Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Balaq 5770 - Storm theology

(Originally delivered on June 26, 2010.)

Dear God:

As You know, I returned on Thursday night from the United Synagogue’s New Directors’ Institute, a 3-day training seminar for educators taking new positions as Educational Directors at various synagogue schools. As You also know, my flight home was cancelled because there was a tornado (or something mighty close to it) in, of all places, Great Neck. As You must surely also know, there are downed trees all over our little peninsula, with many homes and other buildings damaged.

You may not know that I do not blame You for this mess, and all the moreso that I do not blame us. Yes, yes, I know that a tornado is a quote-unquote “act of God.” Yes, I know that You are given credit for powerful storms in the Tanakh and elsewhere in Jewish literature. Of course I know of Your promises to our ancestors, repeated throughout the Torah, that if we fulfill our obligations to you, we will receive good fortune, and that if we do not, the opposite will occur.

But I’ll tell You something. I am not going to get suckered into such a na├»ve understanding of Your ways. I am not like some religious leaders, Christian, Jewish and others, who take the theologically easy path, blaming the earthquake in Haiti or the flood in New Orleans on the evil deeds of the people of those locales. (OK, so there is no real comparison here - a few downed trees and power lines in a posh suburb may have inconvenienced us here a bit slightly, but the extent of destruction was nothing like those other two examples.) Nonetheless, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, natural disasters of all kinds - it is tempting to call these Your works.

You might know that my wife, Judy, was speaking to a woman in the street on Thursday evening, as they were surveying the damage in our neighborhood, and this woman said to Judy, “This is a punishment from God.”

I cannot accept that. I cannot accept that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah is inclined to be either deliberately or arbitrarily bloodthirsty. You are the Source of all good, the benevolent God who creates peace on high and down here, Mordecai Kaplan’s “power that makes for salvation.” You are the God who promised Avraham Avinu descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the shore, Who redeemed us from Egypt and gave us our own land (and returned some of us to it once more in modern times.)

But are You not the same God Who flooded the world in the time of Noah, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in a hail of fire and brimstone, who smote Judah’s sons Er and Onan, who slew the first-born of the Egyptians AND drowned their armies in the Sea of Reeds, who killed those responsible for the Molten Calf, who caused the Earth to swallow up the followers of Korah, who ordered us to blot out the Amalekites, and took away Saul’s crown when he failed to kill every single one of them out of mercy?

Are You not the same God before whom we recite at funerals the passage entitled tzidduq ha-din, the justification of the divine decree, in which we say, “You are just, O Lord, in ordering death and restoring to life, in Whose hand is the charge of all spirits.” Are You not the same God before whom we say on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, “Who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast?”

These stories and theological constructs speak powerfully to us. They tell us tales of our ancestors, and of who they were and, to some extent, who we are today.

Or, perhaps this was a theology that spoke to our ancestors. Perhaps fear of Your vengeful nature brought more people to the synagogue one thousand years ago, or even just two hundred.

But frankly, O God and God of our ancestors, although You are eternal, we are not. Times change, and our perspectives change. Thank God (thank You) for giving us Baruch Spinoza, and Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig, and of course Kaplan, who gave to Your people new ways of understanding You.

Thank You for opening our minds and hearts to the possibility that Your contact with us is not a one-time Sinaitic revelation, but an ongoing one that continues to this moment. Thank You for granting us the idea that we are only open to You when we put no conditions on You. Thank God for the option to understand the Torah as the devoted work of Your people, who sought to understand You in their own time and in their own language and imagery, and the corollary possibility to re-interpret You and Your Torah for modernity.

Why am I letting You off so easy? Why am I perhaps allowing You to get away with murder?

Because, O Lord our God, I cannot let You take all the credit for bad things that happen, because if I did, then I would be in a real pickle. Despite the language of tzidduq hadin recited at funerals, justifying Your every verdict, can I with a pure heart tell a grieving son that God gave his beloved father the cancer that took him from this world? Can I tell a despondent mother that You took her daughter from this world at an early age because she committed some sort of wrong against You? No. That is ridiculous, offensive, and likely to engender more resentment, more anger, more denial of You and everything that we stand for.

There is a well-known Hasidic tale of Rebbe Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev, who brought a din toire, a lawsuit against God for being responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people.

Well, my Lord, You will not be hearing from my lawyer any time soon, because I know that You are the source of good in this world; that You designed an orderly universe, that Creation is perfect.

We are imperfect, it is true, but that is not Your fault. We had a few glorious moments of perfection in Gan Eden, but things went rapidly downhill. I am sure that You are very disappointed in us.

And, while we are on the subject of disasters and disappointment, I am certain that you are really disappointed with the way that we have handled Your magnificent Creation. That oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, the one that is coating pelicans and causing tourists to re-think their summer travel plans, that is clearly not Your work. We did that ourselves, by being profligate with Your Creation, by digging holes where they were never meant to be dug, by engineering solutions that consider only the bottom line and not the Almighty on high, but most significantly, by designing our own lives such that they are NOT in harmony with Your own masterful design.

As you surely know, today in Parashat Balaq, Bil’am praised the Israelites with the famous phrase, Mah tovu ohalekha yaaqov, mishkenotekha yisrael, (Numbers 24:5) “How fair are your tents, O Jacob / Your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Your diligent servant Rashi told us that the Israelite tents are good because the entryways do not face each other. He was relying on the principle, described in the Talmud, that doors of residences should not face each other so that neighbors cannot readily see into each others’ homes.

But I think that Rashi pointed to something even greater than that. (And here is the point where my inner engineer pokes his head out.) Bil'am's praise of the Israelite's dwelling places tells us that they are good because they are well-designed, well-built; that they incorporate a respect for their neighbors and a respect for You. That is what makes them Godly, and what still makes us holy today, when we seek this order.

You, Lord, are the God of good, the God of order, not the God of disorder. Chaos must come from somewhere else.

Psalm 148, which we read this morning, as we do every morning, tells us that the order of Creation includes violent storms; but it cannot be true that it is ever Your intent to harm Your people out of vengeance.

And you know very well that this is not my idea, but has resonated with Jews for hundreds of years. Yes, on the High Holidays we chant the Untaneh Toqef, which warns of the various ways that we might perish during the New Year if we do not follow Your mitzvot. But we also chant the shelosh esrei middot, Your 13 attributes as quoted in Exodus:

“Adonai, Adonai, El rahum vehanun erekh apayim verav hesed ve-emet. Notzer hesed la-alafim, nosei avon vafesha vehata’a venaqeh.”

“The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”

Except that, as You know, God, the very end of that statement is truncated, because venaqeh does NOT mean, “and granting pardon.” On the contrary, the original text reads “venaqeh lo yenaqeh.” “He surely does NOT pardon, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children“… etc.

We changed that line! Our ancestors modified it for use in prayer, because they understood that you work through hesed, lovingkindness, and not through revenge. You gave us the Torah in love, and You continue to reveal Your word to us in love.

I do not know where natural disasters come from, or why we continue to suffer from them. But I am certain that they are not Your retribution for our human failings, because the God that loves us does not rise up in rage against us.

Please stay in touch.

Be-ahava,
Zissa Kalman ben Arye Leiv haLevi uFesya Leah.

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