Jonathan Muskat

It’s Okay to Be Theologically Inconsistent

The holidays of Pesach and Purim are soon upon us, and they are both occasions when we celebrate the miracles that God performed for us. However, the details of the different events they celebrate highlight two opposing ways in which God intervenes in our lives.  On Pesach we celebrate God’s direct intervention, when He altered the natural course of nature and freed us from bondage.  In contrast, the story of Purim highlights God’s intervention “behind the scenes” in order to miraculously save us from annihilation.  When we celebrate both of these holidays, we once again feel truly grateful for God for all that He has done for us in the past and all that He continues to do for us today.  In fact, in a recent post on my blog after President Trump proclaimed that Jerusalem is the capital of our Jewish nation, I wrote that I felt that moment was a “Kol Dodi Dofek” moment, a moment when I sensed the sound of God knocking, a feeling of God intervening in the history of the world for the benefit of the Jewish people.  It was important for me to express at that moment, “Hodu LaHashem ki tov” – give thanks to God for He is great!

Someone asked me a basic but important question in response to my assertion that we must praise God for such a fortunate outcome.  If we praise Hashem for the good that He does, for the Pesachs and the Purims and the like, shouldn’t we criticize Hashem for the bad that He does?  If we are consistent, then either we say that everything that happens is due to our own efforts and we need not praise God for His involvement, or we say everything that happens ultimately comes from God, in which case we should not only praise God for the good but we should also blame God for the bad.

My response to this question is to point to a third option.  I believe that our Sages expect us to be inconsistent, at times lauding God for the good that we see Him do, while at other times accepting that much of God’s greatness is hidden from us. This inconsistency can be best understood when comparing two blessings that we recite, one for good news and one for bad news.  The Mishna in Brachot 54a states that for rain and other good tidings, we recite the blessing of hatov v’hameitiv, or “Who is good and Who does good.”  However, for bad tidings, we recite a blessing of dayan ha’emet, or “the true judge.”  These two blessings appear inconsistent, or somewhat disingenuous.  If the blessing on good tidings is that God does good, then the blessing on bad tidings should be that God does bad!  Alternatively, if the blessing on bad tidings is that God is the true judge, then the blessing on good tidings should also be that God is the true judge!

To better understand both of these blessings, and our approach to understanding God’s intervention in this world, we must address the difference between good and truth.  Whereas good is subjective, truth is objective.  As individuals in this world and children of God, our task is to seek out both. At times, seeing the good is easy.  When we experience something that we believe is good, we have a responsibility not simply to say that this reflects the will of God, but we must appreciate what God has done for us — hatov v’hameitiv.  This teaches us the character trait of hakarat hatov — of being grateful.  However, sometimes we try to appreciate God’s goodness and we are unable to do so.  God is still good, but His greatness is hidden from us.  In those times, we acknowledge that He is still truth — dayan emet.  This teaches us the character trait of emunah, the character trait of faith.

The Gemara in Pesachim 50a cites the view of Rabbi Aha bar Hanina that in this world we recite the bracha of dayan ha’emet over bad tidings, but in the world to come we will always recite the bracha of hatov u’meitiv over all tidings.  What this means is that in this world we can’t always see the full picture, and cannot see the good in all of God’s deeds.  In those cases, we should not lie and say that we believe something is good when we can’t perceive it to be so.  Instead, over bad tidings, we simply state that this reflects the will of the true Judge.  However, in the world to come “good” and “truth” will be one.  God’s greatness will be revealed, and we will see clearly that all His deeds are good.

This is why I try to follow the model of Purim and Pesach in my own life.  I try to find instances when God’s great works are revealed to me.  In those instances, I can appreciate all the blessings that God has bestowed upon me to engender a feeling of hatov v’hameitiv and to develop the midda of hakarat hatov.  However, I am also aware that as much as I try, there are instances in my life when what is truly good is hidden.  In those instances, when I cannot see any good in what transpired and in these instances all I am left with is a feeling of dayan ha’emet, a feeling of emunah.  And if that makes me inconsistent, so be it.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.