Finding God among the chaos: Insights into Tisha B’av from – of all places – Midrash Rabbah on Parshat Lech Lecha
Warning, another Torah story you were taught in third grade is about to be stress-tested. We all learned how Avraham first discovered God. He looked at an immense, intricately designed palace and reasoned that there must be one power behind it all. Similarly, there must also be one Prime Mover behind our immense, intricate world.
Indeed, the Midrash, at the very beginning of Lech Lecha, relates the story of a huge palace, lit up at night. It was here that Avraham made his groundbreaking discovery that there must be only one God. There’s only one problem. Half the commentators take the story to mean something else entirely. It all turns on the word דּוֹלֶקֶת which could mean “lit up” or “on fire.” It also depends whether the sentence ends with a period or a question mark:
אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת, אָמַר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהַבִּירָה הַזּוֹ בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו בַּעַל הַבִּירָה, אָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הַבִּירָה
Reading one: “Rabbi Yitschak said it’s a parable of a person traveling from place to place and he sees a palace all lit up. He thought to himself – surely this palace could not have been brought into existence if not for the will of a [single, powerful] ruler? The ruler looked at him and said: ‘I am the Master of this palace.’”(Midrash Rabbah Lech Lecha, 39:1)
This is the story we all remember. Avraham realized that there must be one God, and God subsequently introduced Himself to Avraham.
Reading two: “Rabbi Yitschak said it’s a parable of a person traveling from place to place and sees a palace engulfed in flames. He thought to himself – surely this palace has no one looking after it. The ruler looked at him and said: ‘I am the Master of this palace.’”(Ibid)
As disheartening as it sounds, according to this second interpretation, Avraham did not discover God at this point. In fact, at this juncture, it looked like God was out of the picture. That’s why God had to introduce Himself. The palace in flames represents a world in chaos – as it was following the building of the Tower of Bavel. It seems that even Avraham did not know what to make of the uncertainty engulfing his world. God had just divided the original Edenic language* that unified the world into multiple languages. This caused a major dispersion as those with the same language sought out a territory of their own. The whole world was on the move – refugees from an idyllic time when there was complete unity. A unity based on the fact that they could prevent another flood by building a tower. According to the Midrash, their intention was to fix the catastrophic plumbing problem in the clouds that brought about the flood. Furthermore, while they are up in the sky, they could fight against God and prevent another flood.
Finding God in 1943
According to this reading of the Midrash, when the world is in chaos it is challenging to comprehend that God is orchestrating events. Imagine a Jew in 1943. It’s traumatic enough that the world is at war. Jewish blood in Europe is being shed with impunity. If you have a religious perspective you may feelo that reality had become as horrific as the תוכחה (A graphic admonition that appears twice in the Torah**). Without a religious perspective, you might think that God is absent. This is reminiscent of the famous exchange with Elie Wiesel. He was asked “where was God in the holocaust.” He answered “where was man?”
Making peace between the two interpretations
As we have seen many times in the study of Midrash, a difference of opinion compels you to reconcile how both opinions are true. There are two vital lessons from one Midrashic source. The terse but profound commentator, Eshed Hanechalim, weaves the two ideas together into a masterful insight into how a Jew processes national calamities.
Avraham indeed possessed the amazing spiritual sensitivities to discover God on his own. He did so long before God revealed himself. Yet, even with his recognition of God, Avraham found it challenging to understand how God manifests His authority in a dangerous and uncertain world. Avraham reasoned that perhaps God does not rule continuously. At times, God allows the world to run based on Mankind’s natural, aggressive forces – a world where events can happen by chance, a world where chaos ensues. At this point God pulled back the curtain and introduced Himself to Avraham through the power of prophecy. God explained to Avraham that He is indeed running the world. What looks like chaos is really God’s way of dispensing divine justice. What looks random is completely purposeful.
Perhaps Tisha B’av is designed to help us process exactly what Avraham could not comprehend intuitively. The tragedies surrounding Tisha B’av, including the holocaust, do not represent God’s absence from world affairs. Even though we refer to it as הסתר פנים – a divine concealment – it is, as the Eshed Hanechalim states, a purposeful manifestation of צֶדֶק וּמִשְׁפָּט – righteousness and justice.
This idea is also found in the verse צִיּ֖וֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּ֣ט תִּפָּדֶ֑ה וְשָׁבֶ֖יהָ בִּצְדָקָֽה׃
”Zion shall be saved through justice; those who return, through righteousness.” (Yeshayahu 1:27)
* “Edenic” refers to the original Hebrew – the universal language that Adam and Chava spoke in the the Garden of Eden, Edenic, was diversified or spun-off into seventy variants, the 70 national divisions listed in Beresihs 10. For more information visit
** In Parshat Bechukotai and in Parshat Ki Tavo