Posts Tagged 'Theodicy'

A Laughing Nation: The Secret of Our Immortality

My son Yadid is in Israel for a gap year after High School. As part of Year Course, the program he is on, they will be traveling to Poland in a couple of weeks. In preparing him for this trip I shared with him a longer version of one of my favorite jokes. The joke goes:

An old Jew man dies and goes to Heaven. He asks if God wants to hear a Holocaust joke. God agrees and the man tells the joke. God says, “That wasn’t funny. It was offensive.” The Jew pauses and replies “I guess you had to be there.”

The profound nature of this joke is not just a challenge of theodicy, it is also an expression of our deep sense of group. We, the Jewish people are in the “in-group” and God is on the outside. What is it about our people? We make it normal to take the feeling of pain and transform it into humor if not actual joy.

I often think about this when I see a non-Jew experience a traditional Jewish wedding for the first time. More often than not, they are just blown away by the depth and layers of joy at the event. In response I point out the breaking of the glass. Everyone knows this is the sound of Jewish wedding, but few know the source.

Our breaking of the glass is meant as a fulfilment of the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not mention you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-6). So a wedding is one of those moments of “highest joy”, but we did not always live up to this idea. The Talmud relates that Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding for his son. When he saw that the rabbis “were becoming too joyful,” he took “a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became sad.” To demonstrate that this was not a silly idea, the Gemara immediately follows by telling us that “Rav Ashi made a wedding for his son and saw the Sages, were excessively joyous. He brought a cup of white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad”. (Brachot 30b-31a) The breaking of the glass is a reminder to keep the destuction of Jerusalem above this moment of “highest joy”.

Much harm and pain has befallen our people since we lost Jerusalem. We measure that collective pain out measure for measure with our collective joy. We take this moment to cry for the 6 million and they join us in dancing at our weddings. What a big wedding party? Now that is highest joy.

The speaks to the joy, but what about our sense of humor? I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. It is interesting in that much of the story allows us to focus on the perspective of Avraham, but what about Sarah?

Sarah left their home for a Promised Land only to find a famine. They carry on to Egypt where she is pimped out to Pharaoh. They finally leave heading back to Canaan. But this time Avraham has a handmaid. And insult to injury Hagar give her husband a son. At this point she is an old woman. Her years of giving birth to a child are long past and they are told that she will give birth to a son. This seems so absurd- it can only be understood as a cruel joke. There we read:

And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

Genesis 17:15-17

They do not get angry, alas they laugh. And just like that Yitzhak gets his name from laughter. “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” ( Genesis 17:19) Alas the first person born of two Jewish parents was born from pain, suffering, and shame, but was known for laughter.

Now that is Jewish. It makes your think that our “everlasting covenant” itself is connected to our collective sense of humor. This reminds me of that famous quote by Mark Twain on the Jewish people. He wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain ,September 1897

Our history is a sad and absurd. Looking back one could only choose to laugh or cry. The secret of our immortality is our choice to laugh again and again. We find humor in pain and transform it into joy. With each joke we reknit our experience of peoplehood. Together share the weight of sadness and glee of real joy. If you do not get it, well… You had to be there.

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Just A Game

I wanted to share with you (again) one of my favorite stories said in the name of Maggid of Mezritch.  Once a Rebbe was walking and he saw a young boy crying sitting behind a wall. The Rebbe asked the boy why he was crying. The boy responded that he was playing hide and seek with his friends. The Rebbe said, ” But, that seems like a fun game. Why are you crying?” The boy explained that he was crying because he thought that his friends forgot about him. And hearing  this the Rebbe started crying. They boy asked the Rebbe why he was crying.  The Rebbe responded, ” Now I know how God feels”.

This week, in Vayehlech, this  week’s Torah portion,we read:

17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods. ( Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

This is the Bible’s play at theodicy. God is not responsible for bad things happening, he is hiding his face in history as a response to our bad deeds. It is our fault for God being absent. But I think it is more constructive to understand this idea in the context of the Maggid’s storyof a God who is playing hide and seek? Like the Rebbe I am sad to realize how many have given up on the game. God must be lonely. More than sadness thinking about this today makes be feel terrified. I am terrified  by those who forgot it was a game. There is a troubling rise of militant fundamentalism ( in all religions) who are so committed to their ideology that they cannot enjoy the playful nature of living in a world with doubt and wonder. And even worse, they have grown callous to seeing the pain of others. It is disheartening to see that we are living in a world that is painfully divided. Personally I am not invested in your finding God or proving to you that God cannot be found.  I am invested in realizing that the game is worth playing. If for no other reason than in the process of playing we might learn how to play together nicely.

 

Missing the Silence

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

Why would God take his two children? I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. It seems even more peculiar when you continue reading the Torah and Rashi’s commentary which are clearly seeking a rational for the death of Aaron’s sons. Than we read:

The Lord spoke to Aaron saying. Do not drink intoxicating win, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die – this is an eternal decree for your generations.( Leviticus 10:8-9)

Don’t you think this “eternal decree” would have been nice to hear about before his sons got killed at the hands of God? This just seems unjust. I do not understand how Aaron could possibly hold his silence upon hearing this. While I do not ever think I can understand Aaron’s deafening silence, what do I make of Moses attempt at theodicy? How is it that the greatest teacher of Israel has no pastoral skills?

At the end of the very same chapter we read:

And Aaron spoke to Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the Lord, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the Lord? And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight. (Leviticus 10:1-20)

On this, Rashi reads in an entire back story in which Aaron and Moses are discussing the finer points of mourning and sacrificial laws. What does it mean that Moses approved of what Aaron said? Rashi interprets it to me mean that Moses admitted that Aaron was right in his interpretation of the law.  Moses was not ashamed to admit” Lo Shamati“- that he had not heard the Law. Aaron was right and Moses was wrong in terms of interpreting these laws.

On another level this comment by Aaron is his first words after the death of his son’s. This is what ended the silence. Above and beyond Aaron’s ability to hold his tongue, his ability to stick to his job and serve in the Temple after such a perceived injustice is truly remarkable. In light of this, I want to offer a drasha on Rashi’s  understanding of Moses saying ” Lo Shamati“.  While Moses saw Aaron doing his job and was happy to see that.  By saying Lo Shamati – Moses admitted that he did not hear Aaron. What did Aaron say? Nothing and that is the point. Moses missed the profundity of Aaron’s silence.

All to often, as a Rabbi and for that matter as an educator,  father, and husband I am reactive and not proactive. I am less of an actor and more of a re-actor in my own life. I know of myself that I do not always know what to do with silence. Often the best response is to recognize it and to just sit with it. It seems that Moses was obtuse to Aaron’s silence, but in admitting his fault  Moses shows us all how we might all strive to deal better with others’ tragedies. Often there is nothing to say. You just have to be present and do a lot of listening.



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