Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jewish Sad Days, The Book of Job, and Mom's Nagging

With the arrival of the Jewish lunar month of Av, we enter the most intensely sad portion of the year, "the nine days" that culminate with Tisha b'Av, the ninth of the month, which was designated by God for tragedy for the Jewish people. It's tough to feel sad when the weather is balmy, the days luxuriously long, the school year pressures lifted. "Summer means fun," Jan and Dean sang in 1964, a phrase I've got posted in my kitchen in kids' magnet-letters. So "summer means mourning" is a bummer.

Unlike other religions where the days hum pretty much the same, save for a few happy holidays, Judaism has equal numbers of ups and downs implanted in the calendar. We see each day of the year as imbued with a special character; holidays landed where they are because their purposes match the nature of their dates. So when on the ninth of Av the biblical Jews wandering in the wilderness--who were beneficiaries of constant miracles!--complained when they heard the spies' reports about the land of Israel, God said, "Funny you should moan on this day--it's the perfect day for you to learn how bad things can really get."

I'm fortunate to be able to host a women's class every Wednesday in my home taught by a clever and articulate Rabbi, and lately we've been exploring The Book of Job. There's controversy over whether Job really existed, but nevertheless Jews call his story "The Book of Truth" because it explores the tough questions, especially why horrendous things happen to, well, in Job's case, perfect people. He's got three friends who try to help him sort out the awful circumstances in which he finds himself--physically afflicted, his home and wealth lost, his children all killed.

Are we supposed to look at such misery as God's punishment? Job can't think of anything he'd done that could warrant it, even though one of his friends insists that must be the case. Is it to prevent him from doing something unacceptable in the future? Does it mean God sets up the world and then steps back to watch man use his free will--even if it means collateral damage? Or does God bring calamity in order to inspire a deeper need and therefore closeness to Him? If that, then you could say God's actually doing a favor--providing a means to ascend closer--even as He's ruining your life.

The one thing we learn is that Job's friends do a bad job of responding to his plight--instead of insisting Job got what he deserved, they should have just sympathized and marveled with him at God's mystery.

Meanwhile, Jews all over the world are reading the same portion of the Torah, this week moving to the final of the Five Books of Moses, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Whereas the first four books are dictates directly from God, we're told that Devarim, still from God, repeats a lot of content from the prior books using Moshe's (Moses') angle (Source: the Maharal).

Relevant to Tisha b'Av and Job is the "tochacha," or rebuke of the Jewish people repeated by Moshe even though these consequences for disobeying Jewish law were presented earlier, in Vayikra (Leviticus). As a prophet, a buddy of God, Moshe must have known the Jews wouldn't listen to his rebuke. Just look at Jews throughout history--God gives them a potch (spank) to get their attention, and they just don't get it. Why bother with the rebuke if it won't have an effect?

Because the criticism, the instruction isn't just directions: do this; stop doing that. It's an expression of caring, of concern--of love. God wants to steer his people to the best outcomes, and out of that alone, must give advice.

The application? Appreciate mothers. Kids and husbands may call it nagging, or butting in, but we mothers are hard-wired to express our love and concern. Even criticism is usually a sign of attachment, of the importance of a child or spouse. We women can't just stand by and watch those we love fail, or even take chances that might lead to failure or harm. Drive carefully. Take your sweater. Protective admonitions are Mom's air-kisses.

Now, I do not understand why God sets things up the way they are (in the end, Job doesn't, either). I'm still perplexed about why bad things happen to good people (I do recommend an excellent 10-part set of lectures by Rabbi Benjamin Blech that does a pretty good job giving plausible explanations, though). I'm bewildered as to why God creates people and drops them into horrific circumstances where they'll suffer and die. And I don't know why God decided the saddest, most restrictive days of the year had to happen in the most beautiful weather, when the world is its most ripe and enticing.

Aargh, too many questions. But the message of both the Book of Job and "the nine days" is that underestimating God is a pretty dumb thing to do.


  1. Try "If You Were God" by R' Aryeh Kaplan.

  2. I love your conclusion... and your wonderful rambling commentary...and your "aargh!" kisses!