Note: If you are coming to services on Saturday, you might want to wait to read this…
It’s been quite a week.
While I have been rushing around trying to say goodbye to people and crying over the loss I feel moving a mere 6 hours away, there are families that have been ripped apart in sorrow, saying their final goodbyes and wondering why.
When inexplicable tragedies occur, we start asking why God lets these things happen.
This isn’t a new theological question and there probably aren’t going to be any new answers.
Yet when tragedy occurs it hits us smack in the face, and it can feel as though we’ve never had to confront these questions before.
With each new tragedy we find ourselves reengaged in the gnawing questions about our humanity and about God, despite our attempts to keep them at bay during the busy hours of life. We are stunned back into facing them when we see innocent lives lost and it seems especially cruel when it affects the deeply faithful.
The horrific scene that occurred two days ago in what is supposed to be sacred space, a church in Charleston, South Carolina, leaves us shaking in our pews. The man who opened fire in the church, Dylan Roof, did so for no other reason than because he was full of hate. He admitted that he wanted to start a “race war.”
“How could God let this happen?” we ask, knowing full well that God has let many awful things happen — that there have been tragedies worse than this and this probably isn’t the last one either.
But still I find myself reeling.
At difficult times like this, I often look to the Torah, to the wisdom of Jewish tradition, to give us some answers. Instead of answers, we find in it more complicated stories of struggle between people, and struggles between human beings and God.
Even the name of our people, Israel, means struggle. Jacob gets that name after he wrestles with an angel of God and gets hurt. He realizes something important though — that even though he lost that struggle, he got through it.
That is us. That is Israel. We struggle. We get through it. Then we gird ourselves for whatever might come next.
As a people we inherited not only the name but also the legacy of struggle. Jacob did not come away from that experience with a promise that it would never happen again. Unlike the covenant God makes with Noah, Jacob’s promise from God doesn’t come with a rosy outlook. It doesn’t come with the promise of peace and security. Instead Jacob is left in pain with a wrenched hip socket and he is left with a complicated promise from God, a future that includes 400 years of slavery for his descendants.
When something awful happens, we sometimes tell ourselves that this “better” be the worst of it. The worst of it better be over! It’s as though we expect God to only give us as much as we think we can handle. But that isn’t how life works.
Each time we see human beings do horrific things, we are confronted with two difficult truths:
- Human beings can do horrific things
- God does not intervene to stop it
We desperately want to believe that humans are good – and while the overwhelming majority of human action consists of good or at least morally neutral deeds, we don’t want to have to face the horrible exceptions.
We also desperately want to believe that God is our hero, that God swoops in and saves the day. Even the Torah describes God in this way. Yet, that fantasy doesn’t comport with our reality. We don’t have a heroic God like the one in the Torah. But maybe that’s a good thing.
In this week’s Torah portion we find one of the more troubling stories — the battle between Moses and a man named Korah. From the perspective of the author of the Torah, Moses is God’s chosen leader and Aaron is the one chosen to officiate over all of the sacrifices, to be the High Priest. This story of course makes Korah the bad guy. But what was he really saying? He was actually saying something pretty radical – that everyone is equal. He questioned authority. He questioned the status quo.
Moses considered his ideas dangerous, since they were against what he believed God wanted. So, God, being the heroic savior of the Bible, swoops in to save Moses from this villain. Korah had 250 followers, each of whom offered up a burnt offering to God. And each one of those 250 people were swallowed up by the earth. They had not murdered or even stolen anything. Their great crime was trying to worship God without Aaron as their intermediary.
It’s a disturbing story. It’s the kind of thing a fundamentalist could have a field day with. It’s especially disturbing to someone who sees Torah as encompassing not only the “written” Torah (the 5 books of Moses) but also the Oral Torah, meaning the teachings of the rabbis. While the Torah is really clear that Korah and his followers are wrong and deserved to be punished, hundreds of years later after the destruction of the Temple, we find out they were right! Once the Temple no longer exists, we all become equals in our relationship to God. One Halachic Midrash even says that anyone who follows the commandments is like the High Priest himself.
The problem with looking to the Torah for answers, is that while it dictates with certitude the way we should behave and which laws to follow, when you read the stories in the Torah, you find that it’s really not a book of answers, it’s a book of questions. The stories show us the complexity of our relationships, how our views of what is right and what is wrong change, and that ultimately, even when we think we know exactly what God wants – we might find out hundreds of years later that we were wrong.
That is perhaps Judaism’s greatest teaching – that there is no singular right answer to life’s most difficult questions.
Whenever I think I have a definitive answer to a theological question I know I’m in the wrong place. I have deluded myself somehow. It’s so tempting to try to boil it down to something that makes sense, especially when we feel hurt and the pain we experience by such tragedies as the shooting in Charleston is compounded by our inability to comprehend God’s role in it.
When I think of the cases of Divine intervention in the Torah: Sodom and Gomorrah, Korah, even Egypt – I have to wonder, does that intervention really result in the “good” we so desperately seek? Much human suffering occurs as a result of God’s saving us from our enemies.
Let’s say that God, being all-knowing, had anticipated that Roof would kill 9 people one day and had stricken him with a terminal illness as a child. In that case, people would have cried out and said God is unjust for allowing an innocent child to die.
The part of ourselves that is hurt may want God to be our hero, but our healthy selves understand the importance of looking inward and remembering our responsibility to the world which we occupy.
In the story of Jacob I see an opportunity for human agency in the face of human transgression. I see an opportunity for us to take each struggle, to really wrestle, to feel the pain that comes with looking humanity in the face and not always liking what we see – and to come through that struggle having learned something about ourselves.
Dylan Roof wanted to start a “race war.” What if instead we reach across these culturally constructed racial lines, faith lines, even political lines to try to create a world in which we learn to understand each other rather than fear each other. What if instead of fulfilling Dylan Roof’s vision for more divisiveness, we let the pain we feel at these losses stir up more compassion towards each other. One of the most beautiful outcomes of this tragedy is the number of clergy I have seen reaching out in solidarity. Because when something like this happens, we all think, “Oh God, what if something that horrific happened in my sacred space.”
One purpose of coming together in prayer is to help us understand the world better by understanding ourselves better. It’s easy in situations like this to point fingers and direct blame at certain groups, at certain people, and even at God. But I want to try to be more like Jacob, to take the lessons of introspection to heart and think about these questions: How can I try to reduce the hate in our world? What can I do promote understanding so that the world doesn’t tolerate hate anymore?
When we want to see something change in our world, it can be useful to give a geshrai to God and be angry, but like Jacob, we can also transform that anger into something more productive. We can wrestle with humanity and with ourselves until the pain of that experience yields a new inner strength.
That’s where God is in all this. God is in the wrestling, pulling on our hearts, holding up a mirror and asking us each to do our part in transforming hate into love.
That is what our world needs most and each of us can do it.