By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
In the Book of Exodus, following the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses demands to see the Glory – the Image – of God. God’s Presence passes before Moses, revealing that God “looks like” 13 Attributes of relationship, including compassion, kindness, patience, slowness to anger, forgiveness… The lesson is clear: if you want to know what God looks like, then notice how constructively people treat each other.
When I was a child, I pictured God as an old man with a long, white beard, sitting on a throne. A ledger was open in front of him into which he would inscribe who deserved rewards and who shall suffer with punishment. I rejected that theology when I was a young teen, figuring that it sounded too much like Santa Claus. Somehow, it just did not make sense that reward is always deserved and suffering is always warranted.
Almost four decades ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner shared an incredibly eye-opening insight into the biblical text of Job in his volume, When Bed Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner was very intentional in using the word “when” instead of “why.” There is no answer to why bad things happen. Sometimes, it is because people make bad choices, other times it is because that is the way nature works.
My theological mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, would often remind people of the almost 2,000-year-old teaching in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 54b): “The world pursues its natural course.” Earthquakes in California, tornados in Alabama, a volcano eruption in Washington, ice storms in Kentucky, and hurricanes in Texas are part of nature; they are not manifestations of God’s punishing wrath. As devastating as nature might be, our attention is drawn to the Divine Attributes, the qualities of character that reflect the Godly Image in which all humanity is created.
Where is God in Hurricane Harvey? God is not in the high winds or in the downpour that floods people’s lives, but in the strength of those who suffer to get through this experience with their families and with their own sanity intact. God is in people who respond to need: those who steer boats through the streets to carry the stranded to safety, those who open their churches and businesses to offer refuge for households who are now homeless, the Jewish summer camps that reopened a few hours away so that parents might have a place to leave their children during the clean-up process, the first responders who offer ongoing assistance, the medical teams, the emergency teams, the Israeli disaster relief team that came immediately and without invitation, and the organized gathering of funds and supplies in all 50 states.
We pray that people remain safe. We pray that those who suffer have the strength to get through an unimaginable experience, and we offer prayers of appreciation and praise for the individuals who step forward to help and to heal, to uplift to the higher ground of hope.
Alden Solovy, liturgist and educator extraordinaire, offers an incredibly appropriate prayer in the wake of Hurricane Harvey:
God of earth and sea,
Of ocean and shore,
Source of All,
This storm is relentless and unyielding,
Bringing destruction and chaos.
Who will suffer? Who will stay secure?
God of mystery and awe,
Grant us safety as the waters engulf our homes and our lives.
Protect us. Shield us. Guard us.
Grant peace to those in fear.
Grant food and clothing,
Warmth and shelter to those in need.
Bless emergency and rescue workers with the tools and skills they need
As they risk their lives for the sake of our families, communities and friends.
Grant healing to those who are sick or injured,
And solace to the bereaved.
Bless us with common sense throughout the squall
And with kinship and cooperation when the storm passes.
God of awe and wonder,
Our Rock and our Refuge,
See us through the torrent.
Watch us through the days and nights,
For comfort, security and well-being,
So that we may serve You
And each other,
Where is God in the face of suffering? God is in the spiritual mirror into which we gaze “every night and every day, when we are at home or away.” Do we see the Godly Attributes in ourselves? Do we recognize the Godly Attributes in others?
Serving God is not a matter of reciting prayers of praise that petition God for reward. Serving God is in the extension of heart and hands to help and to heal, to uplift and to restore hope that brightness will come, with the help of God and in the goodness of people.
Rabbi Rick Sherwin, a graduate of UCLA, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Rick’s passion is filling spiritual services and interfaith educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.