When faced with challenges, people often respond with deep and difficult questions that may hang over them for a lifetime. No strangers to national trauma, the Jewish people have asked these questions since their inception – to themselves, their enemies, their leaders, and of course, their apparently not-so-merciful Father in Heaven.
When one turns his eyes upward in the face of trauma, the first question is almost always a pained and broken “why” — “God, why are you doing this to me? Why did I have to go through this?” Sometimes, God may send an answer, one way or another, but oftentimes not. And even when He does, it probably will not satisfy you.
But perhaps there is another way of asking this question. “Master of the World, how does your name become greater in the world through this suffering?”
If we take the Holocaust, for example, survivors, scholars, and everyone in between have spent the last generation searching for an answer to the greatest “why” ever cried out by our people. I think it is safe to say that no one has ever arrived at a response that satisfied them. Perhaps they found meaning within the suffering or learned lessons through the pain, but nothing profound enough to be declared an explanation.
But when you ask, instead, “God, how does your presence in the world become greater through such horror?” you embark on a different journey – one that opens the door to a much deeper understanding of our experience of Godliness in this world.
Parshat Ki Tasa gives an account of the archetypal sin of the Jewish people: the Golden Calf. While Moshe Rabbeinu communed with God way up the mountain, the impatient former slaves down below got nervous that their leader may never return. They decided to replace this invisible God and His unreliable representative with a concrete God with a tangible presence. So they melted all of their gold jewelry into the form of a calf and began to worship it, through sacrifices, offerings, and joyous feasts.
God decides to destroy the entire nation, and start fresh from Moshe, but Moshe begs for mercy on behalf of his people, and God is placated. However, when Moshe descends the mountain and sees the atrocity with his own eyes, he cannot contain his own anger. Moshe breaks the sacred tablets, destroys the idol, and calls all who are ready to follow the One True Lord to join him. After only the Levites gathered around him, Moshe commands these believers to go gate to gate, slaying every sinner who did not choose God. The Levites ultimately murder 3,000 of their own brethren on this horrific day.
We must pause for a moment to appreciate the magnitude of this series of events. The nation falls to unspeakable lows of idolatry, followed by the mass slaughter of their friends, relatives, and neighbors at the hands of their own people. How does a nation recover from this kind of trauma? How do they learn to trust each other, their leader, and their God again?
In the face of this disaster, Moshe doesn’t ask God, “Why did we have to go through all of this?” Instead, he demands something peculiar.
“הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ”
“Show me, please, Your glory.”
Instead of asking “why,” Moshe challenges God: “I just want to understand one thing — how does Your name become greater in the world through these horrible events?”
To be clear, the “stiffnecked people,” their leaders, Aharon and Moshe, and the Levites all bear direct responsibility for the atrocities that took place, but there is also an assumption that nothing happens down below without a stamp of approval from up above. After all, it was God who gave Moshe the idea of killing off the entire nation.
Of course, Moshe gets no answer to his request in our parsha, just like we get no real answer in our own lives. While God does reassure Moshe and grant him a great deal of revelation, He ultimately says: “You will never fully understand My ways, because if you did, why would you be here?” You can never understand, because if you did, you may concede.
“וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי”
“And He said: ‘Thou cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’”
But Moshe’s request gives us insight on how to respond to trauma, on both an individual and national level. Perhaps, when we take a step back from our own experiences of suffering and consider what these events mean on a cosmic level, we can begin our journey of healing. That is not to say, God forbid, that we should ever deny, repress, or belittle our own pain or that of anyone else, or that we should turn our deepest feelings into something intellectual or philosophical.
But perhaps if we set aside the ‘why’ for even just a moment and consider how God’s presence could possibly be enhanced in the world through such immense pain, we can see things from a different perspective. Instead of adding our own broken “why” to the devastating whispers, cries, and screams sent heavenward since the creation of the world, we can invite the Almighty into our experience and explore how our pain could possibly impact His presence here on earth – one way or another.