Dear Rabbi Fried,
Jewishly, this is one of my toughest times, if not the hardest time, of year; namely this “mourning period” of three weeks leading up to the sad holiday of Tisha B’Av, remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some people find it difficult or meaningless because it’s so hard to connect to something that happened so long ago. I have a different problem; to me, it points to a vengeful, angry God, one that would destroy his own temple and banish his own people from their homeland because they didn’t obey him.
I grew up thinking of God as an old man with a long white beard waving his finger angrily and saying “NO!” I’ve spent many of my adult years trying to alter that outlook, but this time of year always brings it back and makes me sad and disconnected from God, since it reinforces that “old man” vision, which doesn’t work for me … is that truly the way Judaism views God?
— Marcie W.
I, too, would have great difficulty connecting to the image of God which you grew up with and seek to distance yourself from. Sadly, I think that you are not alone in the way the Al-mighty was portrayed to you in your youth.
Furthermore, I feel that the effigy of God you describe has driven countless Jews away from our tradition; they want as little as possible to do with that angry, vengeful and nay-saying God!
The truth couldn’t be further from this angry, vengeful imagery. Judaism views God as nothing but a kind, loving Father in Heaven who wants nothing but the very best possible for His beloved children on earth; for all of humanity and especially for His “firstborn son” of the nations, the Jewish people. His love He has for us knows no limits. As long as we are willing to be the recipients of His blessings, they are showered upon us beyond the limits of nature.
Like a parent, God is willing to put up with quite a lot from His children before they become subject to His rebuke. It is important to keep in mind that, even when rebuke is in order when we have strayed too far off the path, it never comes as vengeance or hatefulness, rather out of the love of a Father to his children who need to receive the rebuke to get back to becoming recipients of the goodness.
“Like a father rebukes his son so does the Lord your God rebuke you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Furthermore, like it causes a great deal of pain to a parent to have to strike a child when absolutely necessary to drive home the rebuke, the Torah teaches us that God is in immeasurable pain whenever He deems it necessary to cause us suffering, even when it’s exactly the rebuke we need.
God’s love for us is so great that He “cries” uncontrollably when his beloved children are suffering. The Talmud and Midrash draw the analogy of a father standing by when a doctor is administering very painful medication, sometimes even a necessary amputation, to cure a life-threatening illness plaguing his beloved son. Although the father knows full well that only this painful method is going to save his son’s life, nonetheless the father cries together with his son and shares fully in his pain.
To subject his son to the doctor’s knife is not an act of vengeance, rather a painful but necessary act of love.
So, too, the Al-mighty alone can determine if and when His beloved children have the need to receive a painful cure for their spiritual maladies and to rescue them from what might otherwise be spiritual death and the ultimate demise of His chosen nation.
It has been said in the name of a great Chasidic master, the Rebbe of Kotzk, about the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av (Saturday night and Sunday, July 25-26), that this day seems to be in the wrong month.
This day, marking the destruction of both Temples, should have been in the month of Shevat, which means “staff,” as we were struck by God’s staff on this day. Rather, explained the Rebbe, it was done in the month of Av, which means “father,” to deliver this message: I am not doing this to vengefully strike you with a staff; rather I am forced to painfully perform this surgery as a loving father, and you should never forget that my love for you is not diminished in any way. Please heed the message so you should quickly return to me and take me out of my suffering; please allow me to shower my blessing upon you again as I so desire!
This is the true message of Tisha B’Av. May we heed the message and merit those blessings again very soon, with the rebuilding of God’s great dwelling place, the Temple in Jerusalem, in our days!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel.
Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,