What do we do when our reality is shaken to its very core? When the ground under our feet is destabilised to such a degree that we feel like every ounce of certainty, every grounding principle has been shattered? What do we do when the belief in a God who has chosen us, who loves us, who cares for us, who protects us and our covenant with Him has become a growing chasm of doubt in our minds? Sound familiar? Many of us may face this reality on a personal level. Suffering/pain/the problem of evil can be framed simply as the gap between the way we expect the world to be and the way the world is in reality; between the ought and the is. When we think a teacher ought to be just and then is not, when we think someone in a position of authority - a politician, a religious leader, even God - ought to act a certain way but in reality does not; when we think the world ought to be fair and it isn’t, it is very hard for us to reconcile those feelings of betrayal, victimhood and disappointment. And as a nation we have faced it many times before on a national scale. Our proximity to the Holocaust means that its theological aftershocks are still being felt today. Three generations has not dulled the rising theological doubts and quandaries about God. The Churban bought similar ones. Where was God when his people were burning alive? Where was God when his Temple was being forsaken? Where was God when mothers were forced to consume the flesh of their own children to survive? The only difference between them and us is that the despair of abandonment was arguably matched by the effervescence of revelation in the creation of the state of Israel. For those of the Churban generation such a reality was not the case. SO how did they cope? How do we cope with adversity or the problem of the ought and the is? What is the Torah’s recipe for dealing with these challenges?
The first human narrative in the Tanach grapple with this problem: When Adam and Chava sin God asks them ‘איכה - ayeka’ – eikha’ - same words. When we question the 'why' God responds with "where are YOU?". They are thrown out of Gan Eden they are faced with a reality that is far from ideal. They need to grapple with adversity at the highest level. Adam reaction is indeed to respond to the 'ayeka' call by assuming responsibility of his situation. He names his wife – Chava – life. Adam chooses life, chooses partnership, chooses to reframe his reality.
In the second narrative Kayin too, is faced with adversity. The favoured son, the one who has been given everything on a silver platter, who has never faced a moment of adversity, suddenly has to wrestle with sentiments alien to him – feelings of rejection at his sacrifice not being lifted by God feelings of resentment to his brother Hevel at being ‘chosen’ over him, feelings of bewilderment at why the world has not handed him a ‘fair’ reality, and feelings of betrayal and anger at God for doing what he did without reason or explanation. His face falls and he becomes angry. God then turns to Kayin and rather than offering him a logical explanation, he offers a few ambiguous words (Genesis 4:7)
ז הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ
It is a hard verse to translate and the commentators struggle to understand its meaning. It usually translates something similar to this: And the LORD said unto Cain: 'Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? “If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.”
However, if we translate it literally it would actually sound something more like this: “If you make good you will be lifted (or lift up) and if you do not make good you sin will always stand at your door and you will be drawn to it and you can reign over it (you have the control/choice).
It is noteworthy what God DOES NOT say – he does not EXPLAIN why he did not lift Kayin's sacrifice or WHY Kayin should not be angry. Instead, he seems to say to Kayin “you will not ever necessarily know WHY but I am giving you the key to unlocking the HOW". How do you cope with a reality that is not ideal with adversity you did not choose, with tragedy that you do not understand? The answer says God, is that you ‘make good’, or in Victor Frankel’s words , you make meaning. You choose to find something to live for, you reframe with a positive outlook, you seek the good in a situation and in others and you actively move away from sin, from victimhood towards a life of agency which you control and rule over. As humans there are many things we cannot choose, but we can always choose our attitude, the way we frame our reality. We can Always choose victimhood or agency.
I believe this is an archetypical narrative for all future responses to tragedy in our national history – for example how the Rabbi’s grappled with the problem of the Churban and more recently how we responded to the Holocaust.
When the temple was burning and tens of thousands of Jews were dying Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to escape from Jerusalem. On the way he met Vespasian, the Great Roman General, who granted him one request. Rabbi Yochanan asks for Yavneh and its sages. Many people question the wisdom of his decision. Why didn’t he ask for the temple to be rebuilt? Why option B? The greatest chasm between an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’ is knowing how to respond. In that moment using his judgement and instinct he knew he would not get Jerusalem so instead he opted for option B – he sensed the importance of the sages of Yavneh for what would eventually become Rabbinic Judaism – the future and survival of Judaism. The challenge is can we move out of victimhood and despair to RESPOND WITH RESPONSIBILITY? Can we see what’s NEEDED rather than what we WANT? Can we do what the moment demands rather than what we believe should be the ideal?
As the forerunner to Rabbinic Judaism he understood the demand of the moment. How did that generation of Sages respond to tragedy? Theologically they leaned on the model of sin and punishment because it gave security, hope and certainty to a people who had lost everything. However in their actions I think they modelled a very different paradigm of response to tragedy. They modelled a response that Rav Soloveitchik, Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Berkovits, Rabbi Greenberg and many others speak about in a post-Holocaust world – they modelled the response of אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ. A response that says – we don’t know why exactly but the best we can do and the best we must do is to ‘make good’ – to reframe, to build resilience and positivity and not to be drawn towards sin and victimhood. The best we can do is become responsible agents of change. Having lost their national independence and their land, the people had become passive – they no longer had the priestly service – the very foundation of most ordinary Israelite’s religious life. They no longer had the promised land - the foundation of most people’s Jewish identity. The Rabbis understood that they had to expand and reframe. They did this through the oral law. God was now more hidden which meant humans had more agency and freedom. Though freedom could not be found in their national mission, they found it in the interpretive gesture of the oral law, in their commitment to Jewish continuity, the Jewish home, Jewish law, loyalty to their God, to acts of chessed to others, and to having Jewish children. In all these areas the people moved out of victimhood and gained agency. The classic response to Jewish tragedy is to renew life. They did it in the time of the Churban, we did it 75 years ago after the Holocaust and we must continue to do it today. It is and remains the only response that can sustain us as jews, as human beings and as a global community.
The question that must be asked when we face a gap between the world as we think it ought to be and the world as it is, when we encounter unprecedented suffering and despair is not how I can understand this cognitively but rather: can we act in the zone of uncertainty with compassion, empathy, responsibility, resilience and insight without losing sight of the end goal, the ideal, the ought? Can we respond with the WHAT without knowing the WHY?
Kayin is an example of someone who did not, Yochanan ben Zakkai is an example of someone who did. Modern day Israel is also of an example of a people who did and continue to do. Lets build on this legacy.
I finish with the timely and beautiful words of my teacher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
“If you were to ask what our response to the Holocaust should be, I would say this: Marry and have children, bring new Jewish life into the world, build schools, make communities, have faith in God who had faith in man and make sure that a voice is heard wherever evil threatens. Pursue justice, defend the defenseless, have the courage to be different and fight for the dignity of difference. Recognize the image of God in others, and defeat hate with love. Twice a year, on Yom ha-Shoah and the Ninth of Av, sit and mourn for those who died and remember them in your prayers. But most of all, continue to live as Jews. When I stand today in Jerusalem, or in a Jewish school, or see a Jewish couple under the wedding canopy, or see parents at the Shabbat table blessing their children, there are times when I am overcome with tears, not in sadness nor in joy, but in awe at this people who came face to face with the angel of death and refused to give it a final victory. The Jewish people live, and still bear witness to the living God.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: Crisis and Covenant).