Simchas Torah, ostensibly along with Purim the happiest day of the Jewish calendar, will never be the same. I remember this year going to the massive dancing at 770 Eastern Parkway, World Chabad Headquarters, and being sickened by what I saw. Here were thousands of young rabbinical students and chassidim dancing as if 1,200 Jews had not been massacred just hours earlier.
To be fair, the reports at the time were incomplete. About 400 people were reported murdered, and because of the restrictions against the use of electronics on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, many religious Jews may not even have heard the news.
But I had heard it all, in a series of nonstop WhatsApp messages from my daughter, who was in Ashkelon with her husband, being bombarded by missiles, and from my son Mendy, who left shul during the dancing to get to his army unit after being called up.
How could anyone dance? Simchas Torah became not a celebration but an abomination. We were taking swigs of whisky while hundreds of Jewish women were being gang-raped, babies burned alive, and soldiers and civilians decapitated?
But while we mortal humans can be forgiven for our ignorance, God cannot be forgiven for His.
What was God doing as the residents of Beeri were being BBQ’d alive? Why was the Almighty passive as Shani Louk was paraded unconscious and naked — savage Hamas supporters abusing her body — and then decapitated? Was God watching? Did He see? Why didn’t He intervene?
I am flying Shani’s parents, Ricarda, an Orthodox German convert to Judaism, and her husband, Nissim, to New York on January 29 for a dedication of a Torah to my mother, on her first yahrtzeit, and to Shani. I know that Shani deserves the consecration of the Torah, as does my mother, who led a charitable and hospitable life, not to mention being the most devoted single mother in history.
But does God deserve it? Does He deserve yet another Torah being written ultimately for Him, so that we worship Him, when He doesn’t seem to care much about whether Jews live or die?
Every morning I awaken and immediately go to Jewish websites, or the New York Times, for the latest news on the war in Gaza. But that’s not really true. What I’m really looking for is to see whether any soldiers died during the night, God forbid. We have two sons in the war and I’m not God forbid checking to see if they’re okay, knowing that if they weren’t, we’d probably hear about it and not from the news, God forbid. Besides, I can’t really even think about their safety other than pray for it, speak to them as much as their army service and cellular connection allow, and the rest of the time stick my head in the sand and pray to God for their safety.
No, I go to the news sites not as a father, but as a Jew. Not as a relative of a soldier who may have been harmed by as a member of an eternal nation who is always being harmed.
Inevitably I read that one, two, three, or four, or sometimes 14 soldiers have died in the night. That’s the numerical equivalent of 400 American soldiers dying in one evening. I get sick to my stomach, my day is ruined, and then I go to put on my tefillin and say the last weeks of Kaddish for my mother after a year.
But why? Does a God who watches so much Jewish suffering for so many millennia and does nothing deserve to be praised? Does He deserved to be prayed to? Does He deserve our thanks? For what?
Oh yes, the faithful will say. Look, we’re still here. Doesn’t that prove what the Passover Haggadah says, “In every generation our enemies seek to annihilate us. But the Almighty saves us from their hands.” Well, not exactly. The six million might have something to say about that, not to mention the victims of the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Khmelnitsky pogroms, destruction of the First and Second Temples, and on and on.
But aside from that, is this some kind of sick game that God is playing with us? “In every generation they seek to annihilate us … but God saves us.” Why does He let them seek to kill us in the first place? Does he let the Swedes face imminent annihilation only to rescue them? Do the Australians, or the Thai, or the French face the same fate? So why are we thanking God for saving us from extermination when it seems that He made it our fate to forever vacillate between certain impending destruction and last-minute redemption, at least for some of us?
God is supposed to be our protector. When tragedy strikes, our first impulse is often to defend God rather than rail and thunder against the injustice of it all.
But God’s first role is not supposed to be our consoler-in-chief. Rather, He’s supposed to be our guardian-in-chief. Isn’t that what “Our Father who art in Heaven” means? Doesn’t a father protect his children from death rather than comfort the survivors after the loss of half his family? If God could split the Red Sea, then He could have had one Hamas smitch tell Mossad that 3,000 animals were about to cross over from Gaza and mow down hundreds of innocent Jews with machine guns whose only crime was to dance at a rave, hurting no one. If He could bring down the walls of Jericho, then He could have had the Shaback intercept one radio communication saying that the attack was coming. And if he could revive the dead with Elisha, then He could preserve the life of the children in Beeri whose blood I personally saw congealed over the walls and floors of their destroyed homes.
Why God is silent and seemingly absent in the face of so much suffering is the real question of October 7th. The victims were all innocent. Their only crime was to be born a Jew. Does God not promise to protect the innocent? “The Lord will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul” (Psalm 121).
The babies who were murdered were so sweet and innocent. Does God not promise to guard the defenseless? “The Lord is the keeper of little ones: I was humbled, and he delivered me” (Psalm 116:6).
These children deserved long lives. Does God not promise to safeguard humanity? “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalms 61:4).
Judaism gave rise to the defiant man of faith, the man or woman who, like our patriarch Jacob, fights with angels and celestial beings and defeats them. In fact, that is the exact definition of the word Israel: he who fights God and wins. A Jew is a child of Abraham, who went so far as to accuse God of injustice when the Almighty sought the destruction of both the righteous and the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. We Jews are disciples of Moses, who thundered to God that he wished his name be taken out of God’s holy Torah if the Creator would proceed with His stated intention of wiping out the Jewish nation after the sin of the Golden Calf. Like King David, who declares in Psalms, “I shall not die for I shall live,” the Jewish nation has achieved immortality through an impudent insubordination in the face of historical inevitability, daring to defy fate, forge an audacious destiny, and challenge God in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice.
Our role in life should not be to offer empty platitudes about how innocent children are in heaven. How they are better off. God, if that isn’t the stupidest, most insensitive thing I’ve ever heard. A child’s place is not at God’s footstool in heaven but being tucked into an earthly bed by his or her parents.
We have a right to demand from God that He abide by the same values and rules that He commanded us to uphold.
Through Moses, He commanded us to always choose life. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Duet. 30:19). Must God not also choose life? Are we human beings just so much cosmic chaff that when our children die, we are meant just to bow our heads in silent submission?
No. The role of religion is not to make us complacent or compliant. Rather, faith galvanizes us to make the world a better place. That means fighting evil and protecting life. It means building hospitals and developing medicines. And it also means demanding of God that He show Himself in history and help us to make the world a safer, healthier, less dangerous place.
We can’t stop every tragedy. But God can. And spare me the arguments that say if God were to stop bad things from happening we would not have any freedom of choice. Women don’t need to be shot in their vaginas or have their breasts cut off — as The New York Times reported last week on the horrors of October 7th — in order to exercise free choice as to whether they will live lives of altruism or narcissism. Dead victims have no choice.
Challenging God in the face of suffering is not blasphemous. Rather, it is the ultimate sign of faith. It means we believe that God controls the world, controls human fate, controls the world’s destiny, and has it in His unlimited power to make the world a happier place.
Rather than let God off the hook, in the face of tragedy I would rather we say, “Lord, we, your servants, are decent people. We deserve better than to have 1,200 people murdered, another 150 hostages in hell, and scores of young soldiers dying every day just to keep Israel from annihilation. In the name of all that is righteous we implore You, we demand of You, to protect our children, Your children, from harm, so that all the peoples of the world will see Your great hand in history and how the innocent are allowed to flourish, prosper, and grow old with children of their own.”
One of the more mystifying events of the Bible involves God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. What was God thinking? After all, He was the One Who would later declare all human sacrifice (and especially child sacrifice) an abomination.
The most insightful commentary I’ve seen on this episode comes from my teacher and mentor, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who says the key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual but as the Jewish religion. Who was Isaac? He was Judaism. He was the inheritor of Abraham’s convictions. He was the person who would continue Abraham’s belief system. Were Isaac to be slaughtered, everything Abraham had taught in terms of the rejection of paganism, the belief in one God, and all monotheistic tenets would be lost.
The test, therefore, was this: Would Abraham follow God’s commandment to kill off his religion, or would he put his religion before God’s will? What really mattered to Abraham? God or Judaism? And if these facets of faith were put in conflict, which would Abraham choose?
The religious fanatic is the person who has ceased to serve God and has instead begun to worship a particular religion, making faith into an idol rather than the basis for a relationship with our Creator. It is in this light that we can understand how Islamic fundamentalists can be prepared to violate God’s express commandment against murder in order to strike a blow for the glory not of their deity, but of Islam.
People who are in a relationship with God are humble and do their utmost to refrain from judging others. Their experience of God’s compassion leads them to be merciful and loving. Their proximity to the Perfect Being reminds them of inherent human fallibility. But what happens when those who arrogantly worship religion successfully advance the cause that their religion is more important than life itself? How do the humble and devout hold steadfast to our faith when the pain and anguish of such zealots devastates all that we as a nation – and as human beings – hold dear? How do we continue to pray to the God of our forefathers when, at times of great and unwarranted suffering, God does not act as he did in the sparing of Isaac but rather appears to do nothing to intervene?
Is this not among the most asked and most unanswerable questions of our time – and of all time? How do we believe in God with full faith, how do we worship and serve Him with an open heart, when, in our experience, God appears to willingly tolerate the suffering of His innocent creations the world over?
So many of us are searching for a reason why people suffer. We want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, we say. It makes us more mature. It helps us focus on what’s important in life.
Sorry to burst your bubble. Actually, suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply misguided. The more we explain suffering, the more sanctuary we grant it in our lives. The less we accept it, the more we combat it. Suffering is not redemptive, it is not ennobling, it is not a blessing, and it teaches us nothing, absolutely nothing, that we could not have learned by gentler means.
The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God put an end to it.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “The Fed-Up Man of Faith” and “Wrestling with the Divine,” both of which deal with challenging God in the face of human suffering. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter