The darkness of Oct 7 is omnipresent and all-pervasive. This tragedy raises so many questions about who we are as a nation and our divine rights to the land of Israel. Additionally, the horror raises so many questions about how human beings, though graced with divine image, can commit such sickening and heinous crimes. Watching antisemites erupt with joy at the ugly massacre and subsequently threaten Jews with continued violence is a disgusting reminder that education and enlightenment will not completely cure the world of this venomous disease.
Aside from these cultural and national questions the dark tragedy also severely tests our emunah. How could Hashem let these barbarians inflict so much death and suffering upon His chosen people. Unlike previous Jewish suffering, this occurred in the land Hashem promised us.
Witnessing these holocaust-like horrors, raises many daunting questions which will impact our faith, prayer, and relationship with Hashem for years to come. These are not simple times, and we best construct durable and nuanced faith to navigate this storm. We look to past profiles of faith to help us solidify our own emunah.
The akeidah provides a lasting portrait of human faith under duress. The instruction to sacrifice his lone son boggles Avraham’s imagination. It counters every moral norm which he had associated with a merciful Hashem he had first discovered. For 2000 years, gods had appeared as angry grotesque figures who taunted human beings from their perch in heaven. Finally, Avraham discerned a compassionate and moral God who desires human welfare. At the tail end of his career though, Avraham received a commandment from that kind God, which was morally shocking, at least to human reasoning.
Not only did the akeidah clash with human moral sensibilities, but it also contravened numerous promises and oaths of Hashem. Avraham had been promised children “as numerous as the stars,” yet he waited 86 years for his first child, Yishma’el, who was ultimately dismissed. After waiting an additional 13 years for Yitzchak, his chosen successor, Avraham is now ordered to sacrifice his lone progeny. This divine mandate seemed irreconcilable with previous divine statements. The akeidah was confounding both on a moral plain, and in light of earlier divine guarantees.
Yet, despite his bewilderment, Avraham responds with one, and only one, word. He says “hineni,” which indicates his readiness to submit to a divine wisdom he cannot begin to grasp.
Hashem Is Different
At the heart of monotheism lies the notion that we can’t fully comprehend the ways of Hashem. As the prophet Yeshaya exhorts, ”My thoughts aren’t your thoughts and My ways aren’t your ways.” Iyov stared into the divine mystery and hopelessly attempted to justify the ways of Hashem to Man. By contrast, Avraham surrenders his own instincts to a Higher wisdom. The stark and powerful response of “hineni” signals his courageous acquiescence.
Faith runs deeper than logic or human reasoning. Faith outlasts the incomprehensible. My rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l once asserted that emunah should be so durable that we should be capable of being the last Jew to walk out of Auschwitz alive and still not surrender our faith.
Avraham is the paradigm of an enduring emunah which survives decisions of Hashem which are incomprehensible to Man.
Is Everything Positive?
Many define faith as the belief that every divine decision will work out positively and that every tragedy will ultimately yield favorable outcomes. A popular mantra which distills this approach is “gam zu letovah” (everything will turn out constructively). Others have a difficult time with this policy of viewing everything through rose-colored glasses. Instead, they adopt a position popularized by Rav Avraham Karelitz or the Chazon Ish zt”l. Faith isn’t predicated upon the belief that every tragedy possesses a positive outcome. Instead, it is based upon the conviction that every event has a purpose and that nothing is random or arbitrary. We don’t know why events occur, nor must we assume that every disaster has a silver lining. Instead, our faith affirms Divine hashgacha or Providence. All human history is governed and managed by Hashem and nothing is haphazard. Faith in hashgacha provides solace and comfort during times of uncertainty.
Questions Are Legitimate
There are two intriguing stories cited in the midrash, each of which highlights Avraham’s inner turmoil in the leadup to the akeidah. In one midrash Avraham envisions meeting an older man who interrogates him about the morality of sacrificing his son. This inner vision reflects Avraham’s own internal struggle to come to terms with the morality of the akeidah. Despite his commitment and subservience to the Divine will, Avraham still wrestled with the decision internally.
A more dramatic midrash portrays Avraham praying to Hashem, until the very last minute, for the repeal of the akeidah. He will not disobey Hashem’s instruction and intends to fully execute Divine commandment, unless the orders are reversed. He is so confused by the command though, that he actively prays for Hashem to repeal the akeidah. Each of these portraits showcases Avraham’s complex faith. His commitment to Hashem is unwavering, yet he struggles to make sense of the command and prays for its repeal.
Evidently, faith, especially during a crisis, is a multi-layered experience. It demands that we submit to the higher will of Hashem, even when it perplexes us. Faith, though, doesn’t demand that we stifle questions. Asking questions is part of our attempt to better understand Hashem. Sometimes we succeed and uncover the answers, while other times we remain baffled by the questions. Either way, Hashem planted moral conscience in our hearts to help us navigate the complexities of life. When events run contrary to our moral expectations, He wants us to struggle and question, as long as our relationship with Him isn’t predicated solely upon arriving at “answers.” Questioning is a healthy and vital part of our relationship with Him.
The same Avraham who submitted to the divine command atop the mountain had previously prayed for the sinners of Sedom to be spared. He asked Hashem “will the judge of the entire Earth not perform justice?” By assuming that Hashem is just and merciful, Avraham could not fathom the annihilation of an entire metropolis. Yet even when his prayers aren’t answered, Avraham doesn’t abandon faith, responds with “hineni” and walks straight up the mountain.
We are facing a world in which many questions linger. How could Hashem allow such atrocities? How can He allow so many to be duped into believing that this is a resistance struggle rather than a violent massacre of Jews? How could this all occur on a Shabbat which was also the day we celebrated finishing Hashem’s Torah? What does this say about our divine mandate to return home and settle our land? Isn’t this a new era in which pogroms of this nature no longer occur? Where is the world’s moral conscience?
None of these questions yield simple solutions. It is legitimate and even desirable to be occupied with questions. Questions indicate that we deeply believe in Hashem’s moral spirit and our historical rights to this land. Asking questions in earnest sharpens our belief in these cardinal values.
We may not receive most of the answers, at least not in the immediate term. Someday, perhaps after many of us leave this Earth, the answers will be clear. Until then we stand in steadfast and stubborn silence repeating Avraham’s “hineni.” To his “hineni” we add two phrases: Shema Yisrael. Ani Ma’amin.
May Hashem give us all faith. And peace.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.