You shall not test HaShem your God as you tested Him at Masah. – Devarim/Deuteronomy 6.16
I have been thinking about writing this for a day or two, but the immediate trigger was Chaya Lester’s piece on Hevria today, The Miracle Gemach, which is the latest in a line of miracle stories on Hevria. I don’t want to attack Hevria (it’s a great site doing great work and they’ve published one of my pieces in the past), but this type of thing makes me feel uncomfortable.
Part of it is a dislike of miracles and especially of asking for miracles. I think religion should be about meaning and serving God, not about what God can do for me. George Orwell says (in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool), “If you live for others, you must live for others, and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself.” I think that applies even (no, especially) when the other you are living for is God.
But that isn’t why these pieces upset me so viscerally. As I mentioned in my comment on Chaya’s article, I have never experienced a major miracle in my life (what, thanks to Chaya, I’m now inevitably going to think of as a $16,000 Miracle as opposed to, say, just catching the bus when I thought I was going to miss it). Worse, I feel cursed. I think I spent much of my childhood lonely and miserable, although it is hard to tell what is projection of later feelings backwards. Certainly I spent much of my adolescence and pretty much all of my adult life struggling with serious mental health issues and extreme loneliness and misery. So, I feel if God gives some people such grace (if that isn’t too Christian a word for a Jewish blog), why does He not show some to me? Worse, why does He punish me so? Am I so wicked? Are those other people so good? I don’t know.
I don’t want to go down the route of theodicy. I know all the reasons Judaism and Christianity have proposed for why bad things happen to good people, none of them entirely satisfactory. I follow the third century sage Rabbi Yannai who said we simply don’t know why bad things happen to good people nor good things to bad people (Pirkei Avot 4.15). Anyone who says otherwise is wrong-headed or a liar. In any case, I’m not convinced that I count as a good person. My point is that these miracle tales simply make me feel lonely and unloved, as if God loves and blesses all His children… so my lack of blessing means I’m obviously not one His beloved children. That’s if we don’t go down the real victim-blaming route of saying I’m too ungrateful to deserve miracles, or that I am not open to “the Divine flow of goodness.”
Rav Avram of Porisov, a nineteenth century Hasid, said that if the spiritual order of the world were reversed and doing mitzvot (commandments) led to punishment and sinning led to reward, he would still do mitzvot and avoid sin (quoted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth – I’m quoting from memory as 90% of my books are at my parents’ house). I can’t pretend to be on that level, but instinctively it is something I would aim for rather than miracles. To be good even if it is not rewarded, even if it actually hurts, seems a better moral than to be good because ultimately all goodness is rewarded and all one’s losses are turned to profits by the Great Accountant in the Sky.
I suppose that is how I feel with my mental health issues. Not only do they stop me having simcha shel mitzvah, the joy of performing a commandment that many observant Jews would say is so vital to living a religious Jewish life, they actively make that Jewish life painful. I am very aware that I could try to deal with my OCD by ceasing to observe kashrut (the dietary laws) and the extreme dietary laws of Pesach (Passover). I am told that that would not remove the OCD, just shift it to something else (e.g. obsessive hand washing for hygiene reasons), but sometimes it’s really tempting to put it to the test. I could try to escape my depression and social anxieties by avoiding the crowds that can trigger them, even if that meant avoiding shul (synagogue) and Talmud shiur (class). I could increase my dating pool exponentially by being willing to date women who don’t share my religious views (non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews) – my desire for a Jewish spouse, Jewish children and an observant Jewish home limits my dating options to a fraction of a percent of the population. That might ease my loneliness. Yet I go on, and sometimes I wonder why, but I do go on nevertheless. I don’t know if it’s love of God and love of the Torah or simple bloody-mindedness, but something keeps me going, even in a life without miracles and wonders, without signs of Divine favour, without even the certainty of a Heavenly reward at the end of it all.
(EDIT: I should say that the actual Miracle Gemach sounds like a great, non-mystical way of practically helping people, getting people to trade what they have and don’t need (physically and materially) for things they do need. It’s just a pity that the things I need (happiness, health, friends, love) are not available, and that I have nothing to offer in return anyway. I feel rather pathetic saying that – surely I have some blessings in my life, some skills or abilities? – but unless anyone has a library they desperately need catalogued or want a ringer on their pub quiz team, I think I have to say I have nothing to offer.)