The beginning of Elul has moved me to consider the many unanswered tragedies of this past year – from Covid deaths to the Meron tragedy to the Surfside building collapse – and it’s hard to avoid thinking about the forbidden word we have all been taught not to ask: Why?
We learn from a young age that when it comes to tragedies, asking why doesn’t get us very far. When Aharon lost his sons, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon” (and Aharon was silent). Chazal have taught us that this means that he accepted Hashem’s judgment and did not complain or question Him, a lesson on how to act when faced with challenges.
So I go through most of my life not questioning why because I know I will never find the proper answers. I know most of the epithets and lectures about pain and suffering, but when a building comes crashing down and lives are lost, I don’t know what to say. Like when in a shiva home, there are simply no words to say to explain the pain and horror.
But there’s a problem. G-d gave us thinking brains and I’m not so sure he wants us walking around like mules that just keep trudging along aimlessly. And so I think.
How does the Torah – and Judaism in general – deal with questions that, in a sense, have no answers? There are certain sins in the Torah which are punishable by death, yet if certain criteria are not met, the Torah says it will be dealt with by the hand of G-d. For instance, when we suspect that a person has commited murder but there aren’t two witnesses, we send him to a city of refuge. How many Nazis committed horrible atrocities and escaped the clutches of justice? How many terrorists still run rampant without punishment? And through it all, it seems that G-d requires man to make a leap of faith, believing that G-d will right the wrong in His time, and in His way.
Why does Judaism require this leap of faith?
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade concludes with Dr. Jones finally reaching the holy grail. He has deciphered the final clues of an ancient map, having eluded severe danger. The problem is he has to cross what appears to be a very long expanse across a deep abyss. One slip and it’s all over for Indy.
Or is it? After strong contemplation, he begins to repeat the line that his father had told him so many times before: “You must believe.” In a sense, he was telling his son, now that you’ve deciphered each and every clue correctly and made it to the end of the line, there is one final step in attaining the holy grail: You must believe. And so, against his better judgment, Dr. Jones, the archaeologist who believes in rational thinking and science, closes his eyes, lifts his foot and places it one step ahead of the other, leaping forward, in what appears to be certain death. Only it isn’t, as the camera reveals a thin, camouflaged path leading across the ravine, which could only be seen one after the step was taken. And that final step, that final leap of faith, was the necessary component to attain the golden cup.
Similarly, Judaism actually requires a leap of faith in order for our relationship with Hashem to reach the highest level. We learn this from the chukim, commandments given without explanation or reason, like the parah adumah or shaatnez, for instance. Unlike most of the commandments which make logical sense, like not murdering, honoring one’s parents, or giving charity, chukim defy logic or explanation.
But laws like not mixing wool and linen defy our logic. And this is precisely where the leap of faith comes in. Because there will be times in our life when things don’t make sense, like a building crushing G-d-fearing people or a terrorist blowing up innocent civilians. And that is when we have to have faith in G-d and not ask the question “why?” Because, like Iyov teaches us, “Were you there before I laid the foundations of the earth…?” In short, why isn’t a question for us to ask in this world.
By acknowledging that there are certain things we cannot answer, we are in a sense saying “We trust you and are not questioning you, Hashem, because we know that everything you do is for the good, even though we cannot always see it. That elevates the relationship even further. And faith is a two way street. Many times, proper faith can effect change for the good as well, like believing that Hashem can defy and change a fatal prognosis. The Midrash tells us that Avraham’s brother Nachor died in Ur Kasdim, whereas Avraham came out from the flames unscathed, because Nachor didn’t really believe in Hashem like Avraham did.
Since the whys are tough to answer, let us focus on the whats and hows. What can I do to make things better? How can I help the situation? How many people have given money and time and prayed for a fellow human being. How many Tehillim have been said for our brothers in Israel who are under the constant threat of Arab hostility. We have the choice to make a difference, rather than to simply ask why. Even though it’s easier said than done. And while a leap of faith sometimes requires a lot from us, it gives us a great deal as well, while simultaneously elevating our relationship with Hashem along the way.