When I told him I was worried about how I would get through Tisha B’Av today, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, he suggested that I write something relevant. I wasn’t sure whether it was entirely appropriate to paste it here, as really I think it will only speak to other religious Jews, who comprise some, but not all, of my audience. But I don’t feel comfortable sending it to my general devar Torah audience, so I’m posting here after all. Please don’t feel obliged to read.
The rabbi of my shul raised the question in his pre-Tisha B’Av drasha yesterday: if God is our Father, how could any father treat his children as the Jews have been treated through history, as we recall today on Tisha B’Av? And really, we do not know the answer to this question, but we can investigate it.
On Tisha B’Av only three (really two and a half) books of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) may be studied: Eichah/Lamentations; the bleak passages of Yirmiyah/Jeremiah (not the verses of consolation and redemption); and Iyov/Job. Iyov is the odd one out here. Eichah and Yirmiyah deal with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, so it is logical to read them on Tisha B‘Av when we recall this. However, Iyov is a parable about suffering, a book that starts with moral certainties, but ends in questions, explicit and implicit.
One motif in Iyov is the concept of wanting to put God on trial, which is Iyov’s recurring fantasy. This idea, buried in Jewish thought, resurfaced later. A number of Hasidic stories retold in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim deal with this concept, typically involving a humble Jew who has suffered putting God on trial before a Bet Din (rabbinical court) headed by a prominent Hasidic rabbi, with the verdict going in his (the Jew’s) favour and, miraculously, his situation suddenly changing for the better. These stories are perhaps a product of a period of relative stability in Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Most famously, at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel witnessed God being put on trial for His role in the Holocaust by the inmates there. He was found guilty. After a long pause, the court dissolved so that those present could pray Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers). Wiesel would later rework the experience into a play, The Trial of God, which would intimate that it is the Angel of Death who defends God, while human beings must accuse Him.
All of these stories are based on two apparently contradictory premises that are both held to be true in Jewish thought: the reality of God and the reality of human suffering. The Mishnah teaches us that when two verses of the Torah appear to contradict each other, we search for a third verse that harmonises them.
Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl remarked that in Greek philosophy truth is logical and universal. If something is true in London at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, it is true in every place and every time. Truth in Judaism, however, is chronological and dialogical, meaning it unfolds over time and through dialogue between different individuals who all have access to only a part of the truth. So we can say that the reconciliation of these ideas of God and of suffering is still unfolding, through God’s intervention in the world, especially through the coming of Mashiach (the Messiah), who according to tradition is born on Tisha B’Av, and through the ongoing dialogue of Jewish study, particularly as we listen to the voices of people who were once marginalised.
Beyond this is another aspect of contradiction, which is that God is with us in our suffering. This was also seen by Wiesel at Auschwitz, where a young boy was hanged by the Nazis, and one inmate shouted “Where is God now?” and Wiesel felt an inner voice inside him say, “He is here – He is hanging on this gallows.” This is the understanding of God being with us even when it feels like He is not with us, or even that He is complicit in our suffering. It was brought out strongly by the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira in his sermons from the Warsaw Ghetto, the sense that God is with us even as we suffer. Again, this transcends logic, by adopting a viewpoint that unfolds over time and which has not yet unfolded to its full extent, to the point where it can be fully understood and instead we affirm it now as an act of faith, in the belief that one day it will be understood by reason too.
Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam was the Rabbi of Klausenburg. He lost all his family and Hasidim in the Holocaust, yet afterwards he was able to declare, “The biggest miracle of all is the one that we, the survivors of the Holocaust, after all that we witnessed and lived through, still believe and have faith in the Almighty God, may His name be blessed. This, my friends, is the miracle of miracles, the greatest miracle ever to have taken place.”