Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Are You my mother? (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah)

Several years ago, researchers at Baylor University in the US published a study entitled, "American Piety in the 21st century".[1] They asked Americans to identify what kind of Gd they believed in. The five choices were:
  • Authoritarian (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in punishing ways),
  • Benevolent (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in helpful ways);
  • Critical (meaning that Gd is not involved in the world, but Gd watches and judges and will reward and punish eventually);
  • Distant (meaning that Gd started the world, but doesn't care about it or run it);
  • And atheist.
When the results were broken down by religion,[2] Evangelical Protestants largely believed that Gd is authoritarian. Mainline Protestants and Catholics were split. And among Jews, the dominant choice was D – 41.7% of respondents who identified themselves as Jewish believed that Gd is distant – not watching, not caring, what happens in our universe.

Tanach presents the story of a man who came to agree with that 41.7%, a man who lived in a place called Utz; his name was Iyov.

You might have heard of Iyov; here's a quick outline of his story:
  • Iyov enjoys a large family and magnificent wealth, and is extraordinarily devoted to Gd.
  • Off in heaven, a malicious malach charges that Iyov only serves Gd because Gd protects him. Gd permits the malach to test Iyov; the malach takes almost everything away from him.
  • Iyov is visited by various people who try to justify his suffering. He rejects their claims; he curses the day he was born, arguing that there is no justice, that Gd has outsourced the running of the universe and isn't paying attention. He demands to sue Gd for negligence.
  • Gd then addresses Iyov personally, challenging him: What do you know about running a universe? Where were you when I created the world? What are your powers?
  • At which point Iyov apologizes for his words, accepting Gd's response. Gd then gives Iyov a new start in life, with great rewards.
The book invites many questions – I intend to discuss more about it in a class during the break on Yom Kippur – but for now I want to ask just two:
  • First: How does Gd's "answer" to Iyov address his questions, and why does Iyov accept it?
  • And Second: Iyov seems to reject Gd throughout the book, proving that the malach was right. So why does Gd reward him at the end?
I would like to re-write the book of Iyov, and answer Baylor's 41.7%, with an idea that goes to the heart of Rosh haShanah and the mitzvah of shofar.

People usually believe that the sole problem of the book of Iyov is Iyov's question to Gd: "Why do good people suffer?" But as we have seen, that question is barely answered in the book! Instead, Professor Yaakov Klein of Bar Ilan University[3] suggests that a second central problem of the book of Iyov is the malach's question to Gd: "Why do people follow Gd?" Do human beings revere and serve their Creator to win fabulous prizes, or for something else? And this is answered in the book, by Iyov himself.

The book makes clear that Iyov is loyal because he believes he has a relationship with Gd. When he suffers without apparent reason, he assumes there is no relationship; like the 41.7%, he decides that the Creator is allowing proxies to run the world. Angry and hurt, he rejects this distant Gd. Then Gd responds that He is indeed watching and running the universe, that He is aware of a man named Iyov and his fortunes and misfortunes. Gd declares, "I halt the oceans where they are, I harness the mightiest beings in existence, and I still have time to pay attention to you. I won’t tell you how justice works, but I will tell you that I am watching, and I care." That's Gd's response to Iyov.

Iyov accepts Gd's declaration because that's all he ever wanted – it confirms what he believed at the start of the book, that Gd is watching. Iyov didn't need great rewards, and he didn't need to know the mechanics of Divine justice. What Iyov needed was to know that Gd was watching, listening, caring, at all. Whether Gd is Authoritarian, Benevolent or Critical is irrelevant; once Iyov knew that Gd was not Distant, he was satifisfied.

And because Iyov was satisfied with that response, because Iyov showed that what mattered to him was not fabulous prizes but the existence of a relationship, Gd rewarded Iyov – because with his actions Iyov answered the malach's question in the most positive of ways. The malach had claimed that human beings revere Gd for selfish reasons, and Iyov answered him: We do it because we believe in a relationship. We do it because we believe that Gd cares about the events of our lives. Because even if Gd is מונה מספר לכוכבים, able to number the stars, He is first הרופא לשבורי לב, the healer of broken hearts.[4]

Iyov is not the only human being in the Torah to want Gd to see us, to be near us; the biblical narrative is replete with such people:
  • Avraham serves Gd not for reward, but as אוהבי, the one who loves Gd.[5]
  • After the Golden Calf, when Gd indicates He is going to separate from the Jews, Moshe dictates to Gd, "אם אין פניך הולכים אל תעלנו מזה," "If You won't be our intimate, leave us here in the wilderness!"
  • In our haftorah this morning, Chanah warns us, אל תרבו לדבר גבוהה גבוהה. As Abarbanel explains, she insists, "Don’t say that Gd is elevated and far away from us; Gd is near at hand!"

Our need for proximity to Gd is fundamental to Judaism. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,[6] this is one of the "irreducible and stubborn facts" of Judaism, a first principle which must be accepted in order for us to discuss anything Jewish: being one of the 41.7% is to be out-of-step with Jewish theology. The Jew demands Divine immediacy, that Gd pay attention.

And in parallel, it is an irreducible and stubborn fact of the Torah's conception of Gd, that Gd longs to be near us; Gd does not want to be of Baylor's 41.7%.
  • Thus HaShem commands the Jews to build a משכן, a sanctuary in their midst, in which He will dwell. And so the Kinos of Tishah b'Av describe the effect of the loss of the Beis haMikdash not only in terms of our human suffering, but in terms of Gd suffering, כביכול, as a newly homeless, rootless being, ונהיית כצפור בודד על גג, like a lone and lonely bird perched upon a roof.
  • Thus HaShem commands us not only to perform mitzvah actions, but ואהבת, to love Gd, to contemplate Gd, to draw near to Gd.
  • Thus the Talmud tells us that when a single person is studying Torah, Gd is present.[7] When just one individual grieves for the death of a good person, Gd counts and stores the tears.[8] When a single person prays in silence, Gd listens.[9] הקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים, Gd longs for our prayers.[10]
If this relationship is not the reason we were created, it is, at the least, fundamentally necessary to, and inextricable from, the Divine plan.

This is the way Gd planned our existence, from the beginning – to live with Gd, in Gan Eden. When HaShem created the plants and animals and people of this world, He used the same terms to describe all of them. But He did not address the plants and animals. He only addresses humanity. As Rav Soloveitchik explained,[11] "Gd takes [this] man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will."

Indeed, this need for human-Gd proximity is a major reason why large numbers of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, wander the earth searching for Gd, migrating from philosophy to philosophy trying to find Gd. It's like the classic children's story, "Are you my mother?" The baby bird knows he has a mother, wants his mother, and travels the world trying to find her.

It's also one of the causes for angry atheism. Like Iyov, people have sought Gd, and they have been disappointed and frustrated. They are turned off by perpetual Divine absence and perceived Divine abuse - and they are also frustrated by the gross improprieties of human beings who claim to represent Gd, and this drives them the other way, to insist that there is no Gd at all. They have been hurt and let down.

And as a tangent – this one is not only on Gd, it's also on us. Us, the rabbis, and us, the visibly observant Jews. If our behaviour isn't beyond reproach, or if we conflate the laws and lessons of Torah with superstition, or if we are self-satisfied and arrogant, if we fail to inspire the confidence and faith of those around us, then we are the reason why people are unable to find their mother, we are the reason why people become hostile, we are the reason why people choose Option D. They believe Gd is distant in part because people who visibly select Options A, B and C portray a relationship with Gd that is repugnant. But I digress.

Torah is meant to be a way for us to find that relationship with Gd. As the Talmud Yerushalmi says, the goal of Torah is to bring us into that relationship with Gd.[12] It's what Gd wants. It's what we want. And it's what Iyov wanted, all along – not to have his material needs met, but to enjoy a relationship.

To return to Rosh haShanah: This relationship with Gd is a central theme of the day; Rosh haShanah is the day that tells us that there is a relationship.
  • It's not a human-centred day of self-analysis, for us to review our pasts and make resolutions for our future. We spend our day in הכתרת מלך, crowning Gd, in human consideration of the Divine.
  • It's not a Gd-centred day of distant decrees, taking place in some throneroom up in the heavens. It is a יום הדין, a day of Divine consideration of human beings in judgment.

In the very structure of our musaf of Rosh haShanah, our liturgy sends this message:
  • We remember our King – מלכויות.
  • And our King remembers us – זכרונות.
  • And as the Talmud[13] says, ובמה? בשופר. Nowhere is this more clear than in the shofar, forever the symbol of the encounter between human being and Gd. From the ram substituted for Yitzchak on the altar, to the shofar blast when the Torah was given at Har Sinai, to the shofar blasts of Yovel every fifty years, to the shofar of mashiach, the ram's horn represents human and Gd meeting together.

When we hear the shofar blown in a few minutes, let us remember that this is the central point of Rosh haShanah: rejecting Option D. During shofar, we occupy these moments alongside Gd, because Gd is here, and listening, and thinking of us.

Last year at this time, I proposed that shofar is not about verbal exposition; rather, shofar is an experience; existimare aude, "dare to experience." For some of us, the mood of that experience will be apologetic. For some it will be grateful. For some it will be mournful. For some it will be a moment of petition. That's up to each of us to formulate; the key is that we recognize within ourselves that which our ancestors saw when they canonized the book of Iyov in Tanach: That the irreducible and stubborn fact of our Jewish existence is against the 41.7%. Our Creator connects with us, and we connect with our Creator.

May we merit to connect with our Creator, to build that relationship, today and for the rest of the year, to live lives which convince others that there is such a relationship, and so merit a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a great year, and then to live a great year.

[1] http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/33304.pdf
[2] Pg. 32 of the pdf
[3] Olam haTanach, Iyov, pp. 9-10
[4] Tehillim 147:3-4
[5] Yeshayah 41:8
[6] The Influence of Western Medieval Culture Upon the Development of Modern Science, http://www.inters.org/Whitehead-Western-Development-Science. And see R' Eliezer Berkovits in Tradition 3:2 (1961) "What is a Jewish Philosophy?", who attributed the phrase to Galileo. I know no basis for attributing it to Galileo, but I am channeling R' Berkovits's use of the concept to define a " Jewish" philosophy here.
[7] Avos 3:2, 3:6
[8] Shabbos 105b
[9] Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1
[10] Chullin 60b
[11] The Emergence of Ethical Man, pg. 5
[12] Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7, Eichah Rabbah Pesichta 2, based on Yirmiyah 16:11
[13] Rosh haShanah 16a


  1. Thank you so much for this inspiring post. May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year.

  2. Excellent. But the tension between G-d as transcendent King and G-d as being close, especially this time of year is a major liturgical theme. As, indeed, you pointed out in your recent shiur on the pizmon "B'motzaei Menucha." So I think the survey question with which you began was, in so far as the alternatives were presented as exclusive, not correct or at least not in accord with Jewish theology.

    Let me take the opportunity to thank you for much learning over the year and to wish you a g'mar chatima tovah.

  3. Basya -

    I'd agree re: the survey; it does seem rather too black-and-white for any theology, including that of Judaism.
    Thanks for learning with me!