God did a couple of inexplicable things last week. He allowed the brutal murder of a young couple in front of their children, and he saved my friend’s life. You’ve read a lot about the first one, so allow me to tell you about the second one, as briefly as possible.
My friend had the flu, was driving and felt faint. He went to the hospital and had some tests done, but they came up clear. He went to his regular doctor, who didn’t like how he looked, and ordered some more tests. His doctor sent him to a cardiologist, who decided he needed an angioplasty. Once he was in surgery, the damage and blockage in his arteries was such that the procedure turned into a triple-bypass. It turns out that for some six months, my friend had a ticking time bomb in his chest that, thank God, didn’t go off. Responding to a symptom that had nothing to do with his heart saved his live.
The fact is that God does a lot of inexplicable things all the time. In response to the tragedy unfolding right now in Israel, Rabbi Dr Nathan Lopes Cardozo penned a dramatic open letter to God. His faith has been challenged by the senseless attacks. He wants answers. He is not the first person nor the last to ask these great questions:
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Where is/was God in the [insert tragic event]?
Rabbi Cardozo seems to think that others are not struck by the same emotions, but of course we all are. We perceive God as good, and we struggle to reconcile a good God allowing all these terrible things to happen. But surely we must accept that terrible things (certainly the man-made ones) are themselves a part of nature – the way the world works. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that people taught to hate and incited by their leaders to attack would brutally stab and murder innocent civilians. As painful as it is to hear of these attacks, they are far less surprising than someone walking around for months with arteries blocked and not suffering a heart attack. So in which situation did God operate through nature (which is God’s standard modus operandi), and in which did He perform a miracle?
Despite his doubts, Rabbi Cardozo has the answer: that God operates in a different plane to us. To understand Him would be like someone living in a two-dimensional world trying to understand our three-dimensional world. They are exposed to small flashes of what is ‘really’ happening, and don’t have the context to interpret them. In the same way, our world is a very limited perspective on God’s. And yet he’s not happy with that answer.
The contemporary prophet Jack Nicholson, playing Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men understood it. In response to Lt Kaffee’s demand: “I want the truth”, came his bold reply: “You can’t handle the truth!” The world we live in is called olam hasheker – the world of lies. Only after we pass from this world, do we enter olam ha’emes – the world of truth. Of the four great Mishnaic scholars who entered the ‘Pardes‘ in search of the truth, only one escaped unscathed. Unlike Lt Kaffee, I’m comfortable waiting for the truth.
The more ancient prophet Isaiah (55:8) also understood it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord”.
The real problem is not that we expect to understand why God does certain things. The real problem is that we are being inconsistent with God. Cardozo talks about mazal (good fortune) that limits the number of terrorist attacks. He suspects that God is behind this. But when innocents are murdered, or when earthquakes cause death and destruction on a huge scale, he jumps up with a claim against a God he cannot understand. Is that fair on God?
We have a bias. We are quick to blame God for the bad, but less often do we look for God in the good. Admittedly, it’s very hard to be even-handed with God, especially when good is closely juxtaposed with bad. How can we thank God that four children in the back seat of the car survived, and not simultaneously blame God for the act that caused them to become orphans? How can I thank God that my father survived the Holocaust when He also allowed hundreds of my other relatives to be murdered?
And yet even when good things happen in a standalone fashion, we are still more likely to attribute them to ‘good luck’ rather than God. It’s like the story of the fellow late for a very important business meeting and desperate to find a parking spot. “God”, he declares, “if You give me a parking spot, I will donate ten thousand dollars to tzedaka!” As he turns a corner, he sees an open spot, breathes a sigh of relief and says “it’s OK God, I found one”.
Let’s face it. Belief in God is hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. And God wants it to be hard. The Kotzker Rebbe once said: “A God that anyone can understand … I don’t need such a God”. A world in which God’s ways could be understood would be a very boring world indeed, almost as boring as a world in which one could prove the existence of God. That’s not why God created this world. Rather, He deliberately concealed Himself through nature, and gave the Jews the role of spreading His message.
The challenge for us is not to try to understand God or to make demands of Him. We just have to look for God in all the right places.