Parshas Vayeira - Corona Diary; Should We Wonder About G-d?

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Posted on 11/02/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
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Humanity had turned the corner: after two thousand years of barbarism and heresy Avraham discovered God and launched a revolution of religious consciousness. One metropolis, however, remained unyielding, stuck in a backward state of religious indifference and immoral conduct. Sadly, G-d decided to erase these cities from land which serves as the platform for religious instruction. Having designated Avraham as the custodian of humanity, it was only fitting that he be duly informed of these plans, prior to their implementation.

Upon hearing the devastating news, Avraham begins to wonder. Could a moral G-d raze an entire city including innocents? Shouldn’t local righteous people shield the general population from ruin? Avraham challenges Divine justice with words which, had they been uttered by any other human being, would have been sacrilegious heresy.

Avraham's response to the Sedom decision is diametrically opposed to his response to the akeidah challenge. Having waited close to one hundred years for Yitzchak, his successor, Avraham was instructed to sacrifice his own child. This perplexing mandate doesn’t just compromise Avraham's future, but it also contradicts the entire moral system which he stood for. He spent his entire lifetime persuading humanity that God wasn’t a grotesque figure who celebrated human suffering and sacrifice. This brutal act would subvert his lifetime's mission- and yet Avraham quietly and heroically submits. Why does Avraham challenge the death sentence for Sedom, yet he surrenders to the akeidah without protest?

Part of the difference is the sweep and impact of G-d's decision. Though it alters religious history, the akeidah is primarily a personal event - and the response to a Divine mystery which affects personal life should be acquiescence. Avraham's silence upon this mountain foreshadows Aharon's heroic silence in the face of his own personal tragedy. His two children were incinerated as they celebrated the inauguration the mishkan. Does their sin justify the harsh punishment? Shouldn’t they have been given a "pass" on this celebratory day? Both Avraham and Aharon are stony silent in the face of a Divine mystery which tests them in their personal lives.

By contrast, the sentence of Sedom imperils an entire population, and a tragedy of this magnitude justifiably elicits both Avraham's response and his rallying to their cause. Collective and large-scale suffering warrants human questioning in a way that personal tragedy may not. It is one thing for Avraham to wonder about perceived Divine injustice when millions of lives are at stake. It is quite another to actively question G-d about a personal command which he may not fully grasp.

However, even when facing personal challenges, for some, constructive probing of G-d's motives is a healthy part of religious life. There are two different, but equally valid, responses to Divine decisions which appear to challenge human logic or human conventions of morality. Sometimes, silent submission feels more pious and more reverent: the ability to completely suppress human logic and blindly trust a Higher wisdom which lies beyond human perception, augments our sense of being a servant of G-d. Awed by Divine majesty and cognizant of our own frailty, we submit to the eternal and sweeping wisdom which we can't grasp. During Yom Kippur we confess 'al chet she'chatanu lifanecha b'timhon leivav- addressing the sin of doubting G-d and aimlessly questioning religion; we seek to atone for the sin of excess speculation and purposeless wondering about G-d. Absolute surrender often reflects passionate and powerful committment.  

However, sometimes our relationship with G-d is actually strengthened through respectful wondering or questioning. Questioning and studying G-d's decisions reflects the fact that our relationship with G-d is precious and worth investing in: we don’t question decisions of those we care little about. Talmudic study is predicated upon assertive questioning of great scholars who we respect and whose positions we seek to better understand by lodging emphatic questions. Similarly, probing G-d's decisions can sometimes be a 'labor of love' and an effort to heighten our relationship with Him. Personally I remember living through the second intifada a few years after I made aliyah. It was so disturbing to me that a process which I saw as Divinely driven -d and to which I dedicated my life was tainted by such cruel tragedies. I tried to process this asymmetry and obviously didn’t emerge with solid solutions. However, the process itself deepened my faith and reinforced my commitment to living in Israel.

What are the pre-conditions necessary for raising questions about Divine decisions?

Firstly, the process must be approached with extreme intellectual humility. Prior to challenging this Sedom decree, Avraham famously acknowledges that he is dirt and dust. Sadly, oftentimes, people challenge Divine decisions out of arrogance rather than sincerely probing to discover deeper truths. Accepting the limits of human wisdom and acknowledging our personal ineptitudes is absolutely crucial to "frame" the process of trying to better understand G-d. Essentially, we aren’t questioning the ways of G-d but rather trying to find a human voice to help us process Divine decisions at a personal level. Though we are not able to understand G-d's ways, we can earnestly search for a manner to live with decisions which trouble our imagination. This process – if conducted earnestly and humbly- can help us personalize our relationship with G-d.

Secondly, if we are unsettled by a Divine decision, do we question or do we also pray? Avraham doesn’t just challenge G-d's decision, but prays for the rescue of the citizens of Sedom. His wondering isn’t driven by abstract philosophical questioning, but out of a profound concern for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Additionally, he is genuinely concerned about the Divine image in his world. He had labored to project the Divine image as merciful and caring, and he worries that indiscriminate death to an entire population would cast G-d as reckless and random- G-d forbid. His prayers and negotiations indicate that he isn’t engaging in detached philosophical sophistry but is struggling to protect the values and ideas which G-d has entrusted him with. Is our questioning accompanied by sincere prayer? Or do we just question in a detached or dispassionate manner?  

Finally, we can't condition our relationship with G-d upon the questioning process.  For Avraham, the outcome of the inquiry will not impact his reverence of, or relationship with, G-d. Tellingly, he wakes up the very next day, viewing a plume of smoke above Sedom and davens in the very same "place" that he had previously davened. Though the destruction of Sedom saddens him and his prayers weren’t answered, his relationship with G-d remains stout and unfailing.

To summarize: often our most devout moments emerge when we mute our questions and submit to G-d. Other times our probing actually deepens our commitment to the relationship. It would appear that there are three preconditions for Man to raise a question of G-d: humility, prayer and unconditional commitment to the relationship.

Though this issue lies at the heart of religious identity, it is even more relevant during the current Corona crisis in which the ways of G-d seem confusing to Man. We are living through a dark period surrounded by suffering and death. Believers understand that G-d has motives and that no event of this magnitude can be random. For some, unconditional submission strengthens their faith while, for others, pious probing of the situation will reinforce their commitment. We  pray that our faith never wavers.