“Why do you hide Your face…?”
Buddhists believe that Nirvana is the end of suffering. That is how you know that Judaism is not Buddhism. If we put an end to suffering, what would Jews talk about? We could have no more Suffering Olympics, where we debate who had the most terrible visit to the dentist and whose child has greater woes. Oppression was a second skin for us for most of history. It is hard to shed that skin. But in our most ancient text, the Bible, suffering is not a “Jewish problem.” It is a universal condition that demands a response.
Rabbi Harold Kushner makes this point elegantly in his new book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person: “Job’s problems are the problems of Everyman, not only of Jews.” This may explain why Job is not from the land of Israel, nor is any mention made of his being Jewish. The characters do not have Hebrew names; no one in the book alludes to earlier events in the Bible that are formative throughout the rest of wisdom literature, like Sinai and Exodus. One sage of the Talmud went further. Job was a fictional character, a literary platform to discuss human suffering and how a compassionate God could ever permit the cruelty we sometimes observe in our world.
Kushner takes us through ancient and modern scholarship on the book to try to answer the profound theological questions posed by human suffering. He refuses to accept any reading where God is painted as inferior to human beings or where God’s master plan is so complex and elusive that we must make peace with randomness and accept fate with a beatific smile.
Job, he contends, is not satisfied with God’s response of mystery as much as he is warmed by God’s presence. God took Job seriously. God engaged in conversation with Job about his suffering. God’s very presence was a solace. “I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty.” God is the force within each of us that prompts goodness in the encounter with evil. What is worse than suffering is abandonment, the sense that we face our ultimate trials alone.
Resilience is a spiritual response to suffering. But it is not resilience alone. It is resilience fueled by compassion - strength powered by kindness - that colors the kind of resilience we embody when darkness approaches. When Job suffered immense, incomprehensive losses he asked, nevertheless, for the God who allowed the tragedy to happen not to hide His face.
No one wants to look at suffering squarely. We do not want to look at the eyes of the homeless man, at the abused woman, at the neighbor who lost a child, at the friend struggling with chronic illness, at the spouse we hurt in an argument. But look we must. Because if we hide our faces then we have added immeasurably to the suffering of others. The most intimate form of communication in the Bible is to encounter the other, panim el panim – face to face. Anything less is inhumane.
We cannot explain suffering or why God is good and good people suffer. Anyone who claims to have an answer is either naïve or arrogant. In most instances we cannot eliminate it. But we have the capacity to take away some of its sting.
And that is why Hanukah is a time of joy for us because we celebrate resilience in the face of oppression. When we could have given up, we did not. We did not let our underdog status compromise our hope in the impossible. The suffering is the process; the triumph of spirit is the outcome. Hanukah teaches us the lesson that, “All will be good in the end; if it is not good, it is not the end.” This does not mean that suffering is redemptive; it only means that we cannot always see, in the thick of trouble, our own resilience and capacity to make meaning out of the most challenging situations. We can. Hanukah teaches that we must.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!