Thursday, March 10, 2011

Suffering - No Easy Answers

Torah eschews easy answers.  There are no short-cuts.  You can’t pretend to possess perfect unquestioning faith, and religion isn’t meant to shield us from feeling pain or doubt.  It’s not a mantra to chant to close us off from that place of pain so we don’t have to face our true emotions.  It is a guide in how to wrestle with our big questions and come out whole, even if we don’t find perfect answers.

The great Torah sage, Nachmanides, establishes an important principle for textual study: maaseh avot siman l’banim --  the deeds of our forefathers are a signpost for us to follow.  Of all the events and stories that occurred over the millennia, some of them were deemed significant enough to make it into the Torah – because these are the stories we need to know to answer the questions that will inevitably arise in any thinking mind.

In three places in the Torah, Moses is on record as confronting Hashem.  The first occurs just after he’s embarked on his mission to bring the Jews out of Egypt, with G-d’s assurances of success.  He finds, instead, that the situation deteriorates.  Enraged by Moses’ demand to let the Jews go, Pharaoh decrees that from now on the Jews will have to gather their own straw to make bricks – but still keep up their daily quota.  Despairing, Moses confronts G-d (Exodus 6:22-23).  “O G-d, why have you harmed this people?  Why have you sent me?  Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he’s done evil to this people – and You have not saved Your people [as You said You would.]”  G-d responds harshly, saying, “I appeared to the forefathers, and they never questioned my ways!”

The second time Moses confronts G-d is when he’s on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights.  He sees angels tying tagin, crowns, onto the letters of the alef-bet and wonders, “What are these for?”  G-d tells him that in the future, a great Torah sage, Rabbi Akiva, will derive piles and piles of laws from these crowns.  Moses asks to sit in on Rabbi Akiva’s class, and finds himself suddenly there.  From the eighth row, he listens to the Talmudic thrust and parry, but is distressed to find that he doesn’t understand what’s going on.  Then a student pipes up, “How do we know this?”  And Rabbi Akiva responds, “Only as Halachah l’Moshe m’Sinai,” – “A tradition that we’ve received through Moses, from the revelation at Mount Sinai.”  Hearing this, Moses is comforted.  “You showed me his Torah, G-d, now show me his reward.”  But instead of the peaceful and gentle death Moses imagines fitting for such a one as Rabbi Akiva, he sees the sage tortured to death by the Romans.   Moses bursts out, “This is Torah and its reward?!”  And Hashem thunders back, “Such is my decree.  Silence; or I will return the world to tohu-bohu.”

The third time Moses confronts G-d is just after the Sin of the Golden Calf.  G-d tells him (Exodus 32:7, 10), Your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptlyLet Me be in My anger.  I will annihilate them and make you into a great nation!”  Instead of taking G-d up on this offer, Moses lobbies G-d not to destroy the Jewish people.  He then descends from the mountain to deal with the idolators.  Seeing the nation still in wild gyrations around the idol, Moses shatters the Tablets at the foot of the mountain.  G-d calls down to him, “Good on you, for shattering them!” (Deuteronomy 10:2)  Once Moses has administered justice, he ascends the mountain once more, and throws down the gauntlet before G-d.  “As far as Your offer; if You forgive the people, well and good.  But if not, then erase me from Your book that You’ve written!”  And G-d acquiesces.

These three episodes are puzzling.  To challenge G-d to forgive a nation that’s committed a cardinal sin earns a “Good job!” but asking, “Why are You hurting these people?” gets a reprimand?   Expressing outrage at what feels like the unjust death of a righteous person is smacked down with even more vehemence.    What’s going on?
In the first situation, Moses confronts G-d about an as yet unfulfilled promise of redemption.  G-d says, “I promised good things to the forefathers, too, and they didn’t see it fulfilled – but they didn’t give up hope.”  From this, it seems clear that despair is not a Jewish response.  A second related point is that Moses complains to G-d about the situation, but does not act to change it.  Hayom Yom baldly states, “A single act is better than a thousand groans.”  Sorrow and paralysis do not change a situation.  Action does.
In the third situation, G-d tells Moses, “Let me be, so I can destroy the people.”  The clear implication is that, if Moses disrupts G-d’s “solitude,” He will not destroy them.  Furthermore, rather than a dream deferred, this is a promise of destruction.  So Moses acts accordingly; he interferes with G-d’s solitude, pleading with Him not to wipe out the nation.  Moses administers his own justice to the nation, then returns to tell G-d that they’ve been suitably chastised.  Finally, Moses makes his big move.  He’s willing to give up his own connection to G-d, to save the Jewish people.  This is true, selfless leadership, and a model of how to act in a crisis.  If threatened with harm, we do all in our power to avert it; we negotiate with G-d, we pray, we take concrete steps.  We don’t just sit passively by and say, “Thy will be done.”
But now we come to the third situation.  There are times when we’ve tried confrontation, we’ve prayed, we’ve cried, we’ve done all we can – and yet, are powerless to stop the train.  What then?  This is one of the unanswerable, painful mysteries of life.  Our matriarch Rachel is described by the Book of Zohar as “the beautiful girl with no eyes.”  Rachel, too, faced pain in her life.  She confronted G-d, she prayed, she took concrete steps to effect change, and yet there were knots she couldn’t pick apart.  So she closed her eyes to her own pain.  She accepted that G-d had plans that didn’t coincide with her wishes.  She sought reasons to understand her challenges, but where she couldn’t find them, she kept praying; she continued to place her faith in G-d’s hands, and knew that one day, she would learn the whys that exist beyond, “such is My decree.” 

1 comment:

  1. What incredible ideas and lessons! Thank you for sharing your gleanings and your wisdom. May we all be able to learn lessons of such depth from our patriarchs and matriarchs. Jane.