What God Is and What God Is Not

In Germany and in the states, people often ask me: How could a good God allow the Holocaust?

For me the best answer to this question lies in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is angry and jealous when God rejects his offering but accepts that of his brother Abel.

The efforts of commentators to justify God by saying Cain brought dried out stalks (see Bereshit Rabbah, chapter 22) while Abel brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock ring hollow.

It was Cain who initiated the idea of an offering and Abel also (the Hebrew word is גם GAM) brought his choicest flocks.

Why then does God reject one offering and accept the other? I do not know. God does not answer to me, but I try my best to answer to God.

My strong conjecture is to teach us a lesson on how to deal with rejection.  We all face it. Like Cain we have made offerings that are not accepted. We tried as hard as we could, but we did not make the team. We deeply loved a woman, but she did not love us. We wanted a certain job, but we did not get it. The list is endless.

Cain felt just as we do when our “offerings” are rejected. He was angry and jealous.

We all know he killed his brother in his rage, but we often overlook what happens in the story before that.

God speaks to him encouraging him to do his best.

When we do our very best, that is the highest measure of success and affirmation. Of course we should all learn from constructive criticism, but knowing we have done our best is more important than the affirmation of a coach, another person or an employer. For many it is the hardest life lesson to learn.

But that is what God in the Torah is: a teacher. And the truth of biblical stories is not historical and not scientific. The truth is in the lessons we learn from them.

But even after God speaks so directly to Cain, he kills his brother anyway.

So, when people ask me Why God did not stop the Holocaust, I point them to this story. At the very beginning of Genesis we learn we have no right to expect God to thwart the designs of those who do evil. That is our job.

Whether God can stop evil and chooses not to or whether God’s power is limited are questions I leave to others. I rather deal with the Truth (for me that is a capital T) Torah teaches.  God wants us to do what is just and right, but God does not make the choice for us.

Often our unwillingness to accept the notion that God never promised to shield individuals or the world at large from evil, blinds us to what God does do if we allow God to do it: Encourage and inspire us to reject the path of wrongdoing and choose the path of justice, caring and compassion.

In Psalm 25, the petitioner asks God: “Show me Your ways…teach my Your paths…All the paths of the Eternal One are mercy and truth for those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.” (Psalm 25:4,10)

God is the Consummate Instructor but only for those who want to learn who choose to strive to learn and keep God’s teachings.

Among the ingenious innovations of the shapers of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning from Leviticus 16, about the observance of Yom Kippur in biblical times to the majestic passage that reaches its climax in Deuteronomy 30:19.

We have a choice, good or evil, and God urges U’vharta ba-hayim, “Choose life! God is the force that urges us to choose life and good, but God does not make the choice for us.