Saturday 23rd October 2021
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24; 2 Kings 4:1 – 37; Luke 17:28 – 37
by Rabbi Isaac S. Roussel, Congregation Zera Avraham, Ann Arbor, MI
People are often shocked and a bit unsettled when they learn that there is a long Jewish tradition of arguing with God. It somehow seems disrespectful to challenge the Creator of the Universe; after all, who are we to argue? It is true that there are Jewish texts that highlight the grandeur of God over us mere mortals. For example, in the Weekday Shacharit we say, “What shall we say before you? Are not all the mighty like nothing before you, the men of renown as if they had never been, the wise as if they know nothing, and the understanding as if they lack intelligence?”
But Jewish tradition holds in balance the recognition of God’s greatness over us—his transcendence—with his deep care for us and desire to have a relationship with us, that is, his immanence. Perhaps we have this perspective and Christians often do not because we have a more solid understanding of covenant. I have been reflecting on this in recent months. I think that this lack of understanding might be the root of a number of misunderstandings, including Replacement Theology. My reflection started when a pastor friend of mine asked me what was a good translation of the word “Chesed.” He gave me several options from different English translations. Here was my response:
I would prefer "loving covenantal faithfulness." Because Christianity has historically ignored by and large God's relationship with Israel, the concept of "covenantal bond" is missing from much of Christian theology. This is such a key tenet of Judaism. God lovingly chooses Israel through no merit of its own and makes a covenantal bond to her, tying his destiny to hers. This covenant is what the nations are grafted into, not replacing. So Chesed is like a loving and attentive husband living out his commitment to his wife. It's a beautiful image and one that I think accurately reflects Scripture.
Because Hashem has chosen to be in relationship with Israel and by extension, the Church, we can feel free to argue and question him. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book Lonely Man of Faith, says it thus:
He [God] joins Man and shares in his covenantal existence. . . . The element of togetherness of God and Man is indispensable for the covenantal community. . . . The very validity of the covenant rests upon free negotiation, mutual assumption of duties and full recognition of the equal rights of both parties.
This truth is expressed in a midrash that I often quoted to my kids on Erev Shabbat when they were little. The midrash asks “Why did God make mud and not bricks, and wheat not bread?” The answer is that he wants us to be partners with him in the continuing unfolding of Creation. We are junior partners, so to speak.
While God is infinite and we are finite, because of this covenant, we can question and even challenge. This is evidenced in today’s reading, where Avraham argues with God to save innocent people (if any can be found) in Sodom and Gomorrah. With great chutzpah, he haggles with God, trying to get him to be as merciful as possible. Our tradition views it as Avraham’s greatness that he would be willing to do this. The authors of the Psalms and the prophets do not hesitate to question or challenge either. The Talmud questions God. There is the famous story of Achnai’s Oven, where the rabbis are arguing, and a bat kol, a voice from heaven, states which one is correct. This declaration is rejected by the rabbis because “the Torah is not in Heaven.” This tradition continues to this day with people putting God on trial for the Shoah.
Many years ago I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon where I read a cancer-ridden rabbi’s demand that God needed to seek his forgiveness. This may seem to be a lot of chutzpah, and it is, but it is very Jewish.
In fact, in our parashah today God invites Avraham into the decision, wanting him to give input. He asks himself, since he has chosen Avraham, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing?”
A midrash interprets God’s statement to Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf as inviting him into his decision making about destroying the people. In Shemot Rabbah, it says that when God tells Moshe to leave him to stew in his anger, it is actually God inviting argument. The midrash likens it to a king who is angry with his son and shouts that he is going to kill him. The prince’s tutor says to himself, “Why did he shout it, instead of just killing him? It's because he really wants someone to talk him out of it.”
We are part of this covenant, along with those who have been grafted in. We, therefore, can feel free to argue, question, and even rant and rave at God, just as our ancestors did. This is not hubris or rebellion, it is what those in a relationship do. Even Yeshua did it. As he is dying, he cries out in his pain and distress, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I think that I have told the story before of a time when I was very upset with God. But I refused to be honest about my feelings. He very clearly said to me to cut it out, that I was angry with him. This released a torrent from me of accusation and anger about my situation. I consider this a watershed moment of my spiritual life. I learned that to be in a true relationship, I cannot wear masks.
As I have practiced this kind of openness over the years, what I have often found is that only by expressing it do I often realize my own wrong thinking. If I am glossing over it, God's not able to break through my walls and reveal things to me.
But this can also make us great intercessors, just like Avraham. We should be moved and angered by the injustices, evil, disease, and death that permeate our world. We can come boldly to God’s throne and appeal for him to act; to pray on behalf of those who suffer. In Hebrews 4 it says that because Yeshua experienced the same trials as us, that we can come boldly before God’s throne seeking help. Seeking help can be a request, but it can also be a demand for action.
So I encourage you today to seize upon the Covenant and be honest and open with God. Yes, acknowledge that he is Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe. But express your feelings, wants, desires. Question him, challenge him. Kvetch to him. Be real in prayer. I assure you that you will discover a richer and deeper relationship with the One who is both Avinu and Malkeinu, our loving Father and our King.