Ki Teitzei – Responding to Disaster

Where is God?

         This week has brought even more pain and devastation as we have witnessed horrifying destruction from fires, hurricanes, police shootings, antisemitic signs on freeways, arson of a Chabad Center in Delaware – all amidst ongoing death from the pandemic. It is literally and emotionally hard to breathe. It feels like too much – there is so much suffering and so many have lost so much.

         Moments like this lift up the question: Where is God?  How could God allow such horrors?   While I believe God cares and is present, I do not believe God orchestrates these events.  You might point to moments in the Torah where God indeed crashes into nature – bringing punishment for evil– the flood in the story of Noah, the plagues in Egypt, the earth swallowing the rebels who questioned Moses’ authority in the wilderness. The Torah is full of example of God causing calamity!  But we engage with our texts with the context history and development, and literary interpretation.  We are part of an ongoing tradition which reads and rereads traditional texts and allows faith and belief to evolve.

         In terms of historic evolution, the God in the first few books of the Torah, is much different than the God of the prayer book and the Talmud – each generation sees God through different lens. The Torah itself moves us from a God who intervenes to a God who has chosen to self-limit to allow for human freedom. As we study the book of Deuteronomy, we no longer see a God who no longer intervenes or interrupts nature.  God is present – in the laws and values which we interpret and are called to bring to life through our deeds, in our hearts and in lessons of what goes wrong, and disappointment in us when we disobey these laws.  But God no longer jumps into the story as we saw in other books of the Torah.

         Some commentators liken the evolution to God as a parent, who begins by enforcing rules, but then leaves us on our own.  The God of Deuteronomy has self-limited to allow us freedom to make our own choices.  God, who created nature, leaves nature to its own cycles, rhythms and causalities.  Many commentators teach the stories of Divine punishment as lessons in morality and consequence.

         We use our minds to understand more fully nature’s laws– so that we can move out of the way when hurricanes are on the way, or wear masks when germs can be spread – but God does not create the hurricane or the pandemic as punishment.  A God who has receded demands more of us – to understand nature as best we can to save life, and to act in ways that bring godliness into the world.  So where is God?  God is in our hearts, our deeds, our goodness.

God’s power depends upon us to bring godliness into the world.

         Rabbi Harold Schulweis in his book For Those Who Cannot Believe, teaches that the names used for God help move us to a theology of God who creates, yet does not supernaturally intervene; while at the same time speaking to our hearts and being present through our  actions.

         Rabbi Schulweis notes that in the two creation stories in Genesis, two different names of God are used.  There is Elohim, which appears in the opening chapter of Genesis and refers to the God of creation – the world as it is with all of its physical laws. The laws of nature, like the coronavirus, do not know a good person from a bad person – they simply exist and move forward along a natural course.  Hurricanes and fires happen in certain conditions. Genetics predisposes to certain health problems- it is the way of the world.  The human element enters when our actions impact nature, our health and other things which have been created in ways that bring about harm.  Consequences are not curses or punishments, they result from our behavior.

         And that brings us to the second name for God – Adonai. The name Adonai first appears when the human being is introduced in Genesis.  Rabbi Schulweis explains that Adonai first appears after the human being is charged to till and tend the Garden of Eden. God is one – fusing together nature created by God – Elohim, with the human action required to bring goodness to that which was created – Adonai.   The one God creates laws of nature AND gives us ideals, purpose and responsibility.

         And that is what our portion teaches.  In law after law we fuse together reality – what is; with what should be – ideals.  A repeated concept in this week’s portion is to never ignore a person or an animal in need.  The Hebrew is: lo tuchal l’hit’alem – you may not ignore, you may not be indifferent.   Look at the different texts where lo tuchal l’hitalem apply:  At the beginning of chapter 22 we read about someone who has lost a precious object – an animal or a garment: lo tuchal l’hit’alem – you may not ignore, you may not be indifferent.  Rashi explains specifically that our verses tell us not to “cover our eyes,” pretending not to see our fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and ignore what is going on.  This text reminds us never to become callous or immune to pain – even when it comes in the large doses we are currently experiencing.  That is how we respond to this overwhelming moment.  When someone is in need lo tuchal l’hit’alem – you may not ignore, you may not be indifferent – we must act. It why the stories of people who brought their boats to flooding cities, or provided food or shelter to those fleeing, or evacuated animals from fire areas lived this value of not being indifferent.

         How are you living this right now?

          The principle of not ignoring someone in distress is used a couple of verses later regarding the aid one must extend to  his  or her fellow’s  animal when it is in distress: “If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road do not ignore it; you must help him raise it” (Deut. 22:4). We have to act! The thrust of both of these laws reflects the need to look beyond oneself so as to be cognizant and sensitive to one’s surroundings, countering the natural human tendency to avoid becoming involved with others. Both cases refer to a caring attitude towards animals and yet the text stresses that these animals belong to “achicha – your fellow.”  When we read carefully, we see the word appears six times in these two laws. When someone is achicha – you fellow – you overcome the natural tendency to be involved only those closest to us, and respond.

         Motivation for this ethic of caring for one in need is rooted in our understanding of our historic story and the demands it makes on our behavior. In chapter 24:16, we are taught: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God Adonai elohecha redeemed you from there. Because we were slaves in Egypt, we must always look out for those who are vulnerable and suffering!  Note that the name for God is Adonai elohecha.  Adonai who asks us to create a world as it should be, fuses together with elohecha – this which is created.

         The next verse tells us to allow the stranger, orphan and the widow to gather from the corners and gleanings of our field, we are told it is so that Adonai Elohecha – the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.  Once again Adonai – the God who asks us to care for the vulnerable, allows that which is created – nature and bounty to reflect our ideals.

         Blessings come when we respond to that which we can control with caring, involvement and whatever repair we can do. Adonai, the source of healing, and Elohim, the natural laws which sometimes cause suffering fuse together as we seek to transform.  Where is God in this moment in life?  God is there in the response of firemen and women, police, doctors, nurses, neighbors who brought healing to chaos.  God is there in the Israeli firemen and firewomen who have come to Northern California to fight the fires.  God is in those who stand with us, help rebuild and reject antisemitism.  God is in the heart, voices and feet of those who lifted voice in peaceful protest at yet another tragic shooting – this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin – to Jacob Blake, a black man who was shot in back. So many are bringing the qualities of God to the world as it is – demanding justice and quality, dignity and reckoning – achieved through peaceful means.  Adonai is at work as we respond.

         Overwhelmed and scared though we are – we cannot tire or turn away.  Ours is the call not to ignore – lo tuchal l’hit’alem – you may not ignore, you may not be indifferent..  These laws and our legacy demand that we ask “What are we doing today?

         The word Adonai is spelled yud, he, vav, hey – Yahweh.  Yahweh – as you say it – it is as if you are taking a breathe.  Adonai/Yahweh – God’s breathe and essence enter the world as we respond to pain through care and love.  It is moments like the one we are facing that we find the ability to breathe through the care and activism that we bring to the world. the world through the ability to breathe.  Yahweh – let’s breathe Yahweh into this world.

Shabbat Shalom.