Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

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What is Shalom Bayit?

Image: A row of tiny houses labeled “Home Sweet Home” by Diana Parkhouse.

Shalom bayit is a Hebrew phrase that means “peace of the home.” The Jewish home is ideally a place of shelter from a stressful world. It is a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary” where special effort is made by all participants to live the values of Torah in a kind and loving way.  A home that truly practices shalom bayit is a place of peace and beauty.

Unfortunately, shalom bayit took on other meanings and uses in our imperfect world. When there is a problem with domestic violence, often “shalom bayit” has been used to shame victims: “Don’t say anything, you’ll disturb the shalom bayit,” or “Don’t report domestic violence to the police, shalom bayit – don’t bring the cops into what is a private matter!”

Domestic violence is a crime. Child abuse is a crime. While there was a tradition in the past to keep secular authorities out of the Jewish home, we’ve learned that in cases of domestic violence and abuse, that approach leads only to more violence. It is wrong to use the phrase “shalom bayit” to protect a perpetrator of violence. The perpetrator is the one who violated the peace of the home. It is laudable for members or friends of a troubled family to seek assistance to protect the vulnerable and so that true shalom bayit can be restored.

One of the arguments used against those who report crimes to the authorities is the Jewish concept of mesirah, “turning over.” The concept derives from times and places where secular government was abusive towards Jews. Jewish communities were rightly concerned in some places that a Jewish defendant could not get a fair trial or treatment from the authorities. Before modern times, when Jews were not citizens of the countries in which they lived, secular authorities generally expected the Jewish community to regulate itself, and rabbinic courts handled such matters. In modern times, the civil law enforcement and courts have taken over law enforcement.

The concept of mesirah was never intended to provide a shield behind which a criminal could hide, especially when the crime is violent. All halakhic authorities agree that in the case of violence in our day there is only one choice: report to civil authorities.

Shalom bayit is a Jewish value in which the home is considered a sacred place. The home is the site of many mitzvot: keeping Shabbat, observing the holidays, Torah study, and so on. When our homes become places of strife it is important that we remedy that by engaging with one another with chesed (lovingkindness) and emet (truth, honesty.) If we are not able to do that, then it is time to seek help. There should be no room for cruelty, bullying, or any manner of physical, sexual, or emotional violence in a Jewish home.

Shalom bayit is a principle that has preserved the Jewish people through centuries of persecution. Whether your household has only one person in it or a dozen, I wish you shalom bayit, the peace of the home!


Shalom Bayit is also the name of a wonderful organization in the San Francisco Bay Area whose mission is “to foster the social change and community response necessary to eradicate domestic violence in the Jewish community.”

Social Duty or Spiritual Discipline?

Image: “THANK YOU” written by a fountain pen. Artwork: marcelmajid/pixabay.

This has been a challenging summer. On May 1 I got really, really sick. On June 30 my mother died. Through it all, people have been very kind to me, understanding about cancelled classes, sending sweet notes, and supporting my local family through shiva and mourning. I realized anew what a remarkable and loving support system we have in our congregation, Temple Sinai, and in an extended “family of choice” who have been rocks for me and Linda.

Now I’m working my way through the thank-you notes, which is something I learned from my mother. Her lessons did not cover social media, but I decided that if someone reached out via social media, it was appropriate to say “thank you” through that medium. Real visits, real cards and letters, and real food require more than email, though: for those I’ve been writing traditional thank-you notes.

As I’ve been writing them, I’ve had a chance to reflect on something I never noticed before: thank-you notes have a function beyond saying “thank you.” That’s their main job, of course, but I have benefitted from taking time to go down the list and reflect briefly on what someone did for me before I have written them a note. This one sent a note from vacation – how kind, to take time out from vacation! Another sent over food, and was careful to observe my dietary needs, which are complicated since May.  Yet another sent me photographs she thought I’d enjoy, from when my own children were little – how thoughtful! A busy colleague, a solo rabbi in a congregation, took time out to write words of comfort tailored just to me, and I know he has so little time.

All of these provided comfort when they first arrived. Now, as I write the notes, they provide more, since I am less in shock and more in a place to appreciate the care and thought. The thank-you notes are forcing me to pay attention to the people who took time to send me affection.

These little notes that I wrote so dutifully as a child and as a young woman are now much, much more than a duty. They are an opportunity to learn many important things, not least of which is that I have much for which to be grateful.

Thus I have begun to understand that thank-you notes are a spiritual discipline. They are not exciting to write, far from it, and they can be positively annoying when I cannot find an address. But there is a huge benefit from going down the list, from note to note, writing a few every day, inscribing the envelope, thinking what to say, even slowing down so my penmanship is legible.

Human relationships are holy. That is one of the great messages of Torah, that every encounter is a potential moment for holiness. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda, a great medieval teacher of ethics, taught that to cultivate an awareness of the presence and goodness of God, we should be mindful of the kindnesses done to us by other human beings and take special care to say “thank you” for those kindnesses. This tiny preliminary step is critical for our spiritual development according to Bachya.

In a few weeks we will begin the month of Elul, the annual month of soul-searching and repair of regrets. Perhaps this year we can also make it a month of gratitude, a month of thank-you notes, a month of growth.

Do Jews Believe in the Evil Eye?

Image: Cartoon of a blue eye. (Art by meri_asaro/pixabay)

If you spend much time around Ashkenazi Jews, sooner or later you will hear someone say, “Kenahora, pu pu pu.” If you play close attention to the context, you’ll notice that they said it after an optimist predicted something good or commented on something good: a new baby, a beautiful child, a future happy occasion. Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase much the same way others might say “Knock on wood.” It’s a way of warding off misfortune, aka “the Evil Eye.”

Kenahora is a combination of the Yiddish words kein [no,] and the Hebrew ayin [eye] and hara [evil.] Pu pu pu is a stand-in for spitting three times, one traditional way to avert misfortune. Together, they are the Yiddish equivalent of knocking on wood, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, and other superstitions.

The Sephardic equivalent is to say Mashallah, an Arabic greeting [May God preserve you from the evil eye] or El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo [God save us from misfortune and the evil eye.]

Another tactic for warding misfortune away from children is to immediately follow a compliment with a qualifier, for example, “She’s very pretty but she is fussy” or to smear a little dirt on the child’s face. In some communities, there is a belief that the color red can ward off evil.

Folklore studies reveal that every culture has something of this sort, often centering on a belief that one can put a curse on someone by staring at them.

While the “evil eye” is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, our teachers have usually warned us against trying to control the world via hexes and spells. A Jew is supposed to reply on God and on the good sense God gives us, not on superstitious remedies. Even some of the mentions in the Mishnah and the Talmud may suggest a certain ambivalence about the folk belief, for instance:

Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Pirkei Avot 2:11

Maimonides interpreted this to mean that greed and jealousy will cause a person to isolate themselves – he was extremely opposed to superstition of any kind. A 15th century Italian rabbi known as Bartenura agreed with Maimonides and then added that some people in their greed may look with an evil eye on the children or belongings of others. Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, wrote that:

[The evil eye] is one who is not happy with his lot and places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. – Rabbi Yonah, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:11

We can see that while it is possible to deal with “the evil eye” only as folklore or superstition, in the wiser parts of Jewish tradition we also take a practical lesson from it, that envy and jealousy can poison people and communities. Bragging can attract it by encouraging envy in others (what other purpose is there to bragging, other than to stir up envy in others?)

So while we may adopt the custom of saying “Kenahora, pu pu pu” the wise Jew will say it not to ward off evil spirits, but as a self-reminder that bragging is unkind and may backfire, and envy hurts the envious more than anyone else!

 

 

How Did This Happen?

Image: The word “Eicha” (How) in Hebrew letters. 

Eicha?! How?!

That’s the howl that begins the book of Lamentations. That’s the cry of every human heart that suffers a terrible injustice.

How did this happen?

How am I to cope?

How am I to go on living?

EICHA?! HOW?!

The truth is that the world is full of dangers and terrible events, much of it seemingly random. We look to God for justice and mercy and it seems that there is no answer, just a silence. It seems unfair. It is unfair.

I do not know why dreadful things happen. I don’t know why some parents have to bury their children. I don’t know why cruel people seem to go about their business unscathed. I don’t know why cancer and other sicknesses take so many before their time, and I don’t know why the treatments have to be so hard to endure. I do not have easy answers to any of these things.

I believe that some hurts cannot be healed.

Nevertheless, I believe we are given as gifts to one another. We cannot repair a broken heart, but we can sit with the suffering person and let them know they are not alone. We can be there for one another in bad times.

We can give one another room to grieve. We can witness one another’s pain. We can say, “Yes, you are mad at God right now, and I will sit here beside you.” We can summon the strength to not try to fix it.

This is why we are given mitzvot – so that we will know how to be with one another. The world can be a terrible place, but with good deeds, we can make it a little kinder.

Humor and Jewish Survival

Image: Mask with glasses, nose, and mustache. Photo by nito/shutterstock. Rights reserved.

 

Twice in the last week, someone near me has questioned the value of comedy as a tool for resistance in the current political situation. The first was my son, who argued that people are too busy laughing to take a constitutional crisis seriously. The second was a colleague, who questioned how much good the comics were really accomplishing.

This set me to thinking about Jewish humor and Jewish survival, two topics that I am convinced are closely linked.

According to William Novak and Moshe Waldoks in their introduction to The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jewish humor tends to be mocking. As they write:

Jewish humor is usually substantive; it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd….

Jewish humor tends to be anti-authoritarian. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk. – Introduction, p xix

The Jewish Bible is full of humor. The late scholar J. William Whedbee examines six books of the Bible in The Bible and the Comic Vision. He argues that we cannot truly understand some stories in the text unless we appreciate the humor in each tale.

The king in the Book of Esther is a drunken fool. He staggers from one drinking party to another making a mess of things until he is rescued by the same Jews that his evil courtier, Haman, wishes to kill. Then, via the holiday of Purim, he became a convenient stand-in for every tyrant who followed him in persecuting the Jews.

Modern American Jewish humor has its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where much of life seemed hopeless and there was little way to fight back against the vast power of the Czar. Still it was possible to laugh at the man, despite his almost (almost!) godlike power, as these lines from Fiddler on the Roof remind us:

“Rabbi, may I ask you a question?”

“Certainly!”

“Is there a proper blessing… for the Czar?”

“A blessing for the Czar?  Of course!  May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!” – Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein

Jews have been a stiff-necked people since the time of Moses, and one expression of those stiff necks is a propensity for making fun of the great and powerful. Whoever the oppressors, Pharaoh, the Czar, or one’s in-laws, one way to remember that they are not God is to laugh at them. As Mel Brooks says:

By using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. – Interview in Der Spiegel, March 16, 2006

That is also why the great and the powerful hate humor directed at them: it cuts them down to size and undermines their power over us. Given the power arrayed against the Jewish people for much of our history, it’s a good thing we learned to laugh at tyrants.

Beyond tyrants, Jewish humor takes aim at tyranny: the tyranny of propriety, of hypocrisy, of all the unfairness in life. It can aim at money and political power:

Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something so you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher? – Jon Stewart

Or at our own vanities:

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” – Joan Rivers

Or even at death itself:

I intend to live forever, or die trying. – Groucho Marx

I don’t think that comedy can change the things that are wrong with the world. I have faith that it can focus our minds and insist that we pay attention:

The ‘what should be’ never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is. – Lenny Bruce

Comedy at its best is courage: courage to face the things that are really, really hard, no matter how scary they may be.

Sickroom Exegesis

I’d been feeling below par for a while. I kept imagining reasons that might be so, but mostly I pushed the feeling aside. Then one morning while working out, I realized something was truly wrong. My trainer took me to the emergency room and after a bunch of tests, it emerged that I had blood clots in my lungs again.

A lot of people don’t survive their first pulmonary embolism. I’ve now survived two.

I am grateful: for the doctors and nurses at San Leandro Hospital, for CT scans and science, for my trainer Brittany, who did not let me shrug it off again, and for good health insurance. Without any one of those messengers of the Holy One, I might be dead now.

Once they wheeled me into the room where I am now picking this out on my phone, I saw the sign in the photo above. It says “Goals” and under that, “No S.O.B.” and “No Pain.” Just as with Torah, I see this text as having levels of meaning.

The pshat, or simple literal meaning, is that the doctors hope for me to get to the point that I have no shortness of breath (S.O.B.) and no pain. Those are certainly my goals, too!

But on a deeper level, I wonder, what is it telling me? I am in a situation where I have little control. Indeed, I’m here because my body is out of control. I’m scared. I’m annoyed. I’m tethered (via needles!) to machines I only dimly understand. It would be easy to be cranky and whiny. But there in front of me is a mitzvah, a commandment: “Don’t be an S.O.B.! Don’t be a pain!”

I am reminded of a sermon I once heard. A chaplain was speaking to a group of residents in a Jewish nursing home. He said, “I hear some of you say, ‘I am retired! I have no job any more!’ but the truth is, a Jew always has a job!” He looked around the room. “Anyone know what that job is?”

They looked back at him blankly. He said, “A Jew’s job is to be a mensch! No matter what your body can or can’t do, you can be a mensch.”

It is good to be reminded of these things when I feel scared and uncertain. I can be a mensch. Or as my little sign puts it in a negative commandment, “Thou shalt not be a pain.”

We are living in uncertain times. Many things frighten some of us. We realize how little control we have of much of life. It is tempting to lash out, to behave badly.

But even under the most difficult circumstances, a Jew has a job. We are commanded to live lives of Torah, to be kind to the vulnerable, to deal honestly. We are commanded to care about our impact upon others.

My nurses were amused by my exegesis of the sign in my hospital room. I like being reminded that even in an undignified hospital gown, even with scary news, even with small and large irritations, I have a job that I can do.

That’s what it means to be a Jew.