As you and I have discussed recently, I have been experiencing a struggle in my relationship with God in the last number of years. There are many factors that played into this. Some were related to my own maturation and the deepening of the complexity in my understanding of what He is and isn’t. Some were the result of encounters with life situations, or with issues directly related to the Torah that sent me into something of a tailspin–having explanations that satisfied me intellectually, but not emotionally. As you can imagine, current events have brought that struggle to the forefront, and I find myself asking that same question, that ultimate question all people of faith struggle with again and again, phrased by Abraham when facing the destruction of Sodom: “Shall the Judge of all the Earth not act justly?” Why do good people suffer? Why does the all-powerful God choose not to intervene to protect the innocent?
If there is one thing I have been consistently learning in the past few years, it is how much of the distance and suffering I have felt in all relationships in my life come from suppressing and denying anger I feel towards the other. And how much can be repaired by simply giving space to that anger, and forgiving myself for having it and the other for triggering it (whether it was their fault or not).
You see, it is not that hard for me to acknowledge my anger and forgive someone who has hurt me, either intentionally or unintentionally, when he or she did something wrong. It is much harder for me to give space to my anger when it feels unjustified. Because what do I want from them? It wasn’t their fault, what right do I have to be angry? I am learning, however, that feelings don’t work that way. They are not rational and don’t respond to reason. I can’t make my anger go away by simply telling it that it doesn’t make sense. So it’s all right to feel anger even when the object of my anger truly did nothing wrong. You can’t choose what you feel. You can only choose how to respond. And when I choose to respond by suppressing and denying anger, it doesn’t actually disappear; it expresses itself in other, less healthy ways. It’s a question of how the anger can be given space in a way that is healthy, with trust on both ends that it won’t spell the destruction of the relationship. We get angry, we forgive each other, and we move on.
And the truth is that I get angry at God. I get furious with Him. Yes, I believe everything He does is for the ultimate good… but why does it have to hurt so much? God is all-powerful; couldn’t He have created a world where suffering was not necessary? Yes, yes, I’ve studied all the well-known Jewish sources that address this deep question; I know that God created the world as an act of His love, and that love is about giving, and God wanted to bestow the ultimate good on the world, and that that ultimate good is God himself, and in order for Him to do this, He needed to give us free will, and there can be no free will without the existence of evil to choose against. But He is still all-powerful and this arrangement of the spiritual universe is all His creation; couldn’t He have changed it so suffering wasn’t necessary?
There is a debate in the Talmud between the two great schools, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, on whether it was easier for man to have been created, or not to have been created at all. They both agree in the end that it would have been easier for man not to have been created. From my vantage point, here in the Middle East in these days of instability, violence and despair, this conclusion seems clear. Thanks a bunch, God, for all this ultimate goodness stuff, but really, I’d rather have nothing than to have to tolerate and witness so much suffering.
And that kind of thinking made me feel so ashamed of my lack of gratitude. God gave me so much, blessed me with so many wonderful things, and this is how I thank Him, by wishing He’d never created the world in the first place? Don’t I believe He knows what He’s doing? How could I possibly be angry at Him?
Something in that magic, soul-cleansing power of the High Holiday season, however, opened up a path for me. I realized that I needed to accept that it was okay for me to be angry. God may have made the world to bestow His ultimate goodness on it, but He also made us with a limited capacity to see and understand His plan, precisely so we would not remain complacent in the face of injustice. Didn’t God name our forefather Jacob, and our entire nation after him, “Israel”–“He who struggles with God“?
So I started letting myself be angry–and expressing that anger. For many years, I haven’t really been speaking to Him freely the way I used to. I was brogez, to use the childish term from Israeli kindergartens for not being on speaking terms. I understood that my silence was not constructive; that it was better to spew anger at Him than to say nothing at all. So I started speaking my mind. Even when all I could say was, “Why are You doing this to me?” Even when whatever it was was something petty and inconsequential. I know that God cares about everything more deeply than I could possibly understand. There is no such thing as pain so small that it doesn’t matter to Him.
On a Thursday night during Succot, we received the tragic news of that horrible terror attack in Samaria in which a young Jewish couple was murdered by terrorists right in front of their four little children. It was especially difficult because the couple was pretty well-known in the religious community, and I know several people who knew them personally. After Shabbat, we received more awful news–two Jews stabbed to death in the Old City of Jerusalem, the wife and two-year-old child of one of them injured and in the hospital. (As I’ve mentioned, the situation has only deteriorated since.) Naturally, I was very upset about these things, and started to feel the crushing fear of yet another escalation in violence and what it might mean for us. I wrote in a previous entry about the concept of “chosenness”; I felt anger and despair over the persecution that seemed to be built in to that role. Why, why, why? Why does being Jewish have to entail such constant suffering?
But then, on Simḥat Torah, I stood in front of the ark (the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept), and read out the passages we recite before taking the Torah scrolls out and dancing with them. And I remembered that as much as being Jewish entails constant suffering, it also entails so much of the deepest joy. As I danced with the Torah scroll, hugging it to my heart, offering it to my kids to kiss, I felt the profoundest sense of purpose and mission, and that brought me such elation. And I looked into my heart and suddenly saw something there I hadn’t seen in a long time. I did not feel that I was struggling against God. I felt that I was struggling with Him–together with Him. That even these terrible tragedies and this awful suffering was part of His plan for ultimate good, and that it was really for my good too, even if I couldn’t see it. And that by taking part in this mission He gave to the Jewish people, I was partnering with Him in the act of bringing the world to a place where He will one day be able to bestow His ultimate good.
And I realized that I had forgiven Him for the pain He causes me.
Months ago, I read an intriguing article by Rabbi Ari Kahn about the period between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day (or, as I call it, Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week), in which he talks about the Talmudic commentary on God’s instructions for the Temple sacrifices on Rosh Ḥodesh, the first day of the new month. He writes that we are commanded to bring what the Torah calls a “sin-offering” (hata’at) on Rosh Ḥodesh, but unlike every other time we are commanded to bring this type of offering, there is no sin listed that we are atoning for. The Talmud explains that God asks for a sin-offering on Rosh Ḥodesh, not as an atonement for a sin of ours, but a “sin” of His–the “sin” of diminishing the moon.
Now obviously, this is not literal. God does not commit sins, and diminishing the moon seems to be a silly thing to be “apologizing” for. But there is a deep allegory here. The Jewish people is often compared to the moon, its phases representing the ups and downs we have experienced throughout our turbulent history. In Judaism we talk about God “hiding His face,” referring to times of great darkness and evil, where His goodness is not easily found. In contrast, there are times of “revelation,” when it is much easier to see His hand in the events that are transpiring around us. The thing about the phases of the moon is that it looks like the moon is waxing and waning, growing and shrinking, appearing and disappearing. But it isn’t. The moon remains exactly the same. The phases are an illusion, a trick of the light.
What the Talmud is saying is that God created the world exactly the way He wanted in exactly the ideal way. And He knows that the moon is always there. On Rosh Ḥodesh, He apologizes for the trick of the light, for the illusion that we humans perceive as the waxing and waning of the moon. He is asking us to forgive Him for hiding Himself from us without helping us understand why He does this. He does it because it is really for our ultimate good, but He knows we can’t know or experience that. So He asks our forgiveness for the pain of the illusion of darkness.
When I read that article I was floored. The concept of “forgiving God” seemed crazy and radical. We are the ones who are supposed to be asking for forgiveness! We are the ones who are imperfect and are constantly falling short of our potential and making bad choices! God is just doing His job! He is the very definition of all that is right and true! How on earth could we have the arrogance to think there was any need “forgive” him?
But now I understand. It is not God who needs our forgiveness. It is we who need to allow ourselves to forgive Him. And to forgive ourselves for feeling anger and despair when He hides His face.
And when I remembered that article, I realized that God was hearing my anger, and asking me to forgive Him. I still don’t understand, and the darkness still hurts. But knowing He knows my pain and “wishes” it was not necessary helps me feel that we are on the same page.
So I forgave God. And He forgave me. And something, some wound that has been festering in my soul for years, seems to have started to heal.