Like most Americans, I found myself glued to the coverage of the Hurricane all week. From when she arrived on land and through the winds, rain, flood, broken levies, hunger strife, disease, dead bodies. I and thousands of my colleagues -- Chabad Rabbi’s all over the US -- worried about Rabbi Yosef Nemes who had remained in his home to host some stranded visitors. By the last account he was on the second floor of his home -- the first floor flowing with toxic water -- waiting to be rescued. (In the end, he, his family and guests were rescued and are all fine.)
A bastion of pain and suffering, that beautiful city of New Orleans has become. The pictures that keep coming to mind: The father who was holding his wife’s hand, as she said, “Take care of the kids, I can’t hold on any longer.” Then she let go only to be swept into the raging waters. The 3 year old child walking aimlessly as his parents are nowhere to be found. The throngs of people around the superdome crying as they await water, food, supplies and anything that can ease the pain and suffering.
Bodies floating in the newfound rivers, rescue workers dodging corpses and excrement to save the stranded holding signs on their rooftops, begging to be saved before they dehydrate. Scenes so vivid and powerful, you’d never expect to see such pain and squalor in the powerful and rich United States of America.
And the question that keeps coming back is Why? Why does G-d create hurricanes? Why was one person saved and the other sent to death? hy did the levies fail? Why do parents have to cry over children who have not been bathed or fed in a week?
Why so much destruction? A city hundreds of years old with a rich history, a city that has in many ways represented America's charm and beauty, is now reduced to rubble.
The G-d who instructs in His Bible to be considerate of the possessions of an individual person, has now come and uprooted billions of dollars of property from hundreds and thousands of Americans? Why?
There is a famous statement in medieval Jewish philosophy, “ilu yadativ hayisiv – if I knew Him, I would be Him.” It is referring to G-d. If his ways were understood so that I could reconcile them in my mind, I would actually be Him. Simply said, Judaism believes we cannot understand the ways of G-d.
During a profound personal loss I experienced, my father shared with me the following thought that has helped me immensly, and which I continue to share with others in pain.
In the book of Exodus (32:18-23) there is fascinating exchange between G-d and Moses. “And he [Moses] said: 'Show me, now, Your glory!' G-d said... 'You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.' And the Lord said: 'Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock (Tzur in Hebrew). It shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.'"
This is a strange conversation. What exactly did Moses crave to see? And why was Moses pleased once G-d placed him into the rock and passed by him, showing him merely his back?
My father explained it to me thus. When Moses requested a “visual” of G-d, he wasn’t selfishly asking for a confirmation of His existence. He was asking for something far deeper. "Show me your glory" means show me how a good G-d can cause so much pain? How can I observe Your glory and grace in suffering and loss? How can it be that You, the Master of the universe, the source of goodness and love, can cause so much horror to innocent people?
The term rock in Hebrew, tzur, can also be translated as the “narrows” or constraints. It is also oddly similar to the Yiddish-Hebrew word tzoros or difficulties. Moses craves to know the secret of the tzur, the mystery behind the tzaros of life. I am the leader of Your people, Moses is telling G-d, and I need to explain to them in their time of distress how G-d allows the innocent to suffer.
To which G-d replies: “You cannot see Me, for no man can see Me and live.“ I cannot explain it to you, Moses, for you are human. You need to be G-d to understand G-d. Yet, G-d says, I will give you something to hold onto. I will put you into the rock (the tzoros – difficulties) and I will pass by you and you will merely see My back after I pass. You will see Me only in retrospect.
What G-d is saying that it is impossible to appreciate the purpose of a tragedy as it is unfolding. Even afterward, we are usually stunned, horrified and numb. Yet there are events in our life at which we can look back in retrospect and appreciate -- if not fully -- some elements of the suffering that has befallen us.
Many people I know have told me that while their pain was very difficult it was an experience that turned them into greater, stronger and deeper people. Other problems in their life were put into perspective because of what they endured. In retrospect, they could even accept what happened.
"You will see Me from my back" means that there will be times, not always, that you will see Me retrospectively; you will appreciate the presence of G-d in your pain, but only after it has occurred. You will appreciate the glimmer of goodness in what G-d has wrought upon you. You may still question His ways, since you as a human being can never fully understand why good people should endure tragedy, but you might be able to admit that Providence guides our individual and collective destiny.
To help in the relief effort please log onto: http://www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/articlecco.html?AID=306259Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the Director of Chabad of Peabody. He can be reached at: Rabbi@ChabadPeabody.com