Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Imagine two children playing hide and seek; one hides but the other does not look for him. G-d is hiding and man is not seeking. Imagine his distress.
Reb Baruch of Medzhibozh (Quoted in Souls on Fire, p. 84)
Coined in the 1970’s by Arthur Waskow, the term G-d-wrestling – meaning the existential, deeply personal and sometimes gut-wrenching struggle to come to terms with G-d and His presence in our lives – grew out of a modern reading of Jacob’s nocturnal skirmish with the angel back in the Book of Genesis. But the term might apply just as well to what Jeremiah the prophet seems to be advocating for in the Haftarah we read this shabbat.
Jews the world over are now living the reality that we call ‘the three weeks’. It begins with the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz, when we mark the day when the besieging enemy forces – the Babylonians in the case of the First Temple, and the Romans in the case of the Second Temple – breached the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Jewish consciousness then moves with increasing intensity towards the Fast of the Ninth of Av, the commemoration of the terrible moment when the conquering armies reached the jewel of our people, the Holy Temple, and put it to the torch.
As part of synagogue services on each of the three shabbatot during these twenty-two days, the Haftarah reading – the reading from the prophetic writings of the Bible which follows the Torah reading and ordinarily is related in some fashion to the subject of that week’s Torah reading – is focused on the events precipitating and surrounding the destruction of the First Temple. This week, when the Torah reading is Parshat Matot and Parshat Masa’ai at the end of the Book of Numbers, the Haftarah is from the second chapter of the Book of Jeremiah.
And in this chapter from Jeremiah we find the strangest thing: The prophet chastises the Jewish People for not questioning and challenging G-d!
“Hear ye the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus saith the LORD: what unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me, that they have strayed so far from Me, and have followed worthless idols and have become themselves worthless? They did not ask: ‘Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt; that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of ravines, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt?’ And I brought you into a land of fruitful fields, to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination. The priests did not ask: ‘Where is the LORD?’ …”
When one feels abandoned by G-d and events don’t give us a sense of His presence and providence, as was apparently the case at the time of Jeremiah in the years preceding the destruction of the Temple, there are two very common human reactions. The first is to increase one’s faith and commitment, justifying the ways of the inscrutable G-d and accepting His decrees with humility. The other is to conclude that there is no G-d (G-d forbid) or that He does not take note or care. The latter reaction would typically be called heretical and the former would normally be deemed religiously exemplary.
In Jeremiah’s case, the people abandoned G-d just as He was perceived as having abandoned them, transferring their allegiance to alternative gods, the idols of the nations of the ancient near east. For this the prophet castigates the people. But how would Jeremiah have wanted his generation to behave? He most certainly does not recommend to them the path of humble and unquestioning acceptance of their fate, but rather censures them for not adopting a third option: Questioning and active engagement with G-d: It is G-d-wrestling that he would have wanted of them:
“Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt?” is what they should have said. The people – and the priests – could have and should have challenged G-d and struggled with Him. They should have looked deeper, trying to figure things out and to make sense of the reality that they experienced. They should have subjected themselves and their image of G-d to a transformative religious experience, searching for new meaning within the received tradition.
Apathy, indifference to G-d, disengagement with Him, these are the cardinal sins. But one need not just accept what appears to be G-d’s way at face value and go on. It is OK to question G-d; indeed according to Jeremiah it is proper to grapple with the Divine. The process of questioning is in and of itself valuable. Such is the way that true faith is developed and deepened. Such is the way that it matures and reaches greater meaning and relevance.
As we move towards the Fast of the Ninth of Av – perhaps we can each rededicate ourselves to following in the footsteps of Jeremiah and heeding his call, protesting apathy and agitating within our souls and within our communities for a dynamic re-engagement with G-d and the Jewish tradition, as we struggle to redefine their meaning for our modern lives.
I tell students, ‘If you are angry with G-d, I respect you. If you love G-d, I respect you. Indifference I do not respect.
Elie Wiesel (Against Silence 1:310)