We live in a complex world. At its best, religion makes reality more complicated rather than more simple to understand. It reminds us how noble ideas are, how small we are, how little we understand, and how complex the human condition and the world are. We can learn about the interconnected complex nature of our world from an insight in Kabbalah.
When God came to create the world and reveal what was hidden in the depths and disclose light out of darkness, they were all wrapped in one another, and therefore light emerged from darkness and from the impenetrable came the profound, so too, from good issues evil and from mercy issues judgment, and all are intertwined, the good impulse and the evil impulse, right and left, Israel and other peoples, white and black—all depend upon one another (Zohar 380b, 63ab).
Amidst all the complexity and interconnectivity, we are left wondering what truths we can truly understand. The Kedushat Levi teaches that para adumah (red heifer) is the quintessential chok (non-rational commandment) precisely because it is dealing with purification after death. It is not until death, when our souls permanently separate from our bodies, that our souls will truly understand the mitzvot and the purpose of life, and so it is in this existential encounter with the death of the body that we learn the value of doing rituals that we do not totally understand. It is only in death that we can comprehend.
Today, and through history, leaders tend to project an image of supreme confidence. Think of the painting of George Washington standing at the bow of a boat crossing the Delaware River, or the painting of Napoleon Bonaparte mounted on a horse standing on its hind legs while the Emperor holds on with only one hand and looks confidently ahead. However, at times leaders have acknowledged that uncertainty is part of life.
Winston Churchill, whose speeches bolstered British morale during World War II, nevertheless acknowledged that not everything in life is certain: “Without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed.” Today, with political gridlock everywhere, there is a greater willingness for political leaders to acknowledge uncertainty. At a National Prayer Breakfast in 2011, President Barack Obama said: “In the wake of failures and disappointments I’ve questioned what G-d had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires. And let me tell you, these past two years, they have deepened my faith. The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray.”
One only has to look at the story of Job to see that the randomness of human suffering have caused many people to express anger at G-d. From at least the 14th century CE, during which the Black Death killed perhaps more than a third of the population of Europe, to the Shoah and other genocides of the 20th century, people have engaged in mostly futile efforts to derive meaning from incomprehensible levels of suffering. Many raged against G-d; for example, in Auschwitz Elie Wiesel witnessed a “trial” of G-d for cruelty against humanity, conducted by three rabbis.
Today, we in the United States do not face this level of existential threat, but people still express anger against G-d for the uncertainties of life. Dr. Julie Exline of Case Western Reserve University conducted several studies attempting to measure the prevalence of anger Americans felt against G-d, finding that 60 percent of respondents reported having felt such anger. The typical person reportedly having these feelings tended to be young, white, highly educated, and female. Other studies in the series measured levels of anger among those going through bereavement and among cancer patients. Those most likely to feel anger at G-d were those who had lost someone suddenly or at a young age, and among those diagnosed with cancer, those who were younger, or had more advanced stage cancer, or felt they were victims, were most likely to feel anger at God. As Dr. Exline concluded: “If you’re angry at G-d, you’re not alone.”
Feeling anger when extreme suffering or tragedy occurs may make sense to us on some level. The human mind clearly is limited. But this cannot be an excuse for inaction or for blaming heaven. I’m reminded of the famous quote: “Sometimes I want to ask God why God allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when He could do something about it, but I’m afraid He might just ask me the same question.”
Perhaps we should take a lesson from someone who we might easily forgive if he had bitterly withdrawn from the world and from G-d. Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican-American, had every reason to be angry with God. His son Alexander was killed in combat in Iraq in 2004, and then his other son Brian sank into depression over his brother’s death and later committed suicide. Instead, Carlos quit his job, became a full-time peace activist, and supported organizations that honored the memory of his sons. In this year’s Boston Marathon, he stood near the finish line with his wife to cheer on National Guard and suicide support group runners. When the pressure cooker bombs exploded, Arredondo broke through a fence to offer help to the wounded: “My first reaction was to run toward the people. There was so much commotion and a lot of people running away. I was one of the first to help people and God protected me.” Those on the scene noted that Arredondo, the “man with the cowboy hat,” appeared to be literally holding the severed artery in the thigh of one wounded man, and in doing so prevented him from bleeding to death (although the man did lose both legs). Arredondo noted: “I kept talking to him. I kept saying, ‘Stay with me, stay with me.’ ” Arredondo’s example is extraordinary. By keeping his faith and turning his grief into constructive activities that gave him a purpose, Arredondo was there to help care for those wounded in the terrorist attack.
At the end of the day, we are the ones we have been waiting for. Amidst imperfect knowledge, we still must collaborate and do our best to improve the world. Courageous leadership is about being boldly committed to principles in anxious and uncertain times.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”