I was at a local church. It was the third program in a series spanning three weeks. We were exploring texts in which a variety of biblical voices had questioned — even argued with — God.
The first two programs had been heavily text based. The third opened with some time for exploring personal experience before considering the text.
I asked everyone in the circle to settle themselves, breathe slowly for a few minutes, with their bodies resting and relaxed. When they were ready, I gave them their task.
“Think back to a time of irretrievable loss,” I said. “Honor whatever feelings emerge and name them for yourself.”
The room was quiet, at first. Then I heard crying. “When you are ready,” I said, “you can open your eyes. If this is comfortable for you, please turn to someone nearby and share what came up — you don’t need to tell the story, though you may do so, if you like. But please, if you can, tell your companion what you were feeling.”
I set time constraints and made sure everyone had a turn. Then, some spoke to the group.
One man had described how he’d felt as his wife was dying. Bewildered. Guilty for not doing more. Others spoke about despair. Some admitted to anger. One woman said she had never understood why God hadn’t given her the time to speak to her mother, to heal old wounds before death made healing impossible.
After a welter of emotions had been articulated, I handed out the first two chapters of Lamentations. “What emotions do you see described here?” I asked.
They had plenty to offer: Confusion. Guilt. Despair. Anger.
One woman raised her hand. Everything is in God’s hand, she said. Everything. Another participant agreed. God was just trying to teach us; the death of our loved ones was God’s way to help us learn something we needed to understand. Others were not so sure. One woman suggested that God may hope we learn from painful losses, but she didn’t think God planned them for that purpose.
“Maybe God’s plan,” I suggested, “is just for us to act godly.”
This Shabbat we read Ki Tissa, in which Moses persuades YHVH not to destroy the people, but rather to give them the gift of the law. We read that God inscribed the two tablets on both sides, and does so Godself.
Incised, inscribed: charut we read. But the rabbis ask us to read on two levels; they say, read cheirut, freedom. Freedom, our rabbis tell us, is to be found in the obligations we have chosen. The law is an invitation to learn how to act godly. God’s plan is for us to do everything we can to do exactly that.
We fail, of course. We have not eradicated human slavery or meaningless violence. We have neither ended hunger nor protected our fragile planet. Since the time Torah was composed, humanity has managed, in many respects, to make it easier to destroy.
The rabbis also describe what happens when Moses sees his people seemingly abandoning their future, their promises, their hopes of becoming a holy people and a nation of priests. The letters God had inscribed flew off the tablets. The tablets became mere stones. As such, they were too much for Moses to carry. They fell from his arms.
Laws incised upon stone, laws that detailed how freedom was to be found were easy to carry, however hard they were to carry out. Stone without law was inarticulate, heavy, impossible to bear. Rather like Pharaoh’s heart.
I do not think the Source of all Blessing decrees pain in the service of some master plan. I refuse to try and make sense of the meaningless violence human beings commit or the unpredictable and inexplicable anguish of disease and catastrophe.
I do believe — wholeheartedly — that we have been offered vital, liberating obligations: The obligation to respect and honor each other and the earth we live upon, the obligation to act, as best we can, each and every day, in a way that elevates ourselves and others to the highest possible standard.
May our law be our freedom.