William Hamilton

When God asks ‘Why?’

When wrong things happen, we ask Why? It’s important to ask, Why did such a thing happen? It’s actually essential. This is because asking why calls-out wrongness. Leaving it unasked would make a wrong seem too reasonable. 

As helpful as asking why-questions is, answering them is not. Answers either point to some divine-plan or some resignation to distrust fairness. Neither helps. Instead, leaving why unanswered, and moving to answer a second question: What then should I do? paves a more helpful path forward. So asking why is necessary; answering it is misleading.

A fresh look at the Bible’s opening chapters, this week’s portion of Torah, reveals a God who asks why-questions. Actually twice in a single verse God asks Cain: “Why are you so furious? Why are you depressed? (Gen. 4:6). The setting is after God responds to offerings from both brothers by paying attention to Abel’s. God seems genuinely surprised by Cain’s being so upset. What comes next is divine advice to Cain, “Life isn’t zero-sum, I could pay attention to your offering tomorrow. I now realize your feelings are inflamed, but don’t let them get the better of you. You are still free to not-harm your brother.” We all know the violent choice Cain opts for. Frankly, humankind hasn’t done much better ever since. 

Two things are worthy of note about God’s why-questions: 1) they’re asked in a setting of overwhelming emotion, 2) they don’t get answered. Instead, actionable advice follows. Perhaps this early biblical message is something for us to take personally. 

Asking why when you’re feeling overwhelmed, when you’re really mad, or sad, or afraid, is divinely licensed and endorsed. So too is moving to answer What then are you going to do? 

May your outcry of why come to feel as empowering as your answer to what then?

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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