What is God’s Relationship to Suffering and Evil?
As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.
I imagine that God weeps at the sufferings of the whole disharmonious natural world. If God does weep with us, it is with a heart that we wrote into the story. We invented God’s heart, our greatest contribution to God’s tale.
I cannot know why suffering and evil exist. No work of fiction is free of it. It is the stuff of timeless story. However, our greatest spiritual resistance to suffering is metaphor and interpretation. To interpret is divine. God breathed that ability into us.
A traditional Jewish ritual response to nightmares is called “the Amelioration of a Dream” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55b). The ritual requires three friends to declare that the dream be interpreted for good. The text explains that all dreams have a hint of prophecy; however, all dreams can be interpreted positively. In fact, the prophecy of the dream lies partially in its interpretation. The dreamer says three times, Adonai shamati v’yareiti—God, I heard what You made me hear and I was frightened. Three friends respond with the prescribed words, “Choose life, for God has already approved your deeds. Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.”
We dream, but we are also dreamt. We are written, and within that story, we write. It is said in Torah and our liturgy: U’vayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash, “On the seventh day God ‘rested.’” Translators struggle in translating vayinafash, suggesting, “On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.” Vayinafash, however, literally means God “ensouled.” On the seventh day God rested and created spirits. Out of God’s dark, void chamber before Creation, God suddenly dreamed a dream/nightmare and based on that dream/nightmare, the world was sketched and animated in full color. We are the dream/ nightmare. We have little control over the outcome except to interpret it for the good.
A congregant had a double mastectomy and did not know how to love herself afterwards. She would stand before a mirror naked, seeing herself as grotesque. We sought a metaphor that would help her to see herself in a new light. We imagined her body as a sacred altar and that her breasts were the sacrifices that redeemed her life. Years later she told me that now when she stands before the mirror, she thinks “sacred altar” and has found a love for herself inside that she thought had disappeared. She reinterpreted her nightmare through metaphor.
Rabbi Zoe Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA.
Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.