On the evening of the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a post called God is in the helpers, in which I cited the Reverend Kate Braestrup's articulation that God is not in the disaster: rather, we find God in our response to disaster. God, I wrote, is not in the trauma, but in the helping hands.
One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, replied to me privately to say that while he agrees with me that it is better to look for God in the helpers than in a tragedy, he's hesitant to follow me into the idea that God cannot be found in the tragedy itself. His gentle note spurred me to approach this again, now that some time has passed and I can begin to relate to the tragedy in a different way.
Where is God in that?
Human life is marked with sorrow. One natural response to sorrow and tragedy is to demand: where is God in this? As a rabbi, I have been blessed (and painfully challenged) with that question. I remember ministering many years ago to a woman who had suffered a grievous trauma, who turned to me and spat, "Where the F*&! is God in that, huh?" And all I could say, in that moment, was: I hear you. And I honor your pain.
When I am wearing my pastoral care kippah, I can say: we find God not in the trauma, but in the ways we care for each other. God is not in the shooting or the bombing, but in the hands which cradle and nurse the victims back to health -- and the hands and hearts which cradle and care for those who grieve.
I resist the notion that God is the mighty string-puller and that we are His marionettes -- that God is "up there" choosing when a child is killed, or when a tsunami drowns thousands, or when some damaged and broken person plants bombs at the finish line of a marathon. God does not "do that to us." I do not accept the image of God as traumatizer or batterer, the Big Man in the sky who abuses humanity at His own whim. For me, God is most fundamentally found in the love and compassion we show toward each other, not in the tragedies which we encounter.
And yet God is in the fire; in the hurricane or earthquake; even in the gunman or the shrapnel or the bomb. Depending, of course, on what we think we mean by saying "God is in..." anything.
Making meaning; seeking understanding
Meaning is not inherent in a tragedy: a hurricane, or a cancer diagnosis, or a bombing. We make meaning after the fact, when we choose how to respond as best we can, faced with the realities we're given. We can find meaning in the actions of the first responders at the Boston Marathon, in the actions of the doctors who care for children with cancer, in the actions of those who care for the grieving. Using the four-worlds paradigm, I can say that we make meaning in yetzirah, the realm of emotions and heart.
The four worlds paradigm offers a lens through which we can explore every experience. Trauma and disaster unfold not only in yetzirah (emotional space), but also in assiyah (the world of actions and physicality.) In the plain physical world, tragedies are part of a chain of causality. Someone who makes a bomb, or walks into a school with the intention of shooting people, doesn't arise out of nowhere. That person's actions are the end result of all kinds of interconnected happenings over the course of that person's life, and the lives which touched that life, and the social and political systems which shaped that life. These are things we can seek to understand. Understanding happens in the realm of briyah, thoughts and intellect.
In the case of what are commonly called acts of God -- earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. -- the direct causality may be more difficult to trace. Ultimately there may be no answering the question of why disaster strikes here and not there, why this family is harmed and another one is spared. But there are still things we can seek to understand: for instance, what are the implications of the reality that many of the world's poorest people live at or below sea level, in greater danger from rising seas than those who live on higher ground? The earthquake simply happens: no one causes it, and we have no control over it. But we have control over how we respond to it -- and over the systemic choices we make about how we care for the poor and the powerless who are in its path.
The world in which we live -- a world of increasing inequality, of widening worldwide gaps between rich and poor, a world in which firearms advocates successfully lobby Congress not to permit checks on gun ownership, a world in which coal and oil businesses lobby governments to reject choices which might curtail global warming, a world in which corporate interests have more sway over our democracy than most of us want to admit -- is part of an interconnected system of karma and causality. When that system acts to create and perpetuate injustice, that injustice feeds into terror and tragedy.
In the realm of the heart, the best response -- the only response -- to tragedy and trauma is compassion and love. But as we begin to heal from a trauma, we can move from the tender realm of the heart to the more dispassionate realm of the mind. We can seek to understand what happened and why, and to explore how we can create change in the world to prevent or ameliorate future tragedies.
Finding God in karma and causality
My first response to the Boston Marathon bombing was to say that we find God in the helping hands, not in the trauma. But God is in the tragedy too. One way of framing it is to say that we meet a facet of God in the vast interconnected karmic and causal system of humanity's aggregated choices. Those aggregated choices may unfold into a world in which rampant consumption of earth's resources create global warming which in turn contributes to horrific hurricanes which disproportionately impact the poor. Or a world in which guns are sufficiently available that a staggeringly high number of Americans have been killed by gun violence since Sandy Hook. Or a world in which Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev plant bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
As a Jewish Renewalnik, I'm planted firmly within the neo-Hasidic tradition which affirms that God is in all things. We read in Deuteronomy 4:35 that אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ / Ein od milvado, "There is nothing but God." Or, in the Aramaic words so familiar to students of the holy Baal Shem Tov, לית אתר פנוי מיניה / leit attar panui mineh, "there is no place on earth devoid of God's presence." If this is so -- and I believe that it is so -- then God is in everything, including the horror of a tsunami or a bomb blast...but the aspect of God which I find manifest in these things is not the same aspect of God to Whom I pray tearfully for healing and hope. Jewish tradition offers a variety of ways to understand multiplicity within Oneness, and one of those ways is the teaching that different aspects of God are manifest in different contexts and in different ways. These different aspects are signified by the different names our tradition uses for God.
In the face of a tragedy, my question is: how can we love one another, care for one another, tend to one another? How can we help one another make meaning out of what may be incomprehensible pain? When trauma is fresh, this is the only question which matters. But when we have healed enough from the tragedy to be able to look at the bigger picture, my question becomes: will we be able to harness the energy of the tragedy so that we can transform it and heal some of the world's brokenness? It's on the harnessing, transforming, and healing front that I think we can make a difference.
We have an impact on God
Jewish tradition forbids asking God for something impossible. For this reason, we don't pray for rain during the dry season; the laws of nature are what they are, and our prayers can't change that, so our liturgy guides us to pray then for dew instead. If we hear a fire alarm, the mishna teaches us not to pray "please let it not be my house," because either it already is, or it already isn't, and if it is, then the prayer can have no possible impact -- the laws of physics which determine how fire burns are already set in motion and can't be un-done. It's an empty prayer. I can't pray for the laws of gravity to be suspended, or for a car accident (or a bombing) to un-happen, no matter how much I wish I could.
But Jewish tradition also teaches that our actions have an impact on God. From a kabbalistic point of view, our mindful actions have the capacity to create unification on high between transcendence and immanence, to arouse the supernal flow of blessing, and to lift up the sparks which have been hidden throughout creation since the shattering of the vessels. From a more karmic (or, for that matter, pragmatic) point of view, our choices and actions shape the world in which we live. Our tradition teaches that God withdrew God's-self in order to make space for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to bring healing. And when we act here "below," our actions are mirrored "on high." When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within transcendent divinity too. Now we're operating in the fourth of the four worlds, the world of atzilut, spirit.
The God Who is manifest in a tragedy like Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon bombing or the devastating earthquake on the Iran-Pakistan border is beyond all comprehension -- but that doesn't mean that we're powerless in the face of such a disaster. If we can collectively make different choices about how we relate to our environment, how we relate to each other, how the rich care for the poor, how readily available we make firearms, how we care for the earth, how we care for schoolchildren, how we care for the mentally ill and disenfranchised -- we set the stage for a different future; we co-create new realities. And we will find God in those realities too.
It is our job, as human beings, to respond to tragedy and devastation by trying to make the world a better place. When we act to heal and transform, we are God's hands in the world. More: in the kabbalistic paradigm, when we act to heal and transform, we stimulate healing and transformation not only in the world as we know it, but even within God.
We can't prevent the next tsunami or hurricane or earthquake from happening, but we can work to change the geopolitical realities which put the earth's most vulnerable people at the most risk. And we can act to prevent future human-created tragedies -- the next Sandy Hook, the next Boston Marathon bombing -- by working to change the social and political realities which give rise to those tragedies, the contexts within which those tragedies take place, the governmental and medical and social systems which act to protect and to heal. It's our job to collaborate with God in healing creation's broken places. In so doing, we are also healing God.