Where is God? Where is Man?

My wife asked me a while before Shabbat whether I ever felt that God could do more for the Jewish people right now. I said that I have felt that in previous difficult times, but not currently, but that I couldn’t put into words why I felt like that right now. She was satisfied with this answer, but I wasn’t and I spent the next couple of hours mulling it over. By Shabbat dinner, I had an answer, which I related at dinner (without notes!) and which I’d like to present here, somewhat expanded and tidied up.[1]

A number of years ago, I saw Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl interviewed by the journalist John Humphries, who asked where God was at Auschwitz. Rabbi Sacks said, “He was there in the command, “Thou shall not kill.” He was there in the command, “You shall not stand over your brother’s blood.”

I don’t think we should expect miracles. Rabbi Sacks said elsewhere that there’s a trend across Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) for miracles to get fewer. It’s not a smooth decline, and it is sometimes temporarily reversed, but there are definitely more open miracles in the Torah and the early books of Nevi’im (the Prophets) than in the later Nevi’im and the Second Temple era books like Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah, where God operates ‘behind the scenes,’ as it were. The reason, according to Rabbi Sacks, is that God wants the Jewish people to develop into a mature adulthood where we are able to act not without Him, but in partnership with Him, rather than depending on Him in a very passive way, as the Israelites did during the exodus, with the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna and so on, where they did little or nothing and relied entirely on God. This is not the ideal.

To understand why this is not the ideal, we have to look at a third teaching by Rabbi Sacks, this time in his book Radical Then, Radical Now (American title: A Letter in the Scroll). Rabbi Sacks asks how Avraham (Abraham) found God and looks at a Midrash that is less well-known than the one about Avraham smashing his father’s idols. As translated by Rabbi Sacks, the Midrash reads:

The Lord said to Abraham: “Leave your land, you birthplace and your father’s house…” To what may this be compared? To a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.”

Rabbi Sacks notes that some interpreters have seen understood the palace in flames as a palace of spiritual light and seen it as a mystical vision of the beauty of the universe or as the argument from design, the idea that the universe is so fine-tuned for life that it must have been designed, like a beautiful palace. However, he rejects these interpretations and, like many other interpreters, sees the palace as literally in flames.

The burning palace combines order, in the shape of the palace, with chaos and destruction, in the form of the flames. Avraham is therefore confronted with the problem of evil in the world. Rabbi Sacks notes two traditional responses to this: either that there is no God and the world is inherently chaotic and disordered (there is no palace, just flames) or that there is a God and there is no reality to suffering. There is a purpose to suffering and chaos, even if only God can know it (there are no flames, just the palace). Rabbi Sacks says that Avraham accepts the reality of both palace and flames, of both God and suffering. Therefore, the Midrash tells us that “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.” The contradiction between order and suffering, between God and evil, can only be resolved “at the level of action,” not thought, by making a better world. Rabbi Sacks continues:

The easy answer would be to deny the reality of either God or evil. Then the contradiction would disappear and we could live at peace with the world. But to be a Jew is to have the courage to refuse easy answers and to reject either consolation or despair. God exists; therefore life has a purpose. Evil exists; therefore we have not yet achieved that purpose. Until then we must travel, just as Abraham and Sarah travelled, to begin the task of shaping a different kind of world.

God, like the man inside the burning palace, gives a confusing answer. He does not put out the fire. As Rabbi Sacks puts it, God made the building. Man set it on fire and man must put out the flames. He imagines a dialogue between Avraham and God.

“Abraham asks God, “Where are you?” God replies, “I am here, where are you?” Man asks God, “Why did You abandon the world?” God asks man, “Why did you abandon Me?”

Rabbi Sacks sees God and man finding one another in the questions, the dialogue between Heaven and Earth that takes place in Torah study. “Perhaps only together can they extinguish the flames.”

God has not abandoned us. Rather, He is calling us, the Jewish people, to respond to the evil in His world, to join Him in extinguishing the flames. This obviously leads to the question, how can we do this?

On the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the rabbis of the ghetto, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum stated, “In the past, our enemies demanded our soul and the Jew sacrificed his body in sanctifying God’s name. Now the enemy demands the body of the Jew. That makes it imperative for the Jew to defend it and protect it.” He saw the former, martyrdom rather than conversion, as Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of God’s Name and the latter, fighting to defend ourselves, as Kiddush HaChaim, the Sanctification of Life.

Now our enemies arguably demand our bodies and our souls. That they demand our bodies, our lives, is clear. But Rabbi Sacks saw terrorism as a form of spiritual attack, devised to create a spiritual crisis among the Jewish people, a loss of faith and hope, in ourselves and in God.

Therefore we need to respond to both threats: for those of us in the IDF, to act to defend the Jewish people and to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure, to sanctify and preserve the life of the Jewish people. For those of us not in the IDF, whether in Israel or the diaspora, to support the IDF both practically and spiritually, with prayer, and to engage in Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Every mitzvah performed, every act of chesed (kindness) performed, every bit of Torah learnt, strengthens our personal and national Jewish identity at this time of crisis. If our enemies seek to bring death into the world, we must bring life. If they seek to bring darkness into the world, we must bring light. And it is Torah that is our life and our light.

[1] Please excuse the switching between the Hebrew and English names for Avraham/Abraham. My usual custom is to use the Hebrew name and give the English equivalent for those more used to it in parentheses the first time it is used, and I wanted to maintain that standard here for consistency. However, Rabbi Sacks, writing for a mainstream audience, used the English version and in direct quotation I had to maintain that.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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