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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Nitzavim                                September 28, 2019 - 28 Elul 5779

09/26/2019 02:36:06 PM


“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
            -       Peter Pan, by James M. Barrie (1860-1937)

While it was not a mandatory study for all cantorial students, through my years at the seminary, I made it a point to take some courses in CPE, that is, Clinical Pastoral Education – the sort that our esteemed rabbi teaches at Baycrest.  Sometimes I would be chatting with hospital patients through the day about their lives and personal challenges, and sometimes I would be called in the middle of the night to be with someone in their last moments of life.  It was an extremely rewarding, but also an emotionally draining experience which would then be compounded by reliving those experiences in our class sessions so we could all learn to better support people.  Phrases such as “God works in mysterious ways”, “we cannot understand God’s big picture” and similar platitudes were often a part of our class discussions, which were rudimentary answers to the most fundamental theological question: why do bad things happen to good people?  On the one hand, it was comforting to hear that among the students in my class who represented a broad theological spectrum from Catholic priests to Presbyterian Church ministers, nobody had any better answers to this question.  On the other hand, while some of my fellow students were content to use such platitudes, I absolutely hated them.  I believed (and for the most part, still do) that very few people actually want to hear that God intended their suffering to be part of a greater purpose.  A child with cancer, a natural disaster that claims the lives of thousands, or even the Holocaust…  how do we reconcile the idea of a good God with this kind of suffering?  We do it by acknowledging that we cannot see the world from God’s perspective – perhaps six million die today so that hundreds of millions can live later?  We cannot know, and so I towed the party line.  What else could I say?  That God isn’t actually good?

The trouble is that in the Torah, God really isn’t described as “good” per se.  As we take out the Torah from the ark this Rosh Hashanah, we will recite the 13 attributes of God as they are described in the Torah – “The LORD, The LORD is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth.  He keeps kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and acquitting the penitent” (Ex. 34:6-7).  The word “Tov – good” is decidedly absent, but that’s not the worst of it.  If we look in the Torah, it seems that the excerpt that we read on Rosh Hashanah was incomplete as it cuts off mid-sentence.  That last part about “acquitting the penitent” actually fully translates to “does NOT fully acquit the penitent, but rather visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:7 THE REST OF IT).

In our parsha this week, Nitzavim, Moses is winding down his long speech to the assembled Israelite nation regarding God’s divine charge, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13-14).  Moses is proclaiming that the covenant, the contract of loyalty embodied in the Torah, is between God and all Israelites, and all future generations of Israelites who are not yet born.  I am no lawyer, but I can’t imagine that in Canadian law it is possible to make a contract with someone who doesn’t exist yet.  But yet, this is the nature of God’s perspective.  The problem with our perspective is not that we don’t know God’s big picture, it’s that we can’t because we simply lack the perspective.  It’s like trying to fathom the volume of the universe in cups of sugar which is about 3.57x1083 cups.  While it’s not that hard to write it on paper, to truly perceive its magnitude is a completely different story.  Similarly, the Torah is attempting, in fairly plain language, to explain the nature of God, but we lack sufficient perspective to understand.  So, of course, it offends our sensibilities.  Why would God visit iniquities of parents on their children?  Simple, because the children are under contract.  Not fair?  Maybe, but without it, children are then not entitled to a Jewish relationship with God.  God paints in large brush strokes that transcend time and space just as easily as He paints with a single fine tip, that’s the difficulty.  Bad things sometimes happen to good people because they must, and it’s not that we don’t know God’s reason, but because we can’t, and never will.  All we can do is trust in God, and this, truly, is the most fundamental definition of faith.

Shabbat Shalom,

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780