“Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?”
— Janis Joplin
Why don’t we always get what we want from God, and why does God even allow people to be in pain? Last week we observed the joyous holiday of Tu b’Av, a Jewish holiday all about love, intimacy, and partnership. While it is optimistic and beautiful, there are some people who go through that holiday and can only focus on their not having their beshert, their life’s partner (yet). Two weeks ago, we observed Tisha b’Av, a holiday reminding us of our suffering and losses, specifically the destruction of the First and Second Temples. While the Talmud teaches us that the cause of the destruction was sinat chinam, gratuitous and baseless hatred, that simple answer doesn’t satisfy many people who yearn for a “loving” God, a God who would give them everything they want and would never allow pain and suffering to even exist. A God who would make it easy for us to find our life partners, and who would ensure that joy is the prevalent experience of Life. These “seekers” wish to understand how this all powerful God that is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and benevolent (also called “the Three Os and a B”) can also allow suffering to take place in so many ways.
Some of the answers to this question of how to integrate God’s love with life’s pains are found in this week’s portion of Eikev.
Eikev is a detailed explanation of what will happen if we listen to God’s commandments, and what will happen if we don’t. It is the ultimate example of “What goes around comes around.” The text clearly promises us that if we observe the Law, we will have all sorts of blessings; and conversely, if we do not, then we will have a plethora of challenges and lives filled with pain. Verses from the portion often are used by agnostics and atheists to demonstrate that the God of the Bible is vindictive, angry and should be rejected. But this simply isn’t true, and a careful reading of the text clearly shows how much God truly loves each of us.
“You should know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so HaShem, your God, chastises you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). God is compared to the ultimately loving parent. While there are a lot of parenting techniques, there is a consistency among parents that good behavior is rewarded and inappropriate behavior is chastised so that the child can grow to be a better, ethical, aware and responsible individual who knows right from wrong.
This is a key insight in this portion: God never “punishes” us for what we’ve done as an act of vindictiveness. Instead, God always tries to help us grow through a combination of rewards and chastisements. When viewed this way, these chastisements can be understood as an expression of great love.
A friend once told me that he had heard from a rabbinical school professor that “Judaism is not about feeling good; it is about becoming better.” It gives us guidelines so that we can excel spiritually and in all aspects of life. I have always made the comparison that an athlete is pushed and put in pain by his coach to become stronger and compete better. If his pushing were not for this higher goal, one might think of the coach as a cruel sadist. But when you realize that the intensity of the workout is with the ultimate goal of the athlete becoming better, then the coach who inflicts pain is considered a loving ally. The understanding of the coach is relative to a greater understanding of the circumstances and situation.
In the same way, a parent teaches a child to eat their dinner before dessert so that they get the nutrients they need before filling up on sugar. From the perspective of the child, this can seem cruel; but when the circumstances are understood more fully, we all realize that it is more loving for the parent to have prohibitions and boundaries so that the child will grow up healthy.
The 21st century seems to be filled with a lot of people believing in “entitlement,” and that often carries into their relationship with God. They want what they want, and they want it now. If God doesn’t give it to them, or causes challenges to happen in their lives, they reject God entirely. According to some studies, more than 85 percent of American Jews are uninvolved in synagogue life and distanced from their faith. Perhaps one large reason is that they are not seeing the bigger picture, trusting that like any loving parent, God “knows better.” Rather than seeing their chastisement as a teaching for them to live better and more full lives, they choose to walk away from Judaism entirely.
In just over a week, we begin the month of Elul, the month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a month of love, and the name of the month is an acronym for “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li,” (I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine — Song of Songs 6:3). Rather than walking away from Judaism and God, this upcoming month is a time to walk forward and embrace the Divine parent who loves us so fully and completely. Return to the relationship, choosing to have the faith that even the pain that God sends us is given in love.
What does God ask of us. “Only to be in awe of God, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
May we all return to loving God fully and to personally experiencing God’s love for each of us, to returning to Jewish ways and practices, and to receiving God’s gifts and blessings in joy and gratitude.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
July 29th, 2021
20th of Av, 5781