberg’s brilliance lies in layering issues that we struggle with in our own times in the context of Rabbi Eliezer’s times and struggle with Hellenistic culture as well as theodicy. We empathize with the Rabbi who eventually turns heretic as he struggles with trying to understand G”d and the world. And, at the same time, we fear it. We want to be spiritual seekers, yet we recognize the risk that pursuing such a course might lead us to becoming humanist or even atheist.
We fear, as I alluded to in my 5760 musing on Shemot, that G”d’s word will become to us
צַו לָצָו צַו לָצָו קַו לָקָו קַו לָקָו זְעֵיר שָׁם זְעֵיר שָׁם לְמַעַן יֵֽלְכוּ וְכָשְׁלוּ אָחוֹר וְנִשְׁבָּרוּ וְנוֹקְשׁוּ וְנִלְכָּֽדוּ
“tzav latzav tzav latzav kav lakav kav lakav ze’eir sham ze’eir sham lema’an yelkhu vekhashlu akhor venishbaru venokshu venilkadu,” “mutter upon mutter, murmur upon murmur, now here, now there. And so they shall march, but they shall fall backward, and be injured and snared and captured.” (JPS)
In other words, Gd’s words become to us as just so much noise and nonsense.
[Sidebar: As a liberal Jew, I think the more literal translation often used in traditional translations of “commandment by commandment, commandment by commandment; line by line, line by line; a bit here and a bit there; so that they will go and stumble backward and be broken, and be tripped up and caught” somewhat misses Isaiah’s point, and, ironically, sets up for criticism the very traditional community that embraces that translation, for Isaiah could be seen as mocking those who adhere to the strict letter of G”d’s law!]
To those of us of faith, and especially of Jewish faith, these words from the haftarah for Sh’mot, from Isaiah 28:13, are a warning to try and understand and heed G”d’s words. This we do, as Jews, regularly, no matter our level of observance. When we stop trying, we run the greatest risk of losing faith. Yet the difficulty in trying to understand what G”d has said to us pales in comparison to trying to understand why G”d would do certain things, or allow certain things to happen.
Which finally brings us to Moshe’s second question to Gd. After asking “why did You bring harm to this people?” Moshe asks
לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי
“Lama zeh sh’lakhtani?” “why have you sent me?” [Sidebar: why do most translations, including the more traditional ones, ignore the possible implications of the “zeh?” Fodder for a future musing, perhaps?]
Even Moshe rabbeinu couldn’t avoid humanity’s ultimate fault, by steering the conversation back to himself. It wasn’t enough to just ask G”d “why did you do this?” No, we seemed doomed to perpetually qualify such thoughts by adding “why me?”
Seems to me that we will never truly reach our full potential as G”d’s creations until we learn to automatically think globally, and ask, “why all of us?”
©2015, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha:
Sh’mot 5774 – Pas De Deux
Sh’mot 5773 – Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh’mot 5772 – Is Might Ever Right?
Sh’mot 5771 – Free Association IV
Sh’mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 – Free Association III
Shemot 5763 – Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol’ Me?