Good and Evil in the Way We Look at Things

Do you consider the good and ill you experience as being correlated with your own goodness or mischief?

It's a strong proclivity in humankind, the tendency we have toward making a coherent story out of everything we experience and perceive - so that even windfalls or misfortunes beyond our control get rolled into personal narratives of cause and effect. "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could; so somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good," as the wonderstruck love song from The Sound of Music goes.

For the problem with such rationale and reckoning, see the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, under Holocaust Theology.

Our sacred scriptures, however, seem to set us up for a tit-for-tat theodicy.

Take, for example, this week's mirror-image blessings and curses, set forth as hinging upon fulfillment or non-fulfillment of the commandments at the outset of the reading: not to make idols, to keep the Sabbaths, and to venerate God's sanctuary.

If yes -

"I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred shall chase ten thousand..." (Leviticus 26:6-8)

If no -

"You shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues ... I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose ... I will loose wild beasts against you ... and your roads shall be deserted." (Leviticus 26:17-22)

It's not as though our ancient ancestors were oblivious of the problem of undeserved suffering - witness the book of Job. But God's thundering, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you have understanding!" (Job 38:4) although true to the experience of being small and mortal in the face of infinite mystery, is hardly an explanation for the pious person in extremis.

Our Talmud's all-purpose instruction for the sufferer, "If he has searched his deeds [and has found nothing amiss], let him attribute [the suffering] to neglect of Torah" is all too pat - who can ever study enough? And as to the rejoining recourse recommended for the diligent student, the proposition of sufferings that come from divine love - "For the one the Eternal One loves, the Eternal One reproves" (Proverbs 3:12) - there is something distastefully treacly and solipsistic in the notion of deliberating internally as to whether one's a slacker or a darling.

When people leave religion in disgust, it is perhaps most often in reaction to the concept of a God who gives "to each man according to his ways, as the fruit of his doings" (Jeremiah 17:10), which is what the prophetic reading paired with our Torah-portion this week says the Eternal One does.

I am left thinking about two moments in the company of two learned Holocaust survivors who each had something poignant to say on this subject.

Firstly, I recall the devotion and the vehemence with which my teacher, Professor David Weiss Halivni, when he finally spoke in public about his spiritual life in the shadow of the Shoah, took up a teaching by the great Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov (1740-1809), turning a passage from an injunction against idolatrous practices, "Do not do thusly with the Eternal One your God" (Deuteronomy 12:4) into a searing prohibition of being a knee-jerk yes-man for the Divine. You must hold hands with God, Professor Halivni insisted, "like a trolley-car, if you've ever been in a trolley-car, you may think the conductor is in charge, but the power comes from above." Yet, as with a parent with whom you hold hands, you don't always have to agree. So, regarding the Holocaust, "Don't justify Him, don't make Him right."

I might even go so far as to say that it is a purpose of religion to imbue the creature with the dignity of standing up to the Creator in such a way - certainly, this was one of the most noble human moments I have ever witnessed.

Also, I recall Rabbi Morris Shapiro, an alumnus of the great Chachamei Lublin Yeshiva, explaining to me why he did not like replacing the traditional morning blessing of God "who has not made me a gentile" with a more politically correct "who has made me an Israelite." Is it an automatic thing, being an Israelite? I remember Rabbi Shapiro demanding this rhetorically. No, he explained, it is something one has to strive at constantly. And then Rabbi Shapiro spoke of how every day in the concentration camps he would look at his tormentors and find strength in giving thanks for at least not being as they were - but that, too, as a mere starting-point, never a guarantee or a carte blanche to resign from a constant effort to be what the term Israelite should connote.

You can do yourself grave spiritual injury by internalizing evils beyond your control that befall you, by making them your fault. You can perhaps even efface the divine image in yourself that way - and, in that case, it is perhaps better to opt out, to reject that kind of calculus. On the other hand, you can injure the world and those around you by neglecting to consider what is in your control - and that is no less a question of cultivating or effacing the divine image in humankind.