The Indian Ocean tsunami and its horrendous toll in life has, for a moment, united the world in grief. The worst that happens to us brings out the best in us. Political and religious differences have been set aside. We have been moved to sympathy, grief and the desire to help. We have watched and listened, prayed and shed inward tears. We have lived John Donne’s great words: “Any man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.” We have seen the worst of nature and the best of humanity.
Yet for religious believers the tragedy has posed the great question: Why does God, who created us in love, allow such things to happen? It was a question asked by some of the great figures of the Bible: Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah and Job. They lived without easy answers. Perhaps that is what faith is.
Thirty years ago, I was a rabbinical student, and heard something from my teacher that moved me then and I repeat it now. The book of Exodus, speaking about Moses’s first encounter with God at the Burning Bush, says: “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Why was he afraid? This is the answer my teacher gave.
To be a parent is to be moved by the cry of a child. But if the child is ill and needs medicine, we administer it, making ourselves temporarily deaf to its cry. A surgeon, operating in an emergency without anaesthetics, must momentarily desensitise himself to the patient’s pain. A statesman, to do his best for his country, must make tough decisions: for soldiers to die in war if war is necessary, for people to be thrown out of jobs if economic stringency is needed. Parents, surgeons and politicians have human feelings, but the roles they occupy mean that at times they must override them if they are to do the best for those for whom they are responsible.
If we were able to see how tragedy today leads to good tomorrow — if we were able to see from the point of view of God — we would understand Divine purpose but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all, and become deaf to the cries of those in pain. God does not want us to cease to be human, for if He did, He would not have created us. We are not God. We will never see things from His perspective. The attempt to do so is an abdication of the human situation. This, said my teacher, is why Moses was afraid to look at — to understand — God.
He knew that if he were to understand God he would have no choice but to be reconciled to the pain and suffering of the world. From the perspective of eternity, he would see that suffering is a necessary stage on the journey to the good. He would understand God but at the cost of ceasing to be Moses, the fighter against injustice who intervened whenever he saw wrong being done. He was afraid that seeing heaven would desensitise him to earth. Coming close to infinity, he would lose his humanity. That is why God chose Moses, and why He created us.
There is Divine purpose and sometimes, looking back at the past, we can see it. But those who suffer in the present are not healed by the past. God does not ask us to act from His point of view but from ours, striving for good in the short term, not just the long; in this world, not the next; from the perspective of time and space, not infinity and eternity. God asks us not to understand but to heal; not to accept suffering but to diminish it.
Yet, my teacher continued, you will find that in the book of Numbers (12:8) it says that Moses did see the face of God. How do we reconcile that with his earlier fear? Look carefully at the Hebrew text, he said. You will see that the earlier passage uses the name of God associated with His justice. The later one uses the name associated with His mercy. We cannot, should not, seek to understand God’s justice, he concluded, but we should strive to emulate His compassion. That, these past days, is what people across the world have done. Without pausing to vindicate their faith in God, they have helped to vindicate God’s faith in us.
(First published in The Times)