Saving the World

When I took this job at Ask-The-Rabbi, I didn’t realize I was supposed to be G‑d’s defense attorney. But for whatever reason, people intuitively see religion as a comfort pillow, a set of answers to questions that will set everything alright so that they can go on living within a stable, explicable world knowing that some rabbi at the other end of their mobile device will have an answer to whatever’s gone wrong.

“Enough griping, Freeman. People are cold, wet, hungry and exhausted. They’ve lost their homes, their possessions—their whole future has been abruptly and violently pulled out from under them. And they want you to explain to them how, despite all external appearances, Hurricane Sandy was an act of G‑d, and not just a freak incident of some indifferent entity called nature.

“C’mon, Freeman. Torah’s gotta have an answer to that.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Does a Good G-d Make Bad Hurricanes?”

Why do bad things (like hurricane Sandy) happen to good people? It’s a very old question, as old as the Book of Job and probably older than that. Given the fact that we’re still asking the question after so many thousands of years, I don’t think we’ve ever been given a satisfactory answer, or at least not one that satisfies everyone.

Or at least the answer is only satisfying when we’re not the ones who are cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted. The minute we’re the ones who have lost our homes, our possessions, and have had our whole future abruptly and violently pulled out from under us, the answer becomes moot and the question is all we have left.

“Who are you God and what the heck just happened to us down here?”

Rabbi Freeman’s answer is probably not going to satisfy a lot of people. In fact, it’s likely to make some of you reading this angry.

Creator makes earth. He likes the earth He made. It’s good. He makes Adam. He likes the Adam critter, too. He’s very good. So He puts the Adam in a beautiful garden with dates, almonds and figs for the picking, lovely rivers in which to bathe, a controlled climate system, caressed gently by a warm, distant ball of fire by day, and a not-so-distant semi-reflective device by night. He split the Adam in two, because loneliness was deemed “not good,” and blessed them to be fruitful and multiply, as stewards of this beautiful garden custom-designed just for them.

But the Adam critters are not satisfied with tending to someone else’s garden in which they have no say and just have to follow the rules. The Adam critters have this need to feel their own sense of being, to have their own lives; in a certain way to be like the Creator Himself. And they let their Creator know that, with just one mischievous deed—and a lot of blaming.

So the Creator says, “Okay, you want your own lives. Not a bad idea. But then you’ll need to have your own world as well. So I’ll give you a wild, bucking-bronco world, and you’ll have the responsibility of taking care of it, and taking care of yourself inside it. And then you too will have some of the sense of being a Creator.”

And with that the Adam critter, which is us, is sent out of the garden, “to work the earth from which he was taken.”

If you have faith and trust in the God of the Bible at all, regardless of whether you take the “Adam and Eve” story as allegory or as rock hard fact, you eventually come face-to-face with the realization that the world is a difficult, dangerous, and often unpredictable place because we human beings made it that way. We even asked for it to be that way.

Yeah, according to God or Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on God, it’s our fault.

More accurately, the world is the way it is, not saying that it’s bad or horrible or crazy, because people wanted to be in charge of the world instead of God. The universe as it exists today is the consequence of that human desire. It would be like letting my three-and-a-half year old grandson walk from his house to his pre-school this morning rather than letting his mother drive him there and make sure that he’s inside and safe before leaving. The consequence of letting my grandson have his way would almost certainly result in great hardship up to and including death.

But it’s not really that way for us. It’s not as if God simply abandoned us because we wanted to have our way. Christianity and Judaism differ on how they see the world post-Adam and Eve’s “garden experience.” Christianity sees a world wholly out of control, spinning wildly down the drain into degradation and sin, and with our only hope being the return of Jesus.

Judaism sees a world that is neither good nor bad but just different now that people have a greater hand in running the place.

What I’m not going to say is that it’s just nature, things like this just happen. Like Maimonides writes, people who say “things just happen” are cruel people. Why cruel? Because they’re robbing from others the opportunity to lift themselves up, from entire communities the opportunity to transform. To realize that “things happen” because there’s a Creator, and we are His creations with an assignment. We’re here to make this world, and all those in it, know how G‑dly it is.

Torah is not G‑d’s defense portfolio. It’s His instructions to us, telling us what we’re here for and what we’re supposed to do right now. Every mitzvah you do, from wrapping tefillin to lighting candles before Shabbat, is included in instructions to fix the world, right now.

(I just want to remind everyone that Rabbi Freeman is a Jew speaking largely to a Jewish audience…he’s not telling non-Jews, including Christians, that part of our instructions from God to fix the world include, for instance, wrapping tefillin…as you’ll soon see, we have plenty of other “repair work” to do to keep us busy.)

The “fall” (although Jews don’t think in those terms) is an opportunity, not a curse. It’s an opportunity for human beings to fulfill our desires in terms of the level of involvement we want to have in God’s Creation. It’s an opportunity for us to participate in tikkun olam or repairing the world, one act of kindness at a time. It’s also the opportunity to participate in repairing each other, starting with ourselves.

Our beliefs exist as security blankets, masking the pain, tarnish, and dissatisfaction we feel with the pursuit of an ideal. However, as Pete pointed out, the only way we can believe is by sustaining a certain level of unbelief. For example, I can say I believe in a God who heals, but I will still visit the doctor when I am sick. It is this element of unbelief that protects me, as Pete writes, “The point here is that the unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them” (The Problem with Unbelief). And what is the horror of our beliefs? As a child I learned this horror all to easily, as my childhood friend’s mother slowly withered away, refusing to visit the doctor because she “believed God would heal her.” My friend lost his mother, his father lost his wife, and all because their beliefs were believed in their ideal, and not in the reality of their trauma.

-Krista Dalton in her blog post
Peter Rollins’ “Security Blanket” and Why I Study Judaism

Part of my comment to Krista in my response to her blog post was to say:

The Bible (this is just my personal belief) is where God has allowed human beings to contribute and be a part of His Word in a concrete way. People have been allowed to inject their personalities, perspectives, and human vulnerabilities into a framework that interacts with God on a level that cannot be readily examined but only experienced in some sort of metaphysical way. How is the Bible “inspired” by God? Where does God leave off and the human writer begin? There’s no way to know for sure. But as you say, it is beautiful.

I think that’s also true of life in general. We’re alive because God gave each of us the opportunity to participate in repairing the world. We can choose to be part of that effort or completely ignore it. We can participate by recognizing God as our partner or not believe He exists at all, and instead, follow our own course toward helping victims of hurricane Sandy or a friend who has lost his mother.

But it’s an opportunity.

Every single day we experience many hundreds of minor pleasures in both the material and spiritual aspects of our lives. We can learn to focus on all these common occurrences and recognize the kindness of the Almighty.

As an exercise in appreciation, try for one hour to feel grateful for every single thing you find yourself doing. When you read, be grateful you can see and read. When you walk, be grateful for the use of your feet. When you talk, be grateful for the ability to communicate with others. For a full hour do not take even the smallest action for granted. Be aware of every detail of what you can do. Anyone who does this daily for even a short time will have a much greater appreciation for everything he does.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #636, Be Grateful for all You can Do”

If you think the world is unjust, unfair, harmful, cruel, or just plain crazy, be grateful that you have the opportunity to do something about it. You can complain about how banks rip people off, how your guy didn’t get elected President, or about anything else you watch on CNN, or you can do something about the things you don’t like. You can’t magically turn the world into Paradise (remember, we walked out of Paradise under our own free will), but you can take stock of your resources and use them to make a difference in your little corner of creation.

Here’s how Rabbi Freeman worded it:

Right now, the best thing you can do is get a truckload of generators, power cables, heaters and sandwiches, drive into one of those seaside neighborhoods with a few friends, and yell out, “Anyone need help? Anyone need a generator or heater at cost price? Anyone need a few hands to shovel out the sand?” Then go into apartment buildings and knock on doors.

If you can’t, and even if you can, you can help out our men and women on the scene, integral members of those communities, some of whom have lost everything, and yet are dedicated to get their entire community back on its feet. One way to do that is through our Hurricane Sandy Emergency Relief Fund.

But please don’t stop there. Like I said, it’s a deeply intertwined ecosystem in which every mitzvah of the Torah has its vital place in healing the world—and here are ten great starting points.

There are days when all we can do is cry out to God in despair and doubt, and with our last bit of courage and hope, pray there is a God out there who is listening and willing to help. Then there are days when we look in the mirror and realize that we’re alive today in order to be the answer to someone who is crying out to God in despair and doubt, praying there is a God out there who is listening and willing to send someone like you to help.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that each of our lives is comprised of forty-two journeys, corresponding to the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

Some of those journeys have pleasant names. Others don’t sound so nice. But none are inherently bad.

It is only that you may have to dig deeper and deeper to find the purpose and the good within them.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

So find the purpose and help and be grateful that you can.

This is my 600th meditation and counting…

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8 thoughts on “Saving the World”

  1. I enjoyed reading Rabbi Freeman’s answer. Thanks for sharing.
    While I’m here, I would like to say I’m sorry for referring to your returning to church as a “step backwards.” I am eating my words now, as I have begun to consider a re-entry myself, if only to connect with more Godly-minded people, since my entourage is very secular. But let me ask you the same question I ask myself, How are you going to deal with Christmas and Easter, etc.?

  2. I appreciate what you’ve said and no worries.

    As far as Christmas and Easter are concerned, my current plan is to not attend those particular services and associated events. So far it seems as if everyone knows my wife is Jewish and a non-believer, so it’s possible people will simply draw a certain conclusion from my occasional absence and continue on. If asked, I will probably say (truthfully) that I haven’t celebrated Christmas and Easter for many years and usually observe the “Jewish” festivals with my wife.

    Who knows? Maybe next fall, I can interest a group from the church to come over and share a meal in our sukkah. :-)

  3. Another beautiful, well worded blog. Thank you so much.

    I have been thinking of your other posts, (if this is not the place to write I assume you can delete it) but I would like to take the opportunity here to discuss your “position” within your world of religious beliefs. As a practicing Jew, one who tries to keep Shabbat, observes Kashruth, attends daily services and works actively within my synagogue community, I see your “problem” of finding your space as one of community. Many times I pray in synagogue and don’t seem to be really focussed. In my mind my religious observance is equal parts of community and prayer. The community is a big part of my beliefs – some of your posts make it seem like you are without a community. Your wife does not seem to share your love of Judaism and you are therefore lonely in your home community. Your church doesn’t share your love and the Jewish community doesn’t share your community either.

    Your point of view differs from mainstream, established religious organizations (whatever they are) but you seem to be a loving and caring person. As you wrote “You can’t sit on a razor blade” and that is where my heart feels your pain. You are missing a community – you can’t go to services on Sunday, after Shabbat and say “Shavua Tov” (Have a good week) instead you are left with no one to celebrate. I think I understand – you are seeking those of like mind and have not found them. I can’t help you find them but your writing makes me part of your community and I hope that helps.
    Looking forward to your continued writings.

  4. Hi Bob,

    This is a fine place to discuss my position on religious beliefs.

    I think my wife does have a love for Judaism but she doesn’t always share that with me, probably because of the “dissonance” she experiences with me being a Christian and her being a Jew. I’m hoping that when she retires (which should be fairly soon this time), she will be able to devote herself again to her faith, attend shul, and daven with her community. Her job is quite demanding and she’s been making many sacrifices for the sake of our children and grandchild.

    I’m rather an “odd duck” as you’ve gathered from my blog posts. I’m not Jewish but I’m drawn that way. However, having faith in Jesus, I am a Christian and have come to the conclusion that it would be disingenuous for me to seek a community other than with people like me (if anyone is actually like me). So far, the church I’ve been attending for the past couple of weeks is promising for many reasons, but going twice does not make me a part of that community yet.

    As you say, there will be some things I’ll probably never be able to share with people in church (and a few things I won’t partake there) but it’s not a perfect world. If I attended synagogue again (I haven’t for many years), I don’t doubt I’d feel just as “out of place” there as well. That’s what kept me from integrating there those many years ago. I’m in a different place mentally and spiritually now, but my window of opportunity has since passed me by.

    Actually, I think within their own context, the church I’m going to is learning something of a love for Judaism, but the process, as I experience it, is a very subtle journey. For instance, the Pastor, who lived in Israel for fifteen years and who teaches Hebrew classes at the church, is teaching the members about Moses in his sermons, but using the book of Acts (chapter 7) to do it. That’s certainly encouraging compared to how other churches approach Moses and the Jewish people.

    Thank you for being part of my online community through this blog. Even having made some recent decisions about my faith practice, I find that living the life I do is still very much “running on the razor’s edge,” not really being this or that, but “slicing” my own path through the wilderness.

    Peace to you and your’s, Bob.


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