With Parashat Eikev, we reach a challenging moment in the exploration of Love. We hear the urgency of Moses’ ongoing final speech, imploring his people to not make the same mistakes as the generation before them. Yes, each generation must make their own mistakes, but each should also do their part to help make sure the overall journey of human experience moves in a forward direction, better than what came before. That is our generation’s job as well, to face today’s challenge and chart a course that best supports those who will follow us.
The Torah text tells us that God challenged our ancestors on purpose:
Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that a person does not live on bread alone, but only upon that which God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years. Bear in mind that Adonai your God disciplines you just as a parent disciplines their child. Therefore keep the commandments of Adonai your God: walk in God’s ways and revere God. (Deut. 8:2-6).
[Note: this adapted translation is complicated. The linguistic issue of using gendered language when referring to God is a profound theological one with severe social impact. The theological issue is also a very human one, with gender implications beyond counting. The harshness of as a father disciplines his son in the original Hebrew text portrays God as male, something often found in biblical language, though elsewhere the Torah also describes God as inclusive of all genders. (See Gen. 1:27.) Scholarly explorations of this important conversation can be found in Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Judith Plaskow and The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought by Mara Benjamin.]
These verses are the very ones which turn some toward a relationship with the Divine and others running in the opposite direction. The rabbis of the Talmud explore this concept, deducing that if one experiences hardship, they should examine their behavior. If their behavior seems to be acceptable, they should examine their devotion to Torah study. If their Torah study proves sufficient, then perhaps they are in truth experiencing what the rabbis call “chastisements of love. (Berachot 5a)”
While it is important to point out that there are also voices in the Talmud that reject the idea that suffering is an intentional message from God, it is up to us to move the conversation forward. We must add our voices and, just as our spiritual ancestors did, challenge ourselves – and God – to grow out of this archaic and problematic metaphor. There is no place within Love – nor the Holy – for justifying premeditated hurt. Judaism affirms that we are each loved by an unending Divine Love, and this is no less true when we experience pain. We can turn to God as a source of healing from our pain, without depicting God as the source of it.
Many struggle with theodicy, the practice of defending of God’s goodness in view of the existence of evil. While it would be cruel to question those for whom a theology of chastisements of love provides meaning and order, it is also important to reject any notion of God choosing to cause suffering in order to test people. There is meaning to be excavated from within all experiences, even the painful ones. There is Love to be discovered and amplified through each and every moment.
The question isn’t about God. The question is whether we are prepared to be human channels of Love and meaning – through any and all circumstances. Our task is to love and to be loved, even and especially when there is pain.