Explaining suffering or relieving it?
When Hagar is at her lowest point in this week’s Torah portion, she weeps in utter resignation. Having been banished with her son Ishmael into the desert, without any more water or food, she lays the child down and moves away, unable to witness his agonizing demise. Just then, an angel appears with life-saving advice, imploring the mother to take the hand of her son and find strength, hachaziki et yadeich bo “make your hand strong by taking hold of his’ (Gen 21: 18.)
This is the best advice ever given to those who suffer. Four words: “find somebody to help.” Not because this will remind you that others may be worse off. Rather, people literally derive strength by helping another. At low moments, if you can have the presence of mind, the best medicine is to reach out and find someone to help with a kind word or a considerate visit. Even when you decide to help another as a means to gain strength yourself, still ulterior motivation weighs less than genuine impact.
Faced with hurricane Sandy’s historic destruction, we’ve witnessed communities come together, we’ve glimpsed glowing humanity in neighborhoods that experienced total devastation. But this week’s loss of life, home, and livelihood, leaves some of us theologically wandering.
Rabbi Harold Kushner has written an important new commentary on a biblical book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Person, in which he revisits the restless, vexing challenge of bad things happening to decent and righteous people. Referring to a rabbinic midrash based upon the Israelites arrival at an oasis of undrinkable water (Ex. 22-25), Moses questions God: “Why did You create brackish water in Your world?” God answers, “It is not your job to understand. It is your job to do something to sweeten the water.” Rabbi Kushner continues, “If at times God’s world causes grief, from plagues killing thousands to snowstorms ravaging a city, that is a consequence, not a punishment. It was not done with us in mind. The task of religion is not to explain why the water is bitter or to justify its bitterness, but to sweeten it” (p.186.)
May we lend our hearts with prayer, and extend our hands with deeds, in ways that strengthen each other.
A sweet Shabbat to you.
Rabbi William Hamilton