Rabbi Michael Barclay
Why Are We Suffering and What Can We Do?
If a person sees that suffering befalls him, let him examine his deeds (Bavli Berachot 5a) Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding… Pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self (Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”)
Why don’t we always get what we want from God, and why does God even allow people to be in pain? How can we be seeing such suffering, anti-Semitism, and hatred being directed at the Jewish people by organizations like BLM, let alone from within the Jewish community itself (it is truly shocking how many Jewish organizations are officially endorsing BLM, even though it is committed to Israel’s destruction and Jewish persecution)? As we see the hatred growing around the world; the craziness of ideas like defunding police, etc.; and the increase of anti-Semitic acts such as the modern “Krystallnacht” Los Angeles Jews experienced last month as part of the BLM riots…the natural question for all of us has to be, “how and why is this all happening?”.
This coming week, we will observe Tisha B’Av (Wednesday eve July 29-Thursday eve July 30), a holiday where we fast for 25 hours, and remind ourselves of our historical suffering and losses, specifically the destruction of both 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 that would give them everything they want and would never allow pain and suffering to even exist. But as always, the answers to challenging questions like these can be found in our sacred texts.
Both the Torah portions of this week and next (Vaetchanan and Eikev respectively), as well as the Book of Lamentations, which is the biblical book related to the holiday of Tisha B’Av, give us detailed explanations 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 will come 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. Lamentations clearly illustrates that when we act badly, then bad things happen to us. Verses from the portion are often used by agnostics and athiests 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.” (Deut. 8:15) 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 have done as an act of vindictiveness. Instead, God always tries to help us grow through a combination of rewards and chastisements. The challenges we are facing today are a result of our own behavior, and an opportunity for us to rise our of our self-imposed darkness into a greater light.
So what have we done that we are experiencing this hatred?
The Talmud (Bavli Yoma 9b) asks the question of why the Second Temple was destroyed, and it answers “Because there was purposeless hatred among the people”. It is this same “purposeless hatred” that we find today…and maybe we need to repair that before this craziness can really be stopped.
Judaism has always valued the respectful debate between opposing opinions: recognizing that I may disagree with someone without condemning them as individuals. This type of respect was also a foundational aspect of American politics. But for the last 11 years, this respect has almost entirely disappeared…being replaced with a baseless hatred. No longer do Democrats just disagree with Republicans: they all too often “hate” them. President Trump could have the greatest idea in history, but those on the left will condemn it simply because it came from him. Baseless hatred of people has overtaken the debate of ideas.
And sadly, this has become exemplified in the Jewish world. Since Trump’s election, many Jewish families have refused to even sit down together at a Passover table because of their hatred for each other’s politics…and that hatred magnifying into a hatred for each other. All too often, Jews are considering other Jews who disagree with them not as “wrong”, but as “evil”.
It is seen in every aspect of the American Jewish world. Our synagogue is providing live in-person High Holiday services this year (and also will be streaming online for those in other locations or who are not comfortable attending services in person). It is a choice based on a number of factors. We are fine with those individuals and organizations who disagree with our actions, and respect their individual choices…but the same cannot be said the other way around.
Our temple, as well as myself and my family, have received regular emails and anonymous phone calls of hate. Most of these have been from Jews, and some of have even expressed their prayer that we should “die and rot in hell” because we are choosing to have live services. We have also received hate from other clergy, who have expressed their anger that we are making this choice and it is putting unfair pressure on them, and how evil we are to offer live services for the High Holidays. Hate mail, based on nothing except a disagreement in how we choose to observe Judaism, has become a regular occurrence.
This is the type of “baseless hatred” the Talmud speaks about, and from a theological point of view, it is the reason we are experiencing so many challenges in the Jewish world. When Jews forget that we are united; when we forget that we are a common tribe and faith in spite of our different opinions; when we forget to respect the one who disagrees with us and not treat them as an “enemy”…when we forget all these things, we can almost be guaranteed that we will suffer challenges until we remember our true priorities. As happens repeatedly in the Book of Judges: when we do what is wrong, then oppressors come and hurt us until we go back to acting right and righteously.
Are you tired of the hate and anti-Semitism? Frustrated with Black Lives Matter and their proclaimed hatred of us, and saddened by how many young Jews support the organization without even knowing their manifesto? (For information about the challenges with BLM, a link to its actual manifesto, and how as Jews we should be proclaiming that “all lives matter” and that all racism is a spiritual issue, please see Racism is a Spiritual Issue, and All Lives Matter. Are you ready to have peace in our society, and mutual respect?
Then you can find the answer in Judaism this week.
Although most non-observant Jews typically ignore the holiday of Tisha B’av, this year more than any in my lifetime, it is important that we all observe the holiday. The fasting during the holiday (which is not allowed if you have any physical issues) is a time for us to contemplate how we have baselessly hated other people, especially other Jews. It is a time for us to take a deep look inside, and see how we have treated those we disagree with as “enemies” rather than friends whom we disagree with and respect. And it is a time to commit ourselves to no longer acting in a hateful manner to anyone, but rather to demonstrate respect and caring for those we are debating.
As we enter this holy time period, we must also remember that through the challenges of the last number of months, we also have the opportunity to become better human beings. By honestly taking an accounting of ourselves and our actions, we can rise to greater heights through righteousness; and in so doing, become spiritual lights that bring peace into the world.
As we are taught, “Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen; had I not sat in the darkness, He would not have been a light for me” (Midrash Tehillim 22).
Let us all rise together through the process of honest self-examination during this holiday; and become lights for the world as we choose to fight the darkness not with anger and more hate, but with faith and respect.
May we all have an easy fast, and be blessed to see the pains of the past be subjugated to become blessings of the future.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, CA (NerSimcha.org); the author “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Lit. Press); and can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com. To follow his writings, commentaries, and videos; follow him on facebook at Rabbi Michael Barclay