Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Ha’Azinu (Deuteronomy 32)

Living with Questions

A basic tenet of Judaism is that G-d is just.

The Rock [G-d] — perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice… (32:4)

This concept is mentioned in the Jewish mourning process when the mourners are required to recite the above verse at the funeral to remove from their hearts and minds any doubt they may have about whether G-d has been fair or not.

In Jewish law, it states that when one goes to console a mourner one may not say, “What can we do, G-d runs the world. He is the Boss and does as He sees fit.” The inference is that G-d is unjust but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s as if one is saying, “if I ran the show, I wouldn’t have done such a terrible thing as taking away your loved one.” It’s really about what’s going on in your head. It is a state of mind: either G-d knows what He’s doing or He’s incompetent. Jews for centuries have consciously chosen the first option.

Humans do not have the capacity to carry out perfect justice because we can’t judge every facet of a person. For example, when a convicted felon has wronged society, he will be judged for his actions because society needs a penal code but justice in G-d’s world can be different. Not only are his actions are taken into account but consideration is also given to the people who might be negatively affected by his incarceration—his parents, wife, children, and others. They are true victims because they have done nothing wrong but must now live without the man who was perhaps supporting and loving them. A society needs a justice system but in G-d’s world many other factors are considered; even though we might not understand how or why, we understand that fair judgment is granted to all.

Yet, most people are bothered when seeing a decent person who has a rough life and ask, is this fair? The Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933) answered with a parable.

The only child of a wealthy woman fell deathly ill. A specialist was brought in to treat the boy and he was successful. The doctor told the mother her son must never eat fatty meat if she wants to prevent a relapse. Once, when no one was looking, the son ate some fatty meat and became deathly ill. The specialist was brought back and was successful in saving this child’s life.

Sometime later the mother hosted a party at which she sent her son out of the dining room. The guests were shocked at the callous actions of this apparently cruel mother but only she knew that it was an act of love.

Sometimes the Almighty has to remove a person from the dining room for his or her own benefit—even though it appears unfair to everyone else. These thoughts are not meant to be merely for the pious, it’s the most logical way to think for anyone who believes in G-d. If not, He is incompetent.

There’s a fascinating story in Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, a book written by the late Professor Yaffa Eliach, who documented stories of concentration camp survivors. In one story, a brother and sister were the only survivors of their family. The sister was captured and was brought to Gestapo headquarters. The brother couldn’t bear losing his sister and acted without thinking. He walked into Gestapo headquarters and demanded his sister’s return. The Nazi officer in charge looked at him in disbelief and was ready to shoot him but instead presented the following absurd challenge. “Jew,” he said, “When you grow hair on the palm of your hand, I will let you take your sister home.” The boy opened his hand and there was hair on his palm. With a terrified scream, the Nazi officer shouted, “Jewish devil! Take your sister and leave, quickly!” The brother and sister ran into the forest and survived the war.

What happened? A few years earlier, the brother was in an accident in which his hand had gotten caught in a piece of machinery. During surgery, the doctors grafted a piece of skin from his leg onto his palm. The grafted piece of skin grew hair on it; an odd occurrence. At that time, the unhappy brother viewed it as an aberration he would have to live with for life. It was only years later that this seemingly cruel act of nature proved to be the means of his sister’s survival that he appreciated the past “accident.”

The next time you see something you don’t understand, use it as a teaching moment. It’s humbling to think, “I can’t figure everything out; I don’t have all the answers.” If I did, I would be G-d.

Good Shabbos