Cain kills Abel; God asks Cain where is his brother; Cain claims not to know, and challenges God by proclaiming he is not Abel’s keeper. God replies that the blood of Abel is calling out. The Midrash boldly suggests an alternative reading: the blood of Abel is yelling at (or against) God, accusing God of standing by and permitting the injustice. (Genesis Rabbah 22:9)
As has been pointed out with respect to the Shoah, we are quick to ask where God was; less frequently do we ask where was Humanity.
As Holocaust survivors, my grandparents have never held God responsible for the deaths of family members or for their earlier years of torment. They do, however, consider their lives and their descendants miracles of God. They’ve never claimed to be more righteous or deserving of God’s attention or intervention; but they accept their gifts of life as miraculous nonetheless. For them, every day — despite the aches and pains, the losses of loved ones and the toll of the mundane — is a miracle.
Just off of Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut, I wrestle with my seemingly conflicting understanding of God. In reflecting on the Shoah, I say God was not accountable, except to the extent that God made room in the world for our free will. That conscious act created the possibility for the distinctiveness of good versus bad, of right versus wrong, of exultation versus disappointment. Put another way, in making room for evil, God created the possibility for us to live lives of meaning, as opposed to merely existing.
And yet, when it comes to the birth of the State of Israel — as is the case of the birth of my children — I proclaim that God was “in the room.” Despite the many sleepless nights that follow those births, I abide in the amazement of the miracle, as my grandparents do and as we as a people do, every single day.
I personally cannot believe in a God that would desire the suffering of the innocent or the young, of family or friends. I choose to believe in the God that invites me to choose life over death, blessings above curses. My God is the God that abides in the blessings I bring when I offer comfort, strength and healing energy. My God is the God that is revealed when I come together in community to offer prayer and to mobilize in action. My God is the God that is felt in the hearts of the suffering when they feel me acting as their keeper.
Do you wish to help a friend, but don’t know how? Do you wonder where God is in the suffering? Choose life. Recite Psalm 121 daily at 7:30pm with and for Rabbi Drill as she, with God’s and our help, experiences a refuah shleimah (complete healing), and add a psalm of healing for those in your life who are in need. Give someone else the gift of life, and donate blood. Perform an act of kindness in the name of a loved one. Remember someone you love. Abide in the amazement of something you once called a miracle.
Shabbat shalom, and a speedy recovery, my friend,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Despite hearing the call, not everyone up and left home. My grandparents were among the lucky ones. They heeded the call, though they did not know where their journey would take them. That decision would ultimately save family members and the generations that would follow. If Israel and Sonia had been told in that moment that they would one day number like the stars, they might not have believed you. Today, as my grandfather once again shared tidbits of his story with me, he recounted the many times he cried thinking that his world was coming to an end: a father losing his job; a young boy sent off to a distant city to attend yeshiva; a journey with wife and brother in tow out of Poland; life in the displaced persons camp; an arrival in the United States. There were no guarantees of a happy ending, no assurances of survival. Yet, in retrospect, my Zeidy believes that none of the blessings he now enjoys would have been possible without those moments over which he cried.
Faith is not synonymous with the belief in miracles. Just ask Abraham and Sarah! Their faith was not blind and without question. They did not rely on Divine Providence alone to make the future promised them come to fruition. So much of their fate was dictated by the choices they made and the actions they undertook, sometimes at great peril to themselves and their progeny.
My grandparents don’t assert that God chose to grace them above anyone else. They don’t believe that God interceded to save their family from the harm that befell so many others. But faith in the power of working hard, loving well, doing good and taking responsibility for one’s decisions–and consequences thereof–can certainly bring one closer to the belief in a Divine plan. At least it has for them.
The tension between our beliefs in Divine Providence and our own free will is constantly played out in the text of the Torah and in the narrative of our lives. Is God testing Abraham and us, leaving matters in human hands? Or is God the all-knowing One who is manipulating us as part of a grander scheme? I don’t have an answer to this question, but this much I know: If my grandparents’ lives were a matter of God’s intervention for some greater purpose, I have thanked God many times over. And if their journey has been one of their own making, with God kvelling all the while, I hope their legacy will be instructive for many generations to come.
As for my grandparents and me, every “hello” is more precious than the last, and every “goodbye” is more difficult. So I have chosen to resolve the tension between fate and free will, between Divine plan and human agency, as only a grandson of Yisrael ben Avraham v’Sarah can: May we extend every “hello” as an offer of peace, a moment of appreciation, and an opportunity to change someone’s world for the better; and may we express every “goodbye” as a prayer for peace, a moment of reflection, and an invocation of God’s greater plan in our lives.
Hello, goodbye and shalom,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The Torah’s narrator tells me that two sons of Aaron the High Priest brought a strange fire as an offering to God, an offering not commanded. A fire goes forth before God and devours Nadav and Avihu. Moses, in a moment of poor pastoral care, blames Nadav and Avihu for their failure to sanctify God when they had the opportunity to do so. Our rabbinic commentators, relying upon the juxtapositioning of the verses that follow, accuse the boys of being drunk or arrogant. All these readings justify one troubling presupposition: God willed the death of the boys.
Sorry, not my God. Even if the boys did something wrong, “God does not desire the death of the sinner.” And if the Torah’s narrator and commentators are just grasping at straws, trying to assign to God something beyond our limited comprehension, what kind of just God takes innocent life? How can I possibly believe in a God who would claim–or even permit the slaughter of–a million children’s lives? And if I pass off all that I don’t control as “bashert” (predetermined or meant to be), then what happens to my free will and ability to grow, learn, change and make a difference?
My God is a God that dwells within me. Perhaps there was a time in the early history of humanity, when God had to intercede in the course of history, make a big splash, split a sea, or bring food from the heavens to earn our faith. But that was before God made a covenant with the Jewish people that expressed God’s will for this world and the directions to fulfill it, making room for us to show our potential as humans created in the image of the Divine.
My God is the God that has blessed me with strength, resilience, perseverance and humanity. My God is the God that has made room for me in the world, empowering me to act, to influence, to show humanity its greatest potential.
The wonder of it all is that I still believe in the possibility of miracles. I can’t rely only them to ward off the consequences of our actions or to change the natural course of nature, or even to control the measure of randomness that exists in this world. I trust in those miracles, nevertheless, to keep me humbled and in awe, hopeful and striving. Israel’s establishment was such a miracle in my eyes; but it came about with sacrifice of thousands of lives whose agency enabled the miracle to happen.
I can’t blame my God for that which I don’t understand; I can’t accept everything as God’s will. My God mourns with me; hurts with me; cheers me on to get it right; rejoices with the display of my empathy, compassion and humanity. My God believes and anticipates with full faith the coming of my redemption. And even though I may tarry, my God believes in me, and waits.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
A past-president of our synagogue, Nohra Leff, once said to me, “I don’t just believe in miracles, I EXPECT THEM!” What a great way to go through life. Expecting miracles means that we engage in behaviors that ultimately create an environment where what some perceive as the “miraculous” becomes that much more possible.
In the fall of 1995, I took a job as part-time cantor at the OJC. Still a full-time student and father of two young boys, I treated the job like it was the fulfillment of a dream. A year later, I was negotiating my first contract to be Student-Rabbi and to stay on as Rabbi after my ordination. I was advised by people “in the know” to avoid such a commitment. After all, the synagogue had gone through so many rabbis in its relatively short history, and I “could do better,” according to the more experienced. Three years later, another past-president, Michael Scolnick, would ask me how long I thought the honeymoon could last. I am glad to say that, even in my 20th year, I still feel like we met just yesterday. Okay, maybe just the day before yesterday.
When I speak to rabbinical students in their final years at JTS, I try to emphasize that every synagogue community has the potential to be a place that can be transformed and re-dedicated to Torah, service and deeds of loving kindness. That can only happen, however, if the rabbi is willing to see him or herself as spending the rest of their professional life serving that one community. If we invest ourselves in a plan believing that we have only two years to work toward achieving our goals, then we doom ourselves to failure; but if we invest ourselves planning for the long term, we can create an environment where the seemingly impossible is indeed achievable.
In the midst of Chanukah, we consider the nature of miracles, and the role that “dedication” (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) plays in making one day’s worth of oil last for eight, or in leading one small band of soldiers to victory against overwhelming odds. I am so proud of what we have achieved and how we have continued to grow as a Conservative egalitarian community. Beyond our impressive numbers, we have attained a level of learning, service to the broader community, participation and spirit of which we can all be proud. The dedication that has brought us to this place in our history, however, has also given us the wisdom to understand that we must continue striving to build and to deepen relationships; to reach in to our membership and to reach out to those still searching; to develop more pathways into our OJC community, into a life of purpose and meaning, and into relationship with God; and to lookto the future with faith, optimism and vision. Some people might call our success a miracle. Perhaps we have witnessed something miraculous as a community; if so, the miracle only happened because of the wise people–presidents, boards, volunteers, congregants, professionals and clergy–who were looking for one, who expected one, and who acted to create the environment where such a miracle could take root.
Chag Urim Sameach,
Happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Craig Scheff