How did the book of Job make it into the TaNaKh, anyway?
It’s a very strange book.
Robert Alter writes:
“The book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers – a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward.”
In the Talmud, our rabbis wrestle with the reality of the tzaddik v’ra lo – a righteous person who suffers despite the biblical promises of other books of TaNaKh that if you are pious you will flourish.
The TaNaKh is not uniform in this theology. In many places in TaNaKh, the authors wonder why it is that wickedness flourishes while righteousness is squashed.
Throughout TaNaKh there is a conflation of individual and nation; this appears to be an acknowledgment of karma. Your individual righteousness can not protect you from suffering because you are, inevitably, born into an interconnected web of karma. There is almost no way, realistically, for a nation to be completely righteous because a nation is made of individuals. How bizarre that our TaNaKh often speaks of an entire nation as a singular individual! Surely this can be little more than aspiration; an expression of the author’s ideological hope for Jewish unity. Conversely, the actions of individuals, the TaNaKh wisely understands, can affect the entire nation. In this way, addressing Israel in the 2nd person singular is an impressive means of expressing the potential of each person to be either a blessing or a curse as well as a device for conveying moral responsibility onto a whole nation.
In the Shulchan Aruch, 554:1-3, Yosef Karo brings a tradition that it is permitted to study Job on Tisha B’Av.
“On Tisha b’Av it is forbidden to wash, anoint, wear leather shoes, or have marital relations. It is also forbidden to read from the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ktuvim and to learn mishna, midrash, gemara, halacha and aggada, because it says, “The precepts of God are right, gladdening the heart” (Tehillim 19:9). Schoolchildren are idle on [Tisha B’Av]. One may read Job and the awful passages which are in Yirmiyah, but if there are between them passages of consolation, one must skip them. It is permitted to learn the exegesis of Eichah and Perek Ein Megalchin (third and final perek of Moed Katan). Likewise, one may learn the interpretations of Eichah and Iyov.”
Since Torah study brings us joy, it is generally prohibited on Tisha B’Av. However, we are permitted to read a few texts that do not make us feel good, including Job.
On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the temple. Are we then so distressed about the destruction of a building fortified by a megalomaniac (Herod) in which thousands of animals were sacrificed, maintained by a priesthood that had apparently become deeply corrupt by this time? Indeed, we are. The temple represents many things – the eternal center of our culture, the primary place of connection to God, sovereignty in our homeland and, perhaps more than anything, the devastation of our people in the churban and the ensuing 2000 year exile. The centuries long war with Rome resulted in the deaths of over half the entire Jewish population. When Rome decisively crushed the Jewish revolt a century after the destruction of the temple, a small number of pious men reinvented Judaism; rabbinical Judaism was born. The form of Judaism that persevered and which we continue to practice to this day. In addition, Tisha B’Av has become the receptacle into which are thrown many other catastrophes experienced by our people.
All of which is contained in “mourning of the destruction of the temple.
Our tradition struggles with the theodicy of this terrible period in our history. How did this happen? Why did we fail? Where was God? Have we been abandoned by our Protector? Is there a Protector at all?
As we are wont to do, many teachings that arose in response to the theodicy question are self-reflective. The Romans defeated us because we were not unified; factionalism made us vulnerable. It was due to a lack of love amongst our people. Our leaders were not treating each other with proper deference (TB, Yoma 9b). And so on.
This Jewish reflex of self-reflection is a noble one. However, as Dara Horn argues in her talk entitled “The Eichah Problem,” there is an element of blaming the victim in this ideology. There was a snowball’s chance in hell that little Judea could successfully defeat the Roman army. To blame our defeat on ourselves is a very serious problem, akin to blaming a victim of abuse both for what they endured and the ways this trauma manifests in their person.
Jewish unity is a noble aspiration. But ideological unity of human beings is nearly impossible for various sociological reasons. In Torah, repeatedly, people respond in different ways when they experience unmet needs. When there is no water, most of the people complain. When the spies report danger in entering the land, many of the people despair. When their leader disappears into the smoke and fire of an erupting volcano, many of the people revert to idolatry. It matters not that they all saw the Egyptians dead on the sea shore after they safely passed through; it is irrelevant that they all witnessed God “speaking” at Sinai. It does not matter if the people saw the earth open to swallow a rebellion. People are people and will have different responses to crises. There will be divisiveness.
Unity can, and does, happen. Or, at least, certain things are carried out by a certain number of people to which there is no significant resistance. This is sometimes called unity – especially by those responsible for the action. Unity in some cases is not a good thing, as when a nation is unified about something that is ultimately destructive to them or others. But these moments of national unity are unusual and surprising – in the TaNaKh and our modern world.
In any case, when someone speaks of “unity,” it always means a particular view of unity; it is one vision of unity to which the rest of us are expected to subscribe. Unity rarely means consensus on a large scale.
For historians of the Roman/Jewish wars, Judea did not stand a chance, regardless of unity or disunity.
None of these national themes, however, arise in Job. Job is not about a nation but an individual. Why then read it on Tisha B’Av, a day of national mourning?
The answer it seems is because of the questions the book leaves us with regarding theodicy. Apparently, it is the lack of any satisfying conclusion about the reason for suffering, whether individual or national, that makes this book permitted. Donald Kraus, the author of a commentary on Job, writes:
“More than any other biblical text, Job wrestles with the difficulties of the human condition, the inexplicable nature of the good or evil that can befall anyone, and the inevitable question, ‘Why?’”
Job has no answers for us. Job suffers terribly because of a wager made between the Adversary (Satan) and God in the mythic prose at the beginning of the book. The whims of divine forces are the root cause of his suffering. As he argues throughout the book, Job is the prototypical tzaddik v’ra lo; he has done nothing to deserve God’s wrath. And, alas, it is not even wrath he is suffering! It is the trickery of Satan under the auspices of a bet about the sincerity of Job’s piety. Job’s piety is proven and attested to by God. No wrath.
Perhaps it was permitted to study Job in order to consider a story about a perfectly pious person. Perhaps those who first permitted this book saw Job as a model for both personal and collective piety – piety that is ultimately rewarded. There is no collective reflection in this book. So perhaps it is permitted for personal reflection only.
Job’s essential complaint throughout the book is that God is punishing him unjustly and that he deserves to know, from God, the reason for his suffering. Job never curses God, as Satan hoped, but does cry out about the injustice of God’s actions. He knows his suffering is from God, he also knows it to be unjust. This knowledge causes Job, and thus the reader, to question the nature of God and, more broadly, the meaning of life. If God’s “wrath” is so capricious, what is the meaning of life?
When God reappears at the end of the book, He is a completely different character than the one in the mythical beginnings. His response is utterly unsatisfying with regard to Job’s complaints. As Kraus writes:
God does then speak to Job—but does not answer Job’s questions or even allude to Job’s accusations. God provides no explanation at all. Instead, in poetry at least equal to the passion of Job’s outbursts, God describes a universe so deeply mysterious and so far beyond human comprehension that Job could not possibly understand an answer even if it were given to him. The God of these speeches thunders profoundly and sarcastically hurls questions back at Job’s questions, moving the entire debate onto another level—not “Why did this happen? What did I do to deserve this?” but “What kind of a world is this? Does it even have a meaning that I can understand?”
God’s response strikes me as parody; the character of God in these chapters sounds very much like the pious today. In the Israeli TV series, Shtisel, Shulem sits with his wife who is dying of cancer. She, a very pious woman, asks what she could have done to deserve dying this way. Shulem says, “What do we know? God’s ways are beyond us.” His words are meant to comfort his wife, as if to say, “You can’t blame yourself, my pious wife. It is not your fault.”
The added irony is that Shulem is a prolific smoker and the viewer has to wonder whether his wife is dying from exposure to secondhand smoke.
It is natural for people, in the moment of suffering, to ask what they did to bring about their suffering. Yet this is not what Job does. Rather, his anguish arises from the clear knowledge that he did not deserve this suffering. He is not in denial of the harm he caused in his life because knows he is innocent; he caused no harm. The injustice of it all makes him realize that universe is without justice; God is not just.
Job’s friends consistently insist that God is perfectly just and, because this is so, Job (and/or his children) must have incurred punishment. Job rightly points out to them that the calamity he has experienced undoes their worldview and is thus deeply threatening to them. How can we live in a world with a God who is not just? How does one go on living, let alone striving to be pious, in an unjust world overseen by an unjust God? Job’s words thus anger his friends greatly. They leap to God’s defense, insisting that Job must be a sinner, heaping insult on injury. In their defense of God, they say many of the same things God says at the end of the book, particularly the idea that God is so vast and mysterious that we mortals can not possibly understand His ways. But they also play a standard theodicy card when trying to explain how it is that many evil people thrive while many pious people suffer. First, they insist that evil people only appear to enjoy wealth and long life. In truth, they say, their lives are cut short and their wealth does not truly satisfy them. On the other hand, even pious people suffer because no one is free of sin. They understandably find it absurd that Job asserts perfect innocence. What chutzpah! But the character Job in our story is entirely blameless. Unlike any other character in the TaNaKh, Job is tried by God and found to be blameless. This fictional literary device, a flawless character, is used to highlight the problem of theodicy.
The idea of a karmic web never seems to arise in the text. None of the characters, including God, argue that suffering happens simply because of cause and effect; in a web of cause and effect, piety can not protect you because of circumstances beyond your control. In a karmic worldview, why do wicked people thrive? For the same reason. God’s justice is not meted out per some algorithm. There is no divine throne room, let alone three ledgers open before God in that divine throne room.
However, when God appears at the end of the book, the poetry the character speaks portrays a vastly complex natural world, replete with both the seen and the unseen, the real and the mythic.
If we read these poems as mythical poems, they are not even supposed to be an answer to Job. They are, rather, a description of the natural world in which there is beauty, transcendence, and mystery; there is also cruelty, suffering, and indifference to suffering. I personally experience comfort in these poems. Not because they clarify the meaning or purpose of suffering but because they describe earthly and mythical things that are meaningful. The poem tells me little, if anything, about God. But it reminds me that in my worst suffering, I have found comfort in the natural world, with its profound beauty and seeming indifference; I have found comfort in my relationships with others; I have found the mythic meaningful.
In the theology presented in these poems, even God is indifferent to our suffering.
So inherent to life is suffering that kabbalists envisioned all potential for blessing and suffering in the godhead itself. Suffering is inherent to a created universe in which everything exists in relationship. There is great potential for connection but also disconnection. In connection, there is blessing. In disconnection, curse. All potential for blessing and curse exists within God. This theology exists in the Zohar and the kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari.
The capriciousness of the character of God in Job, and the rest of TaNaKh, was treated very differently in the writings of the Rambam. Such characteristics are anthropomorphic and, per Rambam, God possesses no human characteristics whatsoever; all anthropomorphisms in our sacred texts are metaphors.
The kabbalists sought to bring Rambam’s rational understanding of God together with the older, anthropomorphic myths of our people. In so doing, they created more external and internal aspects of God; from those that are most visible and experiential, like the physical universe (i.e. Shekhina), to the parts of God’s psyche that possess pathos (YHVH), to the most inward, transcendent and incomprehensible of which virtually nothing can be said (Ein Sof). In any case, the kabbalists’ approach to the theodicy question is that suffering is a function of creation. As in Buddhism, suffering is a basic fact of life. We are given the responsibility to act in ways that bring maximal blessing into the physical world (also benefitting the spiritual worlds); we are also given the responsibility to avoid acting in ways that block the flow of blessing from the spiritual worlds (which causes damage in the spiritual worlds as well). Thus, while suffering can not be avoided, we are empowered to reduce suffering and enhance blessing to the best of our abilities. In this sense, kabbalah embraces the reality that our piety can not protect us from suffering, nor does our wicked behavior necessarily bring suffering upon us. Kabbalah recognizes the web of causal interconnection.
To read the book of Job on Tisha B’Av, lifts the entire day to a different level. The book’s sustained, mythical examination of theodicy makes us look at the catastrophe of the Churban, as well as the suffering of our own times, in a way that thematically stands out with regard to the practices of Tisha B’Av as described in many places.
As a nation, we can not compare ourselves to Job. Even as individuals, we know we can not claim to be perfectly righteous. We need to take responsibility for our individual and collective actions; our actions affect our own person and others, even many others. Our actions have effects that extend far into the future.
Job reminds us that there is a kind of indifference in karma. An earthquake is the result of cause and effect; it is not divine retribution. Anthropogenic climate change is the result of the human emission of greenhouse gases. The earth’s climatological response to the increase of GHGs in the atmosphere is indifferent to who is the greatest contributor of said gases. The earth does not respond by focusing the worst aspects of global warming on China and the United States as the two greatest culprits. Rather, it is poorer nations in the southern hemispheres, whose contribution of GHGs in a fraction of ours, who bear the brunt of the worst expressions of climate change. The natural world, in its complete innocence, suffers the extinction of species after species in a show of great indifference to the injustice of anthropogenic climate change. Justice in the natural world is non-existent, as the poetry of the God character shows at the end of Job.
In reading a mythic story like Job, it is so important to remember that God makes no appearance at all in the book. The God who wagers with Satan is a mythical character. The God who recites brilliant poetry from a whirlwind at the end is also a mythical character. The question, as my teacher Nehemia Polen says, is: “What is the author of this story trying to tell us?” This story is, ultimately, not about God at all. It is about our suffering. True, in our suffering we may wonder about the nature of God. But Job is not about God and at no point in this book does God speak. Only the character as portrayed by the Biblical poet, speaks.
Since we have a proclivity, some say an obligation, to see God involved with every detail of life, we are tempted to talk about the Churban as a punishment from God. Or we are tempted, like Dara Horn, to respond to the idea that we are being punished by God with a secular reminder that, in reality, even God could not have defeated the Roman army; we were the victims of conquest and imperialism on the part of a massive empire. The churban is not about God and it’s not about our sins, even if our lack of unity contributed to our downfall.
But again, the story of Job, particularly with God’s soliloquy at the end, lifts the entire story up against the backdrop of the natural world. This God, as Stephen Mitchell points out, is nothing like the God of the first chapters. That God is never seen again. Satan, too, disappears after the opening prose. This God, appears in a whirlwind. What does this God say? They tell us they don’t care about our suffering. The rocks of the holy land do not care about our exile. The lizards do not care about the churban. Migrating birds do not care that over 50% of our people were killed in the Jewish wars. The hackberries growing in the wadis do not care. The clouds overhead do not care. The blazing blue sky of summer does not care. The heavenly hosts do not care. The sea and all therein does not care.
Yet the story has a bizarrely happy ending, as disatisfying in terms of theodicy as the rest of the book. Job is rewarded and restored to wealth, comfort and prestige. Why this unsettling turn in the story?
The God who appears in the end and rewards Job does so, apparently, because Job speaks honestly.
“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, My servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.” (42:7-8)
“Spoken the truth” might also be translated as “correctly.”
In what passages has Job spoken correctly? In verses immediately preceding these, Job recants, retreating before a visible manifestation of God, saying, “I know that you can do anything … I am dust and ashes.”
Rashi points out that two things Job said are heretical – first that God murders the righteous and the wicked together. And second, according to Rashi, that Job ironically ascribes too much power to Satan. Job’s friends, says Rashi, were in the wrong because of how they treated Job in his pain. He writes:
“Behold, your fear was your foolishness, and you held him to be a wicked man, and at the end when you were silenced and defeated before him, you should have consoled him as Elihu did. Was it not enough for Job with his trouble and his sufferings, that you added rebellion to your sins to provoke him?” (Rashi, ad loc)
Rashi’s insight into the human situation is remarkable. He notes that the fear of a capricious and unjust God caused the friends to be foolish; a fear that what befell Job might not only befall them but, because of his piety, Job’s calamity suggests that God’s justice is not just. Moreover, God is unhappy with the friends because they failed to console Job! Rather than treat Job’s words as expressions of suffering, to which nothing needed to be said, they took offense and argued with him! And yet Rashi does not, to my mind, adequately answer the question: what did Job say that was correct and honest?
God may be referring to Job’s recanting that occurred just before God notes his speaking honestly or correctly. But because Job’s friends are silent at this point, it seems unlikely. The text says nothing of their reaction to God’s appearance. For the author to say, “They did not do as you did in recanting, I am angry at them” would logically require a passage that said, at the very least, “And Job’s friends were silent.” But this is not said.
Rashi’s comments imply that everything Job said in his pain was at least honest. Some of his poetically expressed pain may have stepped over into the heretical, but it was at least honest. But if the word nachona is translated as “correct or true,” the meaning of the verse is quite a bit more radical: God is not just. Life is not fair.
God does not indicate that Job has said anything that is not correct. Does this mean that God values honesty over accuracy? That God values impassioned despair even if it does not reflect well on Him? Or is this story telling us that, indeed, life is not fair. This is precisely what Job says throughout; apparently, this is both honest and correct and Job is rewarded for saying so.
As a testament to just how unfair life is, God then rewards Job two-fold. All of his health and wealth is restored. He goes on to have many more children and grandchildren. The message for all of us is then distorted.
Suppose the story’s arc is that Job was pious and suffered pointlessly by the whim of divine forces. What is the point of returning to the shallow fairy tale presented by Job’s friends that piety is rewarded and wickedness punished? Much of the book told a story we could understand as beings who experience suffering. Suddenly, the Job story makes no sense again; that the righteous are rewarded, and the wicked suffer is simply not our lived experience. Why would the author(s) of Job circle back to that absurdity? To complicate things further, does the reward God gives Job compensate for his pointless suffering and the deaths of his children? No.
Robert Altar writes, “…the book ends in the folktale world of the frame-story, where everything is reduced to schematic patterns and formulaic numbers, and perhaps in this world, such a question can not properly be asked.” Alter presents the classical response to theodicy, one that appears in the text of Job itself, “What do we know?”
Alter’s comment here echoes the old “God works in mysterious ways,” proverb.
Donald Kraus makes a powerful argument that Job is not rewarded for his humble recanting, nor as compensation for his losses. Rather, Job is rewarded precisely because he speaks honestly/correctly. Job refuses to “blind himself to reality” in the ways his friends have. God likes that. Kraus writes:
“We must speak the truth, even if it seems damaging to our beliefs. If God’s ultimate values include truth, then we cannot base our faith in God on something that is false. Learning the truth can only ultimately bring us closer to God, no matter how far away from us God may seem in that moment when we learn a new truth. God will have the truth, and God will not accept anything less than whatever truth we can perceive, and we cannot run counter to that reality.”
Kraus observes an additional moral lesson in the book of Job.
“The theological point of the book of Job, therefore, if it can be said to have a theology, is to make us aware of the impossibility of creating a moral universe that at one and the same time would bring us to desire goodness for its own sake and reward us extrinsically for being good. This is the book of Job’s unique moral insight. Acting justly and generously can, of course, end up benefiting the person who acts as well as those who benefit from such behavior. But it cannot invariably do so without the unintended consequence that we will act in virtuous ways for the sake of rewards that have nothing to do with virtue. Even God cannot square that circle.”
Stepping aside from exegetics, it’s worth considering Job as a myth about personal, and perhaps collective, suffering. It’s a myth about the experience of grief and trauma. In this reading, it is not a sustained theological argument expressed in poetry. Job is a mythical story about what we experience in grief. As noted by the Greek statesman Solon, “Myth is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.”
As a sustained theological debate, it falls on its face. As many have pointed out, including Alter, the book fails to address the theodicy question satisfactorily. Rather, it is a story about what we experience when we suffer, as well as moments of redemption that arise from within that suffering.
Each of the characters is a character in our own minds. In the case of collective suffering, each character might be a different, factional response to that suffering. Including the character of God.
We oscillate in our personal grieving between being the characters of Job and his friends; we wrestle in some moments with the God who appears in the prologue and others with the God who appears in the whirlwind. Round and round we go with moments of each character being so eloquent and beautiful that they capture us, perhaps giving us a moment of reprieve. And then we end up again in a place of pain.
If you have been torn apart by grief and suddenly you are redeemed by a breeze, the smell of the ocean, the affection of a cat, rain, a strong wind, a garden, then you resonate with the images of nature throughout this book as well. You know the experience of how life, indifferent to your suffering, continues in Her way. She may not provide meaning to your suffering but She provides you meaningful, redemptive experiences within your suffering.
Martin Prechtel shares a grieving ceremony in his book The Smell of Rain on Dust in which the griever takes their grief to the ocean. In meeting the grandness of the ocean and weeping there, the griever is able to engage their grief for what it is: praise of what was loved. In the face of this powerful redemptive quality, the griever is able to step off mental carousel, and instead turn toward the ocean (i.e. God) to say:
I know that You can do everything,
That nothing You propose is impossible for You.
Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?
Indeed, I spoke without understanding
Of things beyond me, which I did not know.
Hear now, and I will speak;
I will ask, and You will inform me.
I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6)
In this modality, the mourner is – at least temporarily – redeemed from the self-absorption of grief and suffering. Each line here is not a theological statement but part of a song, an expression of relief and praise. Whereas previously they had no direct experience of “You,” now they “see You with my eyes.” Before (i.e. in the previous chapters) the various narrators of suffering besieged the sufferer’s mind; in those moments, all you can think of is your suffering. Now, the griever experiences redemption from that suffocating mental state and reencounters the wide, wild world. It is the proverbial crying out from the narrow place and being answered with expansiveness (Psalm 118). “What do I know?” the griever, redeemed, asks. It is not a theological question. It is an experience, a perception. It is an emotional response to vast beauty and natural power.
A personal story. I was once walking alone on a dirt road at night. I was wracked with sadness and confusion, at a crossroads in my life. When the pain felt so awful I could not bear it, a pack of coyotes began yelping nearby. It was as if the whole world opened up around me, I was suddenly aware of the starry sky; the smell, feel, and temperature of the air. The wildness of the coyotes. I was so relieved by the experience of getting out of my own suffering to meet the big, wild, beautiful world that I broke down sobbing. I can not remember any words coming to me at that moment. Had any poetry poured forth from me at that moment, they would have sounded very much like these verses from Job. All the confusing thoughts that were so real and all-encompassing to me a moment before suddenly seemed irrelevant. I was free. At least for the moment.
From a mythic perspective, the book of Job is not even trying to answer a theological question. As a text, it leaves us with the same age-old problem: we don’t know why there is suffering but we know it sucks. When we approach it from a mythical perspective, Job instead speaks of stages of grief; it tells the story of the ways a sufferer tries to rationalize or escape their suffering; the ways one’s suffering causes anger, denial and so forth. When we approach it mythically, internalizing each character, we see the same patterns each of us experiences in grief.
A myth is a story of something that happens over and over again.
Rather than a philosophical treatise about theodicy, Job is probably more effective in helping us think about effective ways to grieve and things we can do that might cause harm during the grieving process. As a theological argument, Job has no answers. As a mythical text, it is quite enlightening.
This brings me back to Job being permitted for study on Tisha B’Av. Presumably, the reason for its permission is that there is no resolution on the issue of suffering, personally or collectively. Secondarily, there is an obvious message about the virtues of piety even if it does not rescue us from suffering. Either way, in this reading, we are left with the fact of suffering.
When read as a mythic ritual, the nature of the book shifts significantly. On a day when we mourn great tragedies that have befallen us as a people, we read a book that assures us that suffering is a basic fact of life. We read that evil things happen to perfectly righteous people; how much more to those of us who are not perfect? We are reminded that evil people enjoy great bounty and long life; perhaps the measure of our lives is not the measure of our righteousness. We read a story about God wagering with Satan over the piety of Job; there are many things beyond our control that lead to suffering. We read that God restores Job’s fortunes; again, many things are beyond our control. We are reminded that life is not fair. And we are reminded that we aspire to create a human society that is fair. We are reminded that civilizations rise and fall. That our lives are but passing shadows. And we are reminded that despite all suffering, there are moments of the deepest connection; sometimes a sense of belonging; sometimes we experience the grace of beauty; sometimes we experience the fullness of a moment as meaningful even if we can not ascribe to that moment any ultimate meaning. Job models for us the wisdom of deeply grieving the loss of something you loved. And he models the self-absorption of grief. His friends model the obligation of coming to comfort a mourner, of sitting with them in their pain. And they model failing in the wisdom of our sages that we should not try to appease our friend or argue against them when they are in a moment of anger or pain. We are reminded of the transcendent beauty and mystery of nature and how direct experiences with nature can aggravate suffering or alleviate suffering. When God appears to speak out of the whirlwind, nature becomes a mouthpiece for the deeper wisdom we call God – which also resides within us. From this character, we are reminded that even in the redemptive fullness of the natural world, there are hints that all we can behold is being held by something far greater and more mysterious. We are reminded of the way our inner wisdom, and the wisdom that exists outside of us, are two deeps that call to each other (Psalm 42:7).
We are reminded that all grief is, at its root, praise for what we have loved.
When the characters speak of mythical beings, we are reminded of the mythical in general – the ways in which our religion, culture, liturgy and literature embrace and create the mythical. We are reminded of the ways our communities are united through myth and ritual.
And when Job is rewarded, his wealth returned and he sees the births of many children and grandchildren, we are reminded that – again and again – life arises from the ashes of destruction. In spite of what often seems like emptiness and vanity, futility and burden, life continues. Someday, even when all life has ceased, this carousel will continue, even without us. Like a tree that falls in a forest unwitnessed.
At first glance, it seems those who permitted Job to be read on Tisha B’Av did not experience the book as I do. Though, given Rashi’s commentary, it seems hard to imagine. It is more likely that the people who permitted the reading of Job, with its commentaries, were of the same school of people who taught that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.