Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message: January 11, 2023.

MULTIPLE CHOICE EXAMS

 

Illustration: Genesis 15 (www.livingwordnra.com)
 
            Are two answers stronger or weaker than one?
            One might think that two are stronger than one. If someone were to refute the first answer, the second one could still serve.
            On the other hand, if one answer should be truly adequate, why would we need the second one? — this way of looking at it is sometimes the more persuasive.
            When we are responding to a catastrophe, or even to a grievous, if expected, loss, we often resort to multiple answers. Why did we lose a loved one? You hear numerous answers: God needed her in Heaven; She is in a better place; The good die young; Dying is only one step in a continuing journey--  and, as we  know, there are other tropes that we turn to for such a situation. I am not rehearsing these answers to derogate them, but rather, to show that we instinctively deploy multiple answers when we feel, deep down, that no one answer fully heals the pain behind the question.
            The Bible contains examples of this multiple choice approach to answering the truly thorny existential questions of evil and human finitude. Why do people die? God created us to live for only 120 years---- God answers our prayers, but the answer is not always the answer that we want----- God’s ways are just but often inscrutable---- God will banish death when the Messiah comes---- an arsenal of answers.
            This week, we come across a different kind of multiple-choice answer. The question is, “Why did God allow the Israelites to suffer generations of enslavement?”
            We already heard one answer to this question, back in Genesis 15. In that chapter, God entered into a covenant with Abraham, promising to be a shield to our forefather, to make him the ancestor of nations, his descendants as numerous as the stars, and to give his Israelite offspring the title to the Promised Land. But God also foretold a period of enslavement: “Know well that your seed shall be strangers in a land not theirs and they shall be enslaved and afflicted four hundred years. But upon the nation for whom they slave, I will bring judgment, and afterwards they shall come forth with great substance… and in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” (Gen. 15:13-14, 16)
            The answer leaves much unaddressed.  Why did Abraham’s descendants need to suffer enslavement? If they are unable to possess the Promised Land for four generations, for some reason related to God’s forbearance regarding the sinful behavior of the current occupants, the Amorites, does it follow that the only alternative is for the Israelites to be enslaved? Why could they not have lived freely in the desert as did their cousins, the Ishmaelites? This chapter sounds like an ex post facto theodicy based on the history that did happen. It boils down to the assertion that God is both just and inscrutable. Therefore, the suffering of the Israelites was part of some “vast eternal plan” (to quote Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof).
            I do not doubt that this answer sufficed for many generations of Jews. It works less well for Jews after the Holocaust. To say that the suffering we have endured is somehow balanced by our reward, and that alternatives would have been worse, is neither falsifiable nor provable, of course. The question is whether it is plausible.  For our contemporary, post-Holocaust generation, it is less plausible than it had been for earlier Jews.


Illustration: My Bible Journal March 2015 (lh3.ggpht.com)
 
            But clearly, even our ancestors of the Biblical Era were not totally satisfied with that answer—because they formulated a second one. That answer is found in Exodus: “It happened when a long time had passed that the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their pleas from the bondage went up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25)
            This answer suggests—although it does not state explicitly--- that the duration of the enslavement was somehow the fault of the Israelites. At first, they “toughed it out.” They did not groan and pray early in their enslavement, but only when the first Pharaoh who had enslaved them died, and the enslavement endured into a new reign. This text suggests that as soon as the plea of the Israelites reached Heaven, God acted.
            I have heard rabbis sermonize on this text. Their take-away message is that you ought to pray, rather than to suffer in silence—as if suffering in silence is somehow tantamount to a flaw in one’s faith. But that is not, in fact, the Bible’s own judgment. Didn’t Aaron suffer in silence when his own sons died on the inauguration day of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:4)? The Bible does not condemn him for that!
            From a theological standpoint, this answer leaves me uncomfortable too, albeit in a different way from the first answer.  The Israelites were culpable, it suggests, because they didn’t cry out aloud? This is too close to “blaming the victim” for me to embrace it wholeheartedly.
            We have two biblical answers, then, and neither one fully quiets the perplexed voice of questioning within me. What am I to do? What are we to do?
            I have a positive take-away from this, and an appreciation of what the Bible is trying to teach us. I believe that certain questions are always going to be with us.  There will not be easy answers to make those questions go away. The Bible gives us two answers, and sometimes a greater number, because no single text fully works.
            Faith, therefore, is not having all the answers.  Faith is being to live with questions that are stronger than the individual answers that our tradition generates.
            I can embrace that kind of faith.  Indeed, that kind of faith strikes me as a mature one. Immature faith is afraid of tough questions and tries to banish them.  Mature faith takes those tough questions and uses them to curb the theological arrogance of the fundamentalist.
            Why does God permit evil to endure as long as it does? When you get to Heaven, you can have a direct conversation on that subject. Until then, let your mature faith steer you to a life not without doubt, but nonetheless with commitments to the good, to the just, to the fair, and to the kind. Amen.