Recently, in these pages, the question of the role of God in history has been raised. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why did God not intervene in the murder of six million of our nation? And why has God sent us the coronavirus to kill millions of people? The belief in a God who is good and compassionate, a God who represents love, kindness, and justice, stands in direct conflict with a God who seems uninvolved in human suffering, both the suffering caused by other humans and that brought about by nature itself.
My reading of Jewish tradition on the question of God’s involvement in history is a very different one. I am a student/disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. A scion of generations of chasidic rabbis, Heschel was rescued from Poland in 1939, forced to leave behind his family, Two of his sisters and his mother were murdered by the Nazis. He never returned to Poland. He wrote, “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”
In 1944, Heschel wrote an article called “The Meaning of This War.” He wrote, “God will return to us when we are willing to let Him in — into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theaters. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the father of all men or no man, concerned about everything or nothing. Man reflects either the image of God’s presence or that of a beast.”
Humans, created in God’s image, have been endowed with free will. The foundational biblical story is that of Cain and Abel. Cain is given a choice as to how to respond to God’s acceptance of his brother’s offering and the rejection of his own. God says to Cain, “Why are you so distressed, why so upset? If you do the right thing, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is there at your door and has the power to control you. Yet you can be its master.”
The two brothers represent humanity, with its tribes, racial groups, nation states. Human history is an ongoing repetition of the Cain-Abel conflict. God has created us with moral autonomy: we can destroy or create, make war or peace, treat each other with hatred or with compassion. That is why God stands by and watches Cain kill his brother. God stands by and watches the history of human conflict. God chooses not to intervene in human history. It is only we, human beings, who have the power to bring God into history by making the moral choices: for a world of truth, justice, love, compassion, and peace.
Similarly, with nature and its power to destroy. The coronavirus was not a plague sent to humanity by God. The virus is part of the natural world, doing what viruses do, as are earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. Faced with these “acts of God,” human beings can choose to act morally (we might say godly) by coming to the rescue of victims, by performing acts of healing and comfort, and by using their knowledge and abilities as scientists to develop vaccines that ultimately will eliminate the virus.
Taken together, these are the ways that God impacts human events and intervenes in human history. Because we humans are created be’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, we can choose to be God’s representatives on earth. When we work for justice and peace, when we bring about comfort and healing, when we choose love and reject hate, we are doing God’s work on earth.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir is an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, a member of the New Israel Fund, the Teaneck Environmental Commission, and the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet.