Nothing like a war to trigger a crisis of faith. In God and in humanity.
On October 7th, I was in Jerusalem enjoying Shabbat and Simchat Torah with friends when the first siren blared early in the morning. Like most people in Israel that day, we didn’t yet know the extent of the horror that had transpired near Gaza. As the news unfolded and the depth of Hamas’s evil became clear, the Jewish nation wept from the deepest place of pain and shock over those murdered, tortured, raped, captured. For a brief moment, the world held its breath to see how Israel would respond. And we, the Jewish people, held our breath to see who would stand with us as we did whatever was necessary to protect our people and our country.
At this early stage of the war, I felt deeply inspired spiritually in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I prayed more. I felt more connected to God, Torah and the Jewish people. Maybe it was the nearly instantaneous show of unity among the Jewish people and the outpouring of support. Maybe it was the sense that God was sending us a very loud wake up call and I, like many other Jews, wanted to answer that call. Maybe it was my hope in Israel and its leadership that they would indeed exact the highest possible price from Hamas for their atrocities and not cave to political pressure – because surely the world would understand this time. In these early days of the war against Hamas, it was also heartening to see support for Israel show up in unexpected places, like moments of silence before NFL games or the Israeli flag superimposed on lighted buildings in France.
But with the next inhale, the specter of toxic hate against Israel and Jews exploded. Every day the news gets more outrageous and now the truth is mangled into a shape as unrecognizable as the visages of the innocent Israelis that Hamas brutalized. I even had a coaching colleague tell me that she believes Israeli soldiers raped, murdered and brutalized their own people during the massacre as a means to kickstart a war. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Part of me desperately wants to turn away from all the lies and poison being spewed about Israel and just focus on what I can do to help my own people. But the other part of me feels that it’s dangerous to turn away. Don’t I also have to fight for the truth? But I just want to put distance between myself and all the toxic anti-Israel propaganda. It makes me physically sick.
I believe that people have free will to choose good or evil. As it says in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, “Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the abundance of good deeds.” That being said, God can hardly be absolved from this. At the very least, He allows evil to happen which raises some very tough questions for me. It’s that feeling of “God, with friends like you, who needs enemies?”
I had some quiet time this Shabbat and I really needed spiritual comfort or a perspective that would help me sleep at night. I turned to a number of sefarim (religious books) but hit a lot of dead ends – commentaries that felt superficial and overly simplistic for my burning questions about God and humanity. I wandered back over to my book shelf and picked up a book I read years ago called “The Committed Life” by Rebbitzen Esther Jungreis. If anyone might have a helpful perspective for me, it would be someone who survived Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where most of her family was murdered. If she believes in the benevolence of God, it’s worth hearing what she has to say.
I flipped to the chapter entitled “Faith” which opens with a quote from the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. He says, “In the struggle with evil, only faith matters.” But that seemed to beg my question. So I kept reading. In a presentation to students at the Bronx High School of Science, a young woman asked the Rebbitzen how she managed to retain her faith with all the suffering she experienced at Bergen-Belsen. Her answer spoke directly to my angst:
“If not G-d, what could I have believed in? Humanity? I may have been young, but I understood only too well that what the Nazis did to us had the tacit approval of the civilized world…For those of you who are under the impression that education can civilize a man and render him a compassionate being, allow me to remind you that it was scientists, engineers and chemists who built the gas chambers and devised ways to convert our skin into lampshades, our fat into soap and our bones into fertilizer. Highly educated and cultured people, with impeccable manners, sensitive to music and art, inflicted a thousand and one deaths upon us. So what could I believe in, if not for God?”
I had to really sit with that. It helped but not enough.
Then a close friend sent me a clip of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, from 2020, who addressed the age-old, unrequited question of why bad things happen to good people. While that wasn’t precisely my question, Rabbi Sacks’s answer is timely and compelling:
“In Judaism, faith lies in the question, not in the answer. If you have no faith, if you think the universe came into being through blind chance and Darwinian survival is a blind process, then who would expect there to be any justice? If you have no faith in God, you have no question. Bad things happen [simply] because that is the kind of universe we live in. Faith is in the question, not in the answer!”
Rabbi Sacks then addresses how God chose to answer Moses when he asked God to explain why He allows so much bad to happen to the Jewish people. God refuses to answer him. Why? “If Hashem had answered why he allowed evil to happen, then Moses would have to accept the evil in the world! Moses then would have said, “this is what God wanted. I have to accept it!” And God did not want Moses to accept it! He wanted us to fight against it! Jews don’t accept evil in the world! We fight against it. We don’t justify it!”
That’s why the Million Man March was 90% funded by Jews. That’s why Jews were front and center in the civil rights movement. That’s why the great majority of whites fighting alongside Mandela in South Africa were Jewish. And that’s why it’s so painful for Jews who have been fighting for human rights in one form or another for decades to accept that they are, in fact, now alone, cast aside by the very groups which they always sought to help.
On the emotional side of things, it’s always more comforting to hear counsel from someone who has experienced similar struggles. So although I was never much of a reader of Psalms, I find King David’s words a salve in these painful times:
“How long will you endlessly forget me? How long will you hide your countenance from me? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look! Answer me! Hashem, my God, enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death….But as for me, I trust in your kindness; my heart will exult in your salvation. I will sing to God for he has dealt kindly with me.” (Chapter 13)
As for my focus going forward, I will take guidance from a rare letter published by Rabbi Dov Landau on Friday. In it, he told the Jewish people to be strong in the area of caring for one another, bein adam l’chaveiro, and to be especially mindful of being mevateir (giving in) to others. “Every person in every situation should grasp the midah (character trait) of vitur (relinquishing) which awakens the mercy of God and even more so when a person is mevateir (gives in) on something he believes is justifiably his.”
In the poignant words of the mother of fallen IDF soldier Ben Zussman at her son’s funeral this week, “To the Jewish people, are you listening? To the entire world, are you listening? Our despicable enemies who wish us death and evil, are you listening? AM YISROEL CHAI! Forever and ever! Standing upright and with our heads raised – now more than ever! Be strong! Believe! Seek good! Insist good! And we will win!”