Rosh Hashanah 5773 – Searching for God in a Broken World

( By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker)

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker

It happened in a movie theater in Aurora; a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; in the Family Research Center in Washington, DC; on campus at Auburn University and Texas A & M; in front of the Empire State Building; in a grocery store in Old Bridge; and the list goes on. Over the past few months, these events tore away the veil of security at many of the places we took for granted as being “safe.”  Because of a few lone gunmen, an air of uncertainty clouds places like the movies, tourist attractions, and the grocery store.  In interviews, people like you and me, transformed into “survivors,” use words like “chaos” and “unthinkable” to describe their experience.

As we hear these stories, we find ourselves asking profound theological questions as we try to make sense of it all.  Questions like: “How could God let this happen?”  “Why would God allow innocent people to suffer and die?”  Some might even ask, “How could God create such evil in the world?”

It is hard to find satisfying answers to these questions.  We feel scared and vulnerable and we start to see the dark edges that outline our own mortality.  It’s a terrible feeling.  And so we struggle.  On this day when we speak over and over again, in prayers and piyyutim, of God’s greatness and might; of God as HaMELECH, our supreme ruler, sitting in judgment high-up in the heavens  – some of us struggle to reconcile these images of God with the questions created by the past few months of violence.

But that struggle is what makes us Jews.  Rather than pushing our questions aside or bottling up our raw emotions, our tradition encourages us to engage in the struggle, not to run away from it.  As a people, we have two names that are very powerful in considering how we relate to the Divine.  We are both Yisrael and Yehudim.  We are Yisrael, wrestlers/strugglers with God, but we are also Yehudim, full of gratitude to God.  While these two ideas may seem contradictory, they are, in fact, two important dimensions for how we understand our relationship with God.  As Yisrael, as God-wrestlers, there is an expectation that our faith does not always come easy – that there are moments in our lives that shake us to our very core, that challenge what we believe.  But wrestling implies an intimacy, a closeness.  We do not run from our feelings of fear or anger towards God, but instead we engage God, for at the end of the day, we are also Yehudim, God-thankersand we value the importance of being in a relationship.

Avinu Malkeinu, one of the hallmark texts of the high holy days offers great insight into understanding our special, albeit complex, relationship with God.  These two ideas – God as avinu, our parent, and malkeinu, our ruler, may seem at odds with each other.  On the one hand, the image of God as our parent is incredibly intimate and emphasizes God’s compassion and unconditional love for us; whereas God as malkeinu, as one who rules over us, implies an indebtedness to God as part of a contractual, covenantal relationship.  But when held together, God as parent actually tempers God as ruler.

Avinu Malkeinu helps us understand God as a God of compassion and justice, whose power is tempered by that compassion.  If God is a God of justice and not of power, then God can still be on our side when bad things happen to us or those we love.  In the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “[God] can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better.  Our misfortunes are none of God’s doing, and [so] we can turn to God for help.”  If we grew up believing in an all-wise, all-powerful, all-knowing God, it may be hard for us to change our way of thinking about God.  “Just like it was hard for us, when we were children, to realize that our parents were not all-powerful, that a broken toy had to be thrown out because they could not fix it, not because they did not want to.  But if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible.  We will be able to turn to God for things He can do to help us, instead of holding on to unrealistic expectations of Him which will never come about.”[1]

The title of Rabbi Kushner’s book is When Bad Things Happen to Good People, not “why” bad things happen to good people – he does not attempt to offer answers for why bad things might happen, but rather what to do and how to react when they do happen.  For Rabbi Kushner, those questions of “How could God let this happen?” and “Why would God allow innocent people to suffer and die?”, while part of our process of grieving, don’t create space for comforting answers.  These questions assume a God that is essentially a puppeteer, pulling the strings that cause people to act in one way or another.  But most of us would probably agree that this is not the kind of God we believe in.  Even on Rosh Hashanah, when God is judge and jury, ruler and parent, our tradition does not assert that God controls our every choice.  Rather, these images of God imply our innate ability for choice and the importance of considering the consequences of our choices.  Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, understood that while God created human beings b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, God also created us with free will – the ability to make our own decisions, chose our own actions.  God has not predetermined our lives for us.  We have the ability to create, to build, and to support, but we also have the power to destroy, to injure, and to insult.

If we begin to consider that God is not responsible for why these things happen, then a more productive question, Kushner suggests, is “What do I do now that this terrible thing has happened?” “How does God make a difference in our lives if God neither kills nor cures?” he asks, and explains, “God inspires people to help other people who have been hurt by life, and by helping them, they protect them from the danger of feeling alone, abandoned, or judged.”[2]  Kushner’s theology presents a God that can be a source of strength for those who have suffered tragedy.  As the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 27, which we read throughout Elul as part of our spiritual preparation for these high holy days, “God is my light and my help; whom shall I fear? God is the strength of my life; whom shall I dread?”


What we need now, after these past few months of senseless violence, is healing, not blaming.  We need to return to some feeling of safety once again.  We actually need God in our lives, not as a source of blame, but rather as a source of comfort and good.  A God that is not in the actions of a few lone gunmen, but is present in the way a town responds to tragedy, coming together to support the survivors and comfort the families of the victims.  We need to engage in a relationship with God, even if it is not an easy relationship.  Even if we are struggling with God, we are engaging in a relationship with God.  Hans Jonas, a twentieth-century German-Jewish philosopher, and author of some of the most profound post-Holocaust theology, understood that God did not cause human tragedy.  But while not the cause, he explained, God is still affected by human tragedy.  Jonas paints a picture of a God weeping in the heavens as God’s most prized creation – human beings – inflict injury on each other.  We may not know why bad things happen in our lives, but as human beings, created in the image of God, we do have the power to choose how we react.  We have the ability to reach out to God as a source of light and help, of comfort and strength.


Shanah tovah.

[1] Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 51.

[2] Kushner, 153.