…After the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake…
-I Kings 19:11
“Where is God now? Where is He?...He is hanging here on this gallows”
-Night by Eli Wiesel
“The cruelty and the killing raise the question whether even those who believe after such an event dare to talk about God who loves and cares without making a mockery of those who suffered.” -Rabbi Irving Greenberg
The Japanese, I am told, living on one of the most active tectonic faults, feel always that the “big one” can come tomorrow. I guess all humans, if we are not completely jaded, wait for the big one, though perhaps not actively. Indeed humans have a unique ability to ignore the tragic realities and statistics predicting the disasters that may come. But we all have some deep sense, when we are honest, that life is as transient as things get. Beyond helping the Japanese people by sending funds and supplies, how do we assimilate the tragedy?
Perhaps we can not. Only survivors of tragic events can know what it is to be they; for us to make assumptions about such tragedy would be audacious. So what can we, 10,000 miles from the epicenter think, say, and reflect upon, other than crying for fellow humans, made in God’s image who are suffering so much? For us as religious people and religious leaders, how do we understand the ago old question which asks “Where is the merciful God we talk about and pray to, now?”
In the face of tragedy, unfortunately, religious leaders seems to make the news when they take either of two extreme positions. That God brought about a tragedy to punish us, -Rabbis, Priests and Imams all were quoted after the floods in New Orleans and the Tsunami in Thailand as saying that God brought about these modern day floods for the same reason as those in the Bible, to punish humans for their sins.
But, as the biblical book of Job instructs, we must not suggest reasons for, or try to make sense of, the suffering of others. Though we want to make sense of our world and the seeming injustice of it, if we do we make a mockery of humans and God. In the end God seems to rebuke Job’s friends who suggest reasons for his torment with the words, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”
The other extreme was heard also, that tragedy of such proportion should lead us to question the existence of God, as if the death of one child is less horrific and more explainable. So what are religionists who believe in a merciful God on one hand and read a Bible of reward and punishment on the other, to say about calamity of such huge proportion?
In Judaism there is expansive writing about such questions. In ancient times in the Talmud and in more recent years a vast Holocaust literature and theology has tried to grapple with modern day tragedies of biblical proportion in which often the righteous suffer and the wicked are spared
One helpful idea, much discussed in modern holocaust literature, is the idea of God’s hiddenness. That while believing in an infinite God, this does not mean that God is always present, -God’s face as it were, can be hidden from us. The Bible, following a list of curses and punishments that will befall the Jews if they do not obey the Torah, states, “…and I will hide my face from you on that day.” To be hidden does not mean to be gone, nor does it mean to be understood, but it does mean that the promise of Divine presence and possibility still exists.
Recently Jewish people all over the world celebrated the holiday of Purim. On this day 2500 years ago a wicked man attempted to genocide all the Jews and almost succeeded, if not for a courageous queen named Esther. Esther’s name, the Talmud tells us, is hinted at in the Hebrew bible in the words “vaani hister astir panai bayom hahoo”, “And I will hide my face from you on that day (Deut. 31:18)” Esther=Hister-meaning “to hide.”
The very name Esther, the queen who saves the Jewish people, also refers to God’s hiddenness, and indeed in the entire book of Esther God’s name is not mentioned even once. And so the scroll of Esther offers the hope that though we live in a world of tragedy, pain, suffering, and injustice, perhaps it is not a world in which God is absent or dead, but hidden.
In the words of the great 20th century Rabbi, Joseph Solovetchik in his profound book, Lonley Man of Faith: “Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome and mysterious ‘He’?”
Though God is indeed hidden in our world, even more so at this moment, perhaps it is up to us to reveal the Divine through our actions and response.