Parashat Haazinu – Liberal Judaism Thought for the Week

This is my contribution to Liberal Judaism‘s Thought for the Week (revisiting some material from the Book of Job which I taught with an adult study group and raised many questions):

The portion Ha’azinu may be one of the oldest poetic pieces in the Torah, its origins are unclear but in the context of our Torah it is, quite literally, Moses’ swansong. The text in the Torah is set out in two columns emphasising the poetic style and parallelism contained in the verses. The fourth verse of our portion is familiar to many, if you have attended a Jewish funeral service, because it contains the opening passage of what is known as the ‘Tzidduk Hadin’:

The Rock, His work is perfect;

for all His ways are justice;

a God of faithfulness and without iniquity

just and right is He.

Deuteronomy 32:4

The Tzidduk Hadin is really the theodicy of the funeral service – the justice of the Divine decree. In other words, the actions of God and the decree (if that is how we interpret it) of death are righteous – even if we cannot understand them.

Of course, this strand of theology, which at its heart confronts the question of why there is evil in the world if God is good, has a long history. The biblical Book of Job was named, by Saadyah Gaon in the 9th/10th Century , the Book of Theodicy. The Book of Job, a story in which a righteous man suffers personal loss and physical pain, including the death of his family, is unique and challenging in the bible.  After his loss, Job does not lose faith but challenges God why he suffers. His friends offer little consolation, they try to find a reason for his suffering. We are left, at the end of the text, even after Job encounters God, none the wiser.

At Rosh Hashanah we read of Abraham’s  trial in being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is silent, not even a word of questioning comes forth from his lips when he hears God’s command; Job on the other hand spends a great deal of the book protesting his innocence demanding to present his case before the ‘judge’, requesting fair trial.  As a person experiencing extreme suffering Job is far more realistic and human a response.  Perhaps that makes him less righteous than Abraham (as some rabbinic texts argue).  I rather feel that the Book of Job is just one of a long list of texts which articulate protest against God, which call God to account. Job’s protest of his pain and anguish is closer to our likely human response than Abraham’s willing acceptance of God’s trial.

There are things that happen in life for which we either do not have access to the explanation ‘why me’ or there is not even an answer.  Throughout the Book of Job, there is a repeated attack on the emptiness of words and the multiplication of empty words. The author seems to say, words, though the best means by which we have to explain the world around us, will never satisfactorily explain the suffering of life.

So what is our response to suffering?  Should we protest?  Absolutely.  Biblical characters, rabbinic teachings, medieval teachings, Chasidic teachings, the Liberal prophetic imperative, protest has been a staple part of the Jewish response to inexplicable pain throughout history.  Is God responsible?  Maimonides would argue that we cannot possibly know God’s mind or understand God’s actions and it is tantamount to blasphemy to suggest otherwise.  Along with that, I am not a believer in the interventionist ‘man in the clouds’ who meddles in my life making it harder or better.  We make of life, with its trials and tribulations, successes and celebrations, what we can as individuals and in our communities.  I think it far more likely that God weeps when we inflict hurt on one another, or is sorrowful when we are afflicted with suffering, than is causing the pain in the first place. If you ask, ‘doesn’t your resolution make God impotent?’ then you bring us right back to the starting point of theodicy and the reason why at a funeral, in quoting our Torah portion this week, we can only affirm God’s righteousness, little else.

There is, though, a response to suffering which many writers on the Book of Job argue for – the book is not about God at all.  It is about us.  It is about the way in which we treat one another when confronted with the heart wrenching story of one man’s life.

The human response to those suffering, to those who feel tested, is a measure of our humanity.  We are judged in our behaviour as we react to the ‘unbelievable’ and inexplicable suffering of our fellow human beings.  If we become insensitive and divorce ourselves from compassion towards the lives of others; if we do not appreciate the scandal of inexplicable suffering; if we consider ourselves to be so clever as to make arrogant claims about God’s ways; if we feel no indignation…Then we have failed and the victory is with the accuser (HaSatan) who opens the Book of Job with a challenge to God.

In the words of Job, “we are but dust and ashes”, let us pray that for the few fragile moments we are put on this earth we make an impact on it for better and that we may be blessed with understanding and compassion and friends and family who are understanding and compassionate.  So may our suffering seem lessened and our joy greater.

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