Forty short days after God revealed Himself to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments, they made a Golden Calf. True, only some of the people were guilty of the actual deed, with the rest only guilty of silent acquiescence. True, the people were disoriented by the prolonged absence of Moses on the mountain. Still, their precipitous fall in such a short time shocks us.
Just a short while earlier, there is already a harbinger of this Jewish fickleness. With the spectacular images of the splitting of the sea still vivid in their memories, they walk through the waterless desert and ask (17:7), “Is God among us or not?”
We see in these events that people can experience God intimately and then quickly “lose sight” of Him. Such is the nature of the free will with which the Creator endows mankind. He creates an area where His presence is sufficiently “distant” or “hidden” to allow what our Sages refer to as the milchemes hachaim, the battle of life.
The ambivalence of God’s perceived presence, alternating between proximity and transcendence, is singularly manifest in the first blessing of the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer. “Blessed are You, O God, Lord of our forefathers, Lord of Abraham, Lord of Isaac, Lord of Jacob, the Power, the Great One, the Mighty One and the Awesome One, the Supreme Power who bestows true kindnesses as Possessor of everything, Who recalls the kindnesses of the patriarchs and brings a redeemer to their descendants for the sake of His Name with love. O King, Helper, Savior and Shield, blessed are You, God, the Shield of Abraham.”
Let us look carefully at the progression. We begin with God’s intimate relationship with us through our patriarchs. The next term, the Powerful One, refers to God as the exalted power, followed by expressions of three logical categories that arise when considering any subject¾the nature of the entity in itself, in this case, the Great One; His relationship to us, in this case the Mighty One, might being an expression comparative power; and finally, our reaction to Him, in this case, the Awesome One.
Immediately afterwards, however, we refer to Him as the Supreme Power, stating in effect that our perception of Him is inadequate, that He is transcendent. But this is immediately balanced by the next statement, that He “bestows true kindnesses,” a manifestation of His proximity. We then anticipate the misconception that His giving diminishes Him and declare that He is “the Possessor of everything,” beyond needs and limitations. In other words, transcendent.
The blessing again returns to God’s intimate relationship with us through His providence in history; He is with us from our beginnings with our patriarchs to our ultimate destination in the Messianic era. But this proximity is immediately tempered by the next words, “for the sake of His Name.” He does it as a result of His own transcendent perfection. And then we swing right back to proximity by declaring that He does it “with love.”
In its conclusion, the blessing identifies God as King, more accessible than the remote Power. The three measures are again identified, this time for the King. Helper delineates His essence, Savior his relationship with us and Shield our resulting state of being protected. Applied to God as King, these attributes express a more intimate relationship than those applied to God as Power.
This constant flux between proximity and transcendence, visibility and invisibility, is the dynamic which makes free will possible and gives meaning to our lives.
Scientists have observed that man is uniquely positioned in the universe. He can perceive and understand the microscopic world, estimated as 10-25 of his size. At the same time, he can relate to the cosmic realms of the universe, estimated at 1025 times his size. If he were only a factor of 10 smaller or larger, it is thought he would be unable to fathom the opposite extreme of the universe.
This positioning corresponds to the moral spiritual universe as well, where God’s revelation is balanced between being distant and proximate, creating the optimal environment in which man can exercise his free will. Man has the freedom to oscillate between accepting the Torah and forty days later worshiping a Golden Calf.
The structure of the first blessing addresses another issue as well. Our Sages were wary of our forming false conceptions of God. The Rambam devotes much of his Guide for the Perplexed, his major philosophical treatise, to demonstrate that we can only gain true knowledge by stripping away false conceptions. We may say that in the first blessing we say as we stand before God, our Sages repeatedly and carefully jarred us from thinking we fully know Him.
What ways did Moses want to be taught? The Talmud explains (Berachos 7a) that he wanted to understand how divine justice and providence interfaced with free will. In the language of our Sages, why do the wicked sometimes prosper while the righteous suffer?
Explaining God’s justice, one of the thorniest issues in religious philosophy, is a topic discussed extensively in the Bible, Talmud and Rabbinic writings.
A related passage in the Talmud (Berachos 60b) provides a useful framework in which to view this issue. The Talmud seeks Scriptural support for the requirement to bless God when bad things happen, just as we must bless Him when good things happen. Four opinions are given.
Rabbi Levi quotes (Psalms 101:1), “Kindness and justice, I will sing to God.” In other words, I will sing not only when I receive kindness but even when facing judgment.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni quotes (Psalms 56:11), “With God I will praise [with the] word; with the Lord, I will praise [with the] word.” I will praise God (the Tetragrammaton, the Name signifying the Attribute of Mercy), provider of benevolence. I will even praise the Lord (Elo-him, the Name signifying the Attribute of Strict Justice), sender of tribulation.
Rabbi Tanchum quotes (Psalms 116:13), “I will raise a cup of salvation and invoke God’s Name. Although I encounter affliction and grief, I will call out God’s Name.”
The Rabbis quote (Job 1:21), “God has given, God has taken away, may the name of God be blessed.”
It is quite possible that there is no fundamental dispute among these Sages of the Talmud, that each is addressing a different aspect of the same phenomenon (mar amar chada umar amar chada velo pligi). With respect to God’s providence, we can categorize unfortunate life events in three ways¾how we view God’s actions, how we view God’s relationship to us as a result of those actions and how we react to them. The first three views cited in the Talmud correspond to these three perspectives.
Rabbi Levi states we must bless God regardless of whether we see His actions as kindness or justice. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni states we must bless Him regardless of whether we perceive Him as a compassionate or a strict judge. Finally, Rabbi Tanchum’s verse proves we must bless Him regardless of whether our responsive emotional state is joyous or sad and grief-stricken. The Rabbis, based on the Book of Job, transcend the principles of the first three. They endorse a type of surrender to the Omniscient One, for man is incapable of forming any judgment other than that God is the source of all “giving and taking.”
The Talmud concludes the discussion with an anecdote. Encamped for the night outside a town where he could find no lodging, Rabbi Akiva has the seeming misfortune of successively losing his candle, rooster and donkey. “Kol mah de’avid Rachmana letava avid,” he reassures himself. “Everything God does is for the good.” The following morning, he discovers that raiders had ransacked the town; his life was saved by the loss of his light, rooster and donkey, any of which might have betrayed his presence nearby.
Upon consideration, we can find allusions to the basic realms of human activity¾physical, emotional and intellectual¾in Rabbi Akiva’s three losses. The donkey represents the physical world; the word for donkey, chamor, is cognate with chomer, material substance. The candle represents the intellect. The rooster, a winged creature of the heavens tethered to the earth, represents the emotional heart; it is there, our Sages say, that the lifelong battle between the intellect and the earthly instincts rages.
Although Rabbi Akiva could have initially perceived these occurrences as misfortune, he remained confident despite the veil that obscured the “good” in the inconvenient events while they were occurring.
Appropriately, after the story of Rabbi Akiva, his disciple Rabbi Mayer comments, “Man should limit his words before God.” The interpretation of this may be that man should not excessively complain or petition God, since he may unwittingly be asking to change a providence already perfectly tailored for his ultimate good.
This then is the philosophical answer to the puzzle of our suffering when introspection reveals no immediate explanation. Since we do not have the Creator’s infinite knowledge, we are not qualified to draw final conclusions about difficult times.
God’s final response to Job’s suffering underscores this point (Job 38:4,12; 40:8). “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation? Tell Me if you know understanding . . . Did you ever in your life command the morning or teach dawn its place, to grasp the edges of the Earth and shake the wicked from it? . . . Will you discredit My judgment? Will you declare Me wrong in order to make yourself right?”
We, in our ignorance, are only left to bless God for the bad as well as the good, secure only in our faith that all God does is for the good.
Rabbi Akiva’s attitude toward suffering is further evident in a famous passage in the Talmud (Makkos 24a). While walking in Jerusalem, the Rabbis and Rabbi Akiva heard the rumble of Roman legions and saw the ruins of the Temple Mount. The Rabbis wept bitterly, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. As the ensuing conversation reveals, the Rabbis were focused on the present calamity, while Rabbi Akiva saw the tragic events as another step in the fulfillment of the prophecies that promised to bring the Jewish people from their present nadir to the zenith of triumphant redemption.
These different perspectives are actually manifest in the different words they use for “why” in their questions. Rabbi Akiva asked the Rabbis, “Why (mipnei mah) do you cry?” But the Rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva, “Why (lamah) do you laugh?” Rabbi Akiva used the words mipnei mah, literally “in the face of what,” because he knew their reaction was related to the awful present they faced. The Rabbis, on the other hand, used the word lamah, literally “toward what,” because they understood that Rabbi Akiva’s laughter could only be caused by his vision of the future.
Incidentally, the appearance of this story in Tractate Makkos is illuminating. According to Rav Tzadok Hakohein, our sages judiciously placed the Agaddic passages in tractates appropriate to their themes. The theme of Makkos is rehabilitation through punishment. The story about the punishment that has befallen the Jewish people also bear the implicit promise that it would result in rehabilitation and redemption of the Jewish people through exile and suffering.