This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Be’ha’a’lot’cha, from the Book of Numbers, mentions once again the concept of the anan, the Divine Cloud that covered the ancient Tent of Meeting at all times. And as Num. 9:17 indicates: “Whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.” The anan was their GPS. It told them when/where to go as they journeyed forth into the wilderness.
In his commentary on the passage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that “The cloud was the shepherd’s staff, by means of which God, Ro’eh Yisrael, the Shepherd of Israel, revealed to His flock where and when to camp and in which direction they were to journey forth. And we are told here that the will and intention of this guidance was unpredictable.”
Hirsch goes on to write that: “This is the teaching of the journey through the wilderness, from which we learned for all time to follow God’s guidance with devotion and trust, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem to us.”
That way of thinking: of an unquestioning trust and deference to God no matter what….served our people well for most of the last 2,000 years. And it seems to have resonated with Hirsch, a founder of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany.
But I would respectfully suggest to you today that that is a harder pill for us to swallow in the 21st century. Where was God during the Holocaust? And more aptly this week, we cannot help but ask: where was God in Oklahoma?
Pat Robertson answered that question this week. He said that e saiHHeeehhhhhhwhile God did not explicitly create the tornado, God absolutely had the ability to stop it. And God would have, if enough people had prayed for God to stop it. But because enough people didn’t pray, the tornado came.
And Fred Phelps Jr, associated with Westboro Baptist Church – an institution so filled with hate that I cannot believe I am mentioning them in these remarks – tweeted his answer as to where God was in Oklahoma. He wrote that the tornado occurred in Oklahoma as a punishment aimed at Oklahoma City Thunder basketball player Kevin Durant, who has been vocal in his public support for Washington Wizards’ player Jason Collins, who recently came out as the first openly gay male athlete in professional team sports.
So, according to Pat Robertson, the approximately 24 people who died in Oklahoma this week died because enough people didn’t pray, or that they didn’t pray hard enough. And Fred Phelps Jr notes that the tornado was a punishment against Kevin Durant and every other American who supports the rights of those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
This tragedy can teach us something vitally important: that perhaps the time has passed for us to ascribe a literal belief in a God that has Will….in a deity that can decide to do something and then have the ability to actually intervene in the world and do it.
Martin Buber, reflecting on his own wrestling with God, concluded that: “The mystery [of God] is no longer disclosed – it has escaped.” In other words: we no longer live in a time and place where we have any ability whatsoever to speculate on how or why God would or would not have been able to do something in the world.
Buber goes on to write that all we can be sure of is “each mortal hour’s fullness of claim and responsibility. Though far from being equal to it, yet I know that in the claim I am claimed and may respond in responsibility, and know who speaks, and who demands a response.”
All we can do, every single day of our lives, is wake up and reaffirm that we human beings are responsible for one another in this world. All we can know with assurance is that there are people in the world who need us. And the only thing worth speculating on is whether or not we are prepared to answer those needs.
The first responders in Oklahoma have done that already. Family members and neighbors on the ground are, too.
What about us? What will our response to this modern day cloud be? Will we revert to ancient tropes of blind trust or hurtful, irrational justifications? Or will we respond to the needs of others, by giving tzedakah, sharing supplies, or donating blood?
May the ones who were injured be healed speedily. And may the memories of the innocents who died live on to be for a blessing, and let us say Amein.