Certain Doubt

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Adena Morgan

Haazinu is a disturbing passage. It gives us major spoilers for Jewish history, that we will sin and be punished by exile and degradation among the nations. Even with this advance warning and instructions on how to avoid this fate (don’t sin), our fate seems predetermined. It makes one wonder what kind of God would do this to Their Chosen People. The good news is we don’t have to wonder, as we are told explicitly in verse 4:

הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פׇּֽעֳל֔וֹ

כִּ֥י כׇל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט

אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל

צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא

The Mighty One, His works are perfect

For all His ways are justice

A faithful God without fault

He is righteous and just

I find this description confusing, since the rest of Haazinu doesn’t mesh with my intuitive understanding of the concepts of justice and righteousness used above.

The Sifrei on this verse gives a fascinating elucidation which I believe offers a helpful perspective. In a series of 5 comments we learn the rabbinical understanding of a just and righteous God. First the midrash affirms that all God’s creations are perfect, none wish that they had been made differently. Then the midrash tells us that God’s works in history are perfect and one should not question the decision to kill the whole world with a flood or elect Aharon’s family for the priesthood. Finally we are assured that God metes just rewards and punishments for the righteous and the wicked. 3 times the following comment is repeated:

כי כל דרכיו משפט –

יושב עם כל אחד ואחד בדין ונותן לו מה שראוי לו:

For all His ways are just-

He sits with every individual in judgement and gives what is appropriate

Chazal really seem to believe that everything God does is proper; it cannot and should not be questioned. This is illustrated with the story of R’ Hanina b. Teradion and his family. R’ Hanina was sentenced by the Romans to be burned alive with his Torah scroll for daring to teach Torah in public after it was forbidden, and his wife and daughter were also sentenced to be punished. The three of them were asked what they made of their sentence, and they each answered with our verse or a different verse that showed they had reconciled themselves to their fates. Here is a real life example of belief that whatever God does, even causing the righteous to suffer, is just.

Yet, the Sifrei doesn’t end there. It makes one more comment of just a few lines.

כשירד משה מהר סיני באו כל ישראל אצלו ואמרו לו:

משה רבינו, אמור לנו מה היה מדת הדין למעלה?

אמר להם:

אני איני אומר לזכות את הזכאי ולחייב את החייב,

אלא אפילו להחליף בדבר – אל אמונה ואין עול:

When Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai all Israel came to him and asked:

“Moshe, tell us what is the attribute of judgement above?”

He said to them:

“I cannot tell you it is to exonerate the innocent and hold liable the guilty,

rather even to switch the matter” – a faithful God without fault

This seems to contradict all of the earlier portion of the Sifrei. Moshe, the prophet who communicated more directly with God than any other, who should understand the best how God’s decisions are just, is questioning God’s judgement.  Although Chazal generally reaffirm God’s perfect judgement they also give voice to the doubts we all have when looking at a complicated world.

Adena Morgan (SBM 2011, 2013) lives in Jerusalem with her husband, where she works as a museum educator.

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