By Emanuel Feldman
I am not able to worship a G-d Whose ways are all crystal clear to me – attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859)
The ways of G-d are hidden and mysterious; they have never been crystal clear to man. Only a finite and mortal god can be fully known and understood by finite and mortal man. But who will worship a mortal god? By the same token, only an infinite and immortal mind can fathom the infinite and immortal G-d. But who among us has an infinite and immortal mind?
Given these obvious facts, it is difficult for a mortal mind to fathom the ease and eagerness with which other mortal minds presume to reveal divine secrets. For whenever some major catastrophe strikes, there are always those who leap forward with reasons and explanations. Whether it be a bridge collapse, a massive air disaster or a plague, inevitably a religious leader stands up and tells the world precisely why this happened.
Tsunamis, we are informed, strike certain countries because they disregard G-d; floods inundate populous areas because they are flooded with vice; hurricanes devastate cities because of overweening pride. It is as if every catastrophe were to have its own menu of cause and effect. For those who have direct lines to the heavenly throne, nothing that G-d does is mysterious or hidden. His actions are always readily understandable; simply check the menu.
THE HAITI catastrophe is the latest case in point. Even before the bodies were buried, the omniscient ones girded their loins and informed the world why all this took place. One well-known evangelist announced that Haiti was struck because of its idolatrous practices. Not to be outdone, others have added their voices to the celestial choir, each with his own explanatory litany.
One wonders: If these revered gentlemen are so certain that Haitian behavior caused the earthquake to occur, why did they not warn Haitians on January 8 – days before the earthquake – rather than on January 13, the day after? An early warning would have been very helpful, and would have underscored their credentials as true prophets. The essential difference between a genuine prophet and a would-be prophet is that the genuine ones – a Moses, a Jeremiah, an Isaiah – declared in advance that abominable behavior would lead to abominable results.
Israel, for example was warned by the prophets that their abandonment of G-d would result in G-d’s abandonment of them, and that destruction, exile and dispersion would follow. They spoke of such things before the disaster. Today’s omniscient ones contribute their insights after the tragedy.
None of this is to deny that such tragedies raise legitimate questions in the minds of mortal man. The issue of theodicy – how to explain divine providence in the face of human catastrophe – has troubled mankind from time immemorial: Where is G-d in all this? How can a good G-d permit such disasters in His universe? Why the Holocaust?
These are not new questions. Mankind has always grappled with them. An entire book of the Bible – Job – deals with this issue. No less than Moses himself, and Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Yannai, and others in our sacred literature have all struggled with the ultimate questions of good and evil. Why do innocent people die? Why are there tragedies? – painful and agonizing questions from those who want to believe in a just G-d.
For it is perfectly legitimate to ask, to probe, to want to know why. There is in fact a certain majesty and nobility in man’s persistent attempts to plumb the depths of the infinite. But this must be done not with arrogance but with humility before the one above, in full realization that – although there surely are ultimate answers – these answers may remain hidden from us, just as G-d Himself is hidden from us.
The wannabe contemporary prophets who make confident pronouncements about His hidden ways would do well to consider what R. Yannai declares in Avot 4:14: It is not in our power to understand the tranquility of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous – to which Rashi adds, “The matter is not given over into our hands, but is in the hands of the Holy One blessed is He.” Even Moses, the greatest of all prophets – he who speaks with his creator face to face, and whom G-d describes as “in all My house he is the trustful one” – is not granted the answer to this ultimate question.
In Exodus 33, Moses asks G-d, “Show me Thy ways” and “Show me Thy glory.” What Moses is really asking, according to the sages in Berachot 7a, is why the righteous suffer, and why the wicked prosper.
G-d’s reply is shrouded in mystery. Go down, He says, into the cleft of the rock, and there, after My presence passes by, “you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). That is to say, man might dimly perceive why certain events take place long after they have occurred – after G-d passes by – but mortal man can never fully comprehend the hidden ways of how He chooses to administer His universe. As the psalmist phrases it in 36:7, “Thy judgments are a great deep…”
Were Moses alive today he would not have to bother descending into the bedrock of the universe, there to receive a fearsome lesson in theodicy. He would need only to read the daily papers, dial up some Internet blogs or read the pronouncements of some of our omniscient contemporary religious leaders, and presto! he would arrive at easy answers to all his questions.
TO BE sure, whenever disaster struck Jewish communities, rabbinic leaders tried to strengthen faith and lift spirits by calling for repentance and greater adherence to G-d and Torah. But these were not efforts to enter G-d’s infinite mind. Rather, they were classic attempts to reestablish connections with G-d where the connections had been badly frayed. Whenever disaster strikes, says Maimonides, one must cry out to G-d and not ascribe events to anonymous forces of nature (Ta’aniyot 1: 1-3). But he cautions that His actions are not subject to a one-size-fits-all formula. Those who attempt to enter the mind of G-d, he asserts at the end of Talmud Berachot (citing Bava Kama 91a) have “plunged into mighty waters and emerged with only a broken shard in their hands.”
In the fullness of time our unanswered questions will be addressed. What seems today like a random, kaleidoscopic whirling of events will slow to a halt and will reveal, to all who have the patience and the faith to wait, a divine pattern and purpose. This is what the genuine prophet Zecharia meant when he said, in 14:9, “On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one.” Until then, G-d’s ways remain concealed – even from those who would claim to have full access to His divine chambers.
Reprinted with permission from Cross-Currents.com. This article was also published in the Jerusalem Post. The writer was rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years, and is the former editor of Tradition magazine. His latest book, Tales Out of Jerusalem: Seven Gates to the City will be published next month.