Ethics Now and Then 67 – Avot 4:19

Avot 4:19    Rabbi Yannai said: It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the                       wicked or the suffering of the righteous.

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Rabbi Yannai said:

Rabbi Yannai, a descendant of the High Priest Eli, lived in the first half of the 3rd Century. He was a prominent sage who lived  and established his own school of disciples in the town of Akbari, near Safed in the Galilee. He was attributed the title of Yannai Rabbah / Yannai the Great. Yannai was very wealthy; he is said to have planted four hundred vineyards (Bava Batra 14a) and to have given an orchard to the public. * Interestingly, his school differed from others in that the students become, as it were, part of the Rabbi’s family. Together with their studies, they worked on the estate, received a share of the revenue, and lived under his roof.

It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.

With the limitations of our finite human minds we are not equipped to truly judge the position of a person and whether their apparent success and wealth, or conversely failure and poverty, will be for their blessing or harm. This applies, in particular, when considered in the perspective of eternity. And yet, when we see the wealthy and powerful prosper to the detriment of the poor and helpless, and increasingly “good is called evil and evil good,”** it is a reality we wrestle with in an attempt to gain some understanding thereof.

Rabbi Yanni was both wealthy and righteous. Sadly, as history too often has illustrated, this combination is seldom guaranteed. The ungodly and unrighteous, even the blatantly wicked, succeed and prosper while the G-d fearing and righteous suffer. In his great work, Man is Not Alone, Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel includes a chapter entitled, ‘The Hiding God’, in which he addresses this question. In the face of life’s tragedies and of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man in the form of distress and dehumanization, torture and terror, the question arises: “Where is God?”

Whereas the backdrop to Yannai’s teaching was the oppression and destruction inflicted by the Roman Empire, Heschel frames the question in the light of the Shoah, or Holocaust, “history’s most terrible horror.” Many survivors emerged from the pit of indescribable darkness with strengthened faith, having witnessed miracles of God’s protection and provision. Many lost faith in the God who is characterized by love and deliverance, mercy and compassion. How could He allow His people to endure such suffering? Is God directing the history of man or is He indifferent to it? Why, so very often, does evil reign and trample goodness into the ground? Heschel answers the underlying universal question by offering the view that man attempts to  “…shift the responsibility of man’s plight from man to God; in accusing the Invisible though iniquity is ours.”***

We see a clear picture with Adam and Eve’s first sin in Genesis 3, when, in response to God’s challenge, the blame is shifted to someone else. Adam blames God and Eve; Eve blames the serpent. What happened prior to the confrontation also is important to consider. In their shame they tried to hide. As Heschel points out, “Man was the first to hide himself from God…and is still hiding.” The first question in the Bible is asked by God, “Ayekah?” “Adam – man – where are you?”

God’s intent and desire from the beginning and ever since is relationship, to “walk and talk” with mankind. Since man’s exile from the Garden, the injunction has been to “build it” – a place of meeting, primarily in our hearts, to which “He will come.” He will meet us there, but will not intrude uninvited. “When we long for Him, His distance crumbles away.”**** In our hiding from Him, in a misguided effort at self-protection, and shifting blame onto others in an attempt to justify ourselves, many evils are wrought.

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Special insert – June 2014 – In Memory of the three teenage students abducted and murdered this month by Palestinian Arab Jihadists, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – past Chief Rabbi of the UK, wrote the following, which captures an important element of our topic here:

“Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believed in death. Too often in the past Jews were victims of people who practised hate in the name of the God of love, cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, and murder in the name of the God of life. It is shocking to the very depths of humanity that this still continues to this day.

Never was there a more pointed contrast than, on the one hand, these young men who dedicated their lives to study and to peace, and on the other the revelation that other young men, even from Europe, have become radicalised into violence in the name of the God of Islam and are now committing murder in his name. That is the difference between a culture of life and one of death, and this has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel but in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria and elsewhere. Whole societies are being torn to shreds by people practising violence in the name of [Allah] their God.

Against this we must never forget the simple truth that those who begin by practising violence against their enemies end by committing it against their fellow believers. The verdict of history is that cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life, live on. That is why Judaism survives while the great empires that sought its destruction were themselves destroyed.

Our tears go out to the families of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. We are with them in grief. We will neither forget the young victims nor what they lived for: the right that everyone on earth should enjoy, to live a life of faith without fear.

Bila hamavet lanetzach: “May He destroy death forever, and may the Lord God [of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] wipe away the tears from all faces.” May the God of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.”

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Pause and Reflect


** Isaiah 5:20
*** Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, p 151
**** Ibid., p 153

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