How do we find God after the massacres of October 7th? This was a question that I addressed last week to the parents and students of Shulamith High School for Girls in Long Island. One approach is to simply ignore our relationship with God in light of these events because doing so is just too painful. However, that approach may not be satisfying enough for many people who seek out God specifically in times of national crisis.
Rav Soloveitchik addresses this question in one of his famous essays, “Faith and Destiny.” He argues that we must distinguish between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny. If we live an existence of fate then we are an object. We will suffer from evil or deny the evil. However, Judaism promotes an existence of destiny. We recognize that there is real suffering in the world and no matter how much we try to understand, we cannot understand why God creates a world with evil. But the man of faith transforms this fate into destiny. We take action. We pray. We perform mitzvot. We engage in acts of kindness. We give charity. We fight evil. We do not focus on why this happened. We focus on for what purpose did this happen? How can I react in a meaningful way now that I have been placed in this situation? When we think of our relationship with God in this manner, we are not interested in understanding reasons. We are only interested in how to respond. We commit ourselves to respond heroically to this tragedy. However, this approach alone may leave some of us feeling unfulfilled, without a sense of a personal connection to God.
That is why I believe that the bracha of ha-tov v’ha-meitiv can be very helpful in creating that personal connection to God. The gemara in Brachot 54a cites Rav Matna who states that the Rabbis established the bracha of “ha-tov v’hameitiv” on the day that those massacred in Betar were buried because they were permitted to be buried and their bodies did not decompose in the meantime. But why is the bracha one of “ha-tov v’hameitiv?” Should we recite a blessing at this time that God is so good? That God is so wonderful? At this point the survivors of the Betar massacre are burying their dead! Maybe recite a bracha of “dayan ha’emet,” that God represents truth. But why “ha-tov v’hameitiv?”
Perhaps the bracha of “ha-tov v’hameitiv” is the response of our Rabbis to the tragedy of hopelessness after the fall of Betar when the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed, at which .point in time it was so easy to give up on God. The Rabbis were searching for the good, for small miracles, for a hint that God is still present. When they found any amount of good, a small miracle and a sign from God, then they celebrated with a blessing. The bracha of “ha-tov v’hameitiv” forces us to try to pick ourselves up and move forward after tragedy. It does so by finding God in the darkness and celebrating God. It doesn’t mean that we understand the tragedy any better, but it means that we believe that God is still present in our lives despite the tragedy.
And the rabbis did more than that. The gemara in Ta-anit 30b cites Rav Matna again, who explains that the Rabbis also established a holiday to connect with this event, the burial of our dead, on Tu B’Av. The truth is that all of the historical events, including this one, that are associated with this holiday of Tu B’Av in this Talmudic passage, are days of restoration and rebuilding. According to one opinion, it was the day when the tribe of Binyamin could marry those from other tribes after the debacle of pilegesh b’Givah when the tribe was decimated. According to another opinion, it was the day when the last people in the desert died. The gemara states that there were no days of joy in the Jewish calendar like Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av. I understand why Yom Kippur is such a joyous day because it is a day of repentance, but what about Tu B’Av? Again, Tu B’Av celebrates the Jewish day of hope, return and rebuilding and the day of finding God even in the darkest places.
We cannot explain the meaning for the horrors of October 7th, but we have seen the hand of God since October 7th, so we know that there is meaning. We may never understand why God allowed the massacres of October 7th to take place, but as we witness unprecedented unity, unprecedented Jewish pride, unprecedented spirituality, unprecedented chesed and volunteerism and unprecedented faith in the State of Israel and the diaspora, we sense God’s presence in our lives. We believe that there must be meaning to all these atrocities even though we may never be able to articulate what that meaning is.
In one of Elie Wiesel’s memoirs, he writes how in the 1960s he came to Brooklyn in order to make the acquaintance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At that first meeting between Eli Wiesel and the Rebbe, Eli Wiesel was grappling with his faith in God after the Holocaust. Eli Wiesel confessed to the Rebbe, “You asked me what I expect of you – make me able to cry.” And the Rebbe’s response was, “That’s not enough. I shall teach you to sing.” “Grown people don’t cry; beggars don’t cry… You must sing.” The man of faith has questions, struggles with them and struggles with God. However, if we are able to sense the presence of God in the darkest of places then we are even able to sing and even to recite a bracha of “hatov v’ha-meitiv” even now.
This meeting had such a profound effect on Eli Wiesel such that in 1973, he composed a cantata titled: Ani maamin: A Song lost and found again. The song concludes with the following verses:
I believe in you,
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing.
Who mock the man who mocks the Jew,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over and over: I believe.
I believe in the coming of the Messiah,
And though he tarries, I wait daily for his coming. I believe.