Why is G-d So Angry?
– In Honor of Nosson Nota ben R’ Zalman
Yehuda Deitsch ob”m –
Five years ago, two days before my father
passed away, I wrote this article. Little did I know how
these words would come to console me and many others as
we walked through “the valley of the shadow of death,”
helping us reach the state of “I shall not fear.”
With a profound tragedy ripping yet again through the hearts
of a beautiful family, I hope these words can now again
serve them well to conquer the fear as they walk through
their deep valley...
From my mailbox:
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I am an avid reader of your weekly e-mails and appreciate
your personal and spiritual take on what otherwise would
be for me irrelevant tradition. Having grown up in an observant
home with no warmth or spirituality (and worse), I came
to resent anything that was “dry ritual.” I
therefore am very grateful to you for having opened up a
resonating perspective that I never knew was there.
In this vein I would like
to ask you how you would explain the many curses used in the Torah. What possible
benefit – besides fear and alienation – can curses contain?
As you know, many people
are easily turned away from Biblical thought when they read the terrible misfortunes
that will befall people for their sins. It is demoralizing and creates the
impression that G-d is a very angry entity, filled with wrath and vengeance.
Some would even argue
that it is Rabbis like you who later came and “softened” up the Biblical version
of G-d and turned it into a spiritual and loving relationship. But the G-d
of the Bible doesn’t seem like someone you could or would want to have a relationship
I am sorry for being so
blunt or perhaps disrespectful, but I have learned from your writing that
you welcome such questions and appreciate the direct approach rather than
Thank you for listening,
Thank you for your trusting words, and yes, I do appreciate
your direct question, and will respond in amore formal tone in the following
essay on this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s Biblical Torah portion enumerates forty-nine
(!) curses that will befall those that transgress the law (Leviticus 26:14-43).
For the record, this is the first of three places in the
Torah where we read what is known as the “tochacha” (the admonition or rebuke),
which describes the harsh consequences of forsaking the Divine commandments.
The second and third are in the beginning and the end of the book of Deuteronomy
(Devorim and Ki Tovo respectively).
Traditionally these sections are read quickly and in a
lower tone than the rest of the Torah reading. No one is
invited up to the Torah (in an “aliya”) for
these sections. Instead, the Torah “reader”
unceremoniously recites the blessings before and after the
reading, but he is not called up.
Which of course brings us to the big question: Why would
G-d want to curse His own children?!
A bizarre Talmudic story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai will
help illuminate us. Rabbi Shimon once sent his son, Rabbi Elozor, to a couple
of distinguished sages for a blessing.
The sages conferred upon him a strange string of “blessings:”
“May it be His will that you sow and not reap. That you bring in [merchandise]
and not let out [sell it], and that you invest and not have a return. That
your house be destroyed and your inn settled. That your table be confused
and you should not see a new year.” (!!)
Rabbi Elozor returned to his father shocked: “Not only did
they not bless me, he exclaimed, “they have caused me anguish!” “What did
they tell you?” asked Rabbi Shimon. After Rabbi Elozor repeated their words,
Rabbi Shimon reassured him: “All their words are really blessings!”
And he explained: "'Sow and not reap' means that you
will have children who will not die in your lifetime. 'Bring
in and not let out' means that you will bring in daughters-in-law
[your children will marry] and your sons who married them
will not die in their lifetime. 'Invest and not have a return'
means that your daughters will marry and their husbands
will not die, resulting in your daughters having to return
home. 'Your house be destroyed and your inn settled' means
that your grave (which is called a 'house') will not come
to use and you will live long in this world which is compared
to an inn. 'Your table be confused' with many sons and daughters.
And 'you should not see a new year'– your wife will not
die and you will therefore not have to 'see a new year,'
i.e. remarry and spend the 'first year' with a new wife."
This episode is all nice and fine. But the commentaries are
troubled by the obvious question: Why did the esteemed sages not bless Rabbi
Elozor in open and direct terms, and instead cloaked their blessing in cryptic
language that only Rabbi Shimon was able to decipher?!
Several different explanations are proffered:
- The sages did so in
order to challenge and sharpen Rabbi Elozor (Maharsha).
- They did so in order
to honor Rabbi Shimon, that he be the one that interprets, and thus
blesses his son. In effect Rabbi Elozor would be blessed twice (Rif. Iyun
- A blessing is more
effective when it isn’t pronounced out loud in public (three people is considered
public) (Iyun Yaakov).
- They did so for Rabbi
Elozor’s good. At times when a blessing is stated outright, the “voice of
judgment” (of the “prosecuting angels”) challenges the merit of the recipient,
questioning whether he truly deserves this blessing. The sages therefore
disguised their blessing in language that sounds like a curse, knowing that
the “prosecuting angels” cannot read their minds, so as not to provoke and
stir up any resistance to these blessings (Nezer Hakodesh, cited in Eitz
Even after all these explanations, it still seems odd that
the sages would use the language of curses to convey a blessing! To elicit
Rabbi Shimon’s interpretation or to mask their intentions from the “prosecutors”
could have easily been achieved by using neutral language. Why the need to
use terms that can seem “offensive”?! True, a blessing “disguised” as a curse
is easier to “smuggle” by the forces of judgment, but it still requires explanation.
To understand the deeper meaning of these blessings dressed
up in the “garments” of “curses”
requires a penetrating look into the forces that lay beneath
the surface of existence in general. Which will also explain
why of all people it was Rabbi Shimon who illuminated the
inner meaning of these blessings.
The deeper meaning – and inner dimension – of all experience
is to be found in what is called the “inner wisdom.”
There are two types of wisdom, which correspond to two types
or revealed wisdom – which comprehends conscious or revealed experience. This
is the wisdom of most sciences – physical, social and political – the understanding
of our empirical and sensory experiences (what we see, hear, taste, touch
or hidden wisdom – which relates to the unconscious and hidden dimensions
of reality, the suprasensory energy that makes existence tick.
The Torah too has these two corresponding dimensions: The
Outer Torah, it’s revealed dimension (nigleh), and the Inner Torah,
hidden beneath the surface (nistar).
On the surface things may appear one way. Beneath the surface
they may appear entirely different, sometimes even diametrically opposed as
to the way they seem on the outside.
Take yourself as an example: How much of your outside (body
language, facial expressions, conversations) expresses your inner self? Indeed,
the deeper you travel into the intimate recesses of your psyche, the fewer
words we have to express ourselves. Sometimes a laugh, a cry, an “oy-vey”
expresses more than volumes can. On the deepest level silence is often the
most profound expression of all (the “silent voice” in the words of the Zohar).
This is because the outer world and the inner world are two
entirely different, even dichotomous, paradigms. How does your conscious match
up with your unconscious? Do you even want to know?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe,
author of Tanya and founder of Chabad Chassidus), in his Likkutei Torah, uses
this principle to explain that the “curses” in our Torah chapter are “in truth,
nothing but blessings”, blessings in disguise.
On an ostensible level – the conscious, revealed dimension
– they appear as curses. On this level they too serve a “blessed” purpose
to attack the “negative” forces of existence. No one would consider it a curse
when white blood cells mercilessly destroy harmful bacteria in order to protect
the body from infection.
But in an even deeper dimension – in the unconscious,
hidden dimension – the inner workings of these apparent
“curses” are nothing but profound blessings,
so profound that they can only be expressed in a concealed
and disguised fashion. They are actually deeper blessings
that the ones we can openly recognize! [Rabbi Schneur Zalman
goes on to explain the blessings in some of the ostensible
“curses” in our chapter].
The Tzemach Tzedek in his gloss on Likkutei Torah of his
grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, equates this concept with the above related
Talmudic story with the blessings “disguised” as curses: These blessings originate
in the unconscious level of experience.
For this reason the blessings need to be concealed not
in neutral terms but in “cursed” language: Only
then are they truly concealed. The formula works like this:
The more sublime and intimate the experience, the more concealed
it is. Therefore, the most sublime blessings of all are
couched in the most dreadful terms.
This also explains why Rabbi Shimon was the one to recognize
the profound blessings bestowed on his son, Rabbi Elozor:
Rabbi Shimon is the primary source of the “Inner Torah.”
Coupled with his Talmudic genius, Rabbi Shimon is the preeminent mystic of
his times; the author of the Holy Zohar – the classic text of the inner wisdom
Rabbi Shimon therefore was most fittingly able to see beneath
the surface of the sages’ expressions and reveal their inner meaning – the
profound blessings they carried, blessings that come from the “hidden” and
“unconscious” cosmic levels, greater than blessings that are expressed in
a revealed way.
One way to explain the power of Rabbi Elozor’s blessings:
In foresight the sages saw that Rabbi Elozor in his lifetime would face difficult
challenges with his children, including perhaps the horror of losing a child
in his lifetime or other forms of premature deaths of children. In order to
preempt any such tragedies, the sages ingenuously and intentionally used words
that could sound like just such curses, so as to so-to speak “fulfill” (in
physical expressions) these premonitions. But in truth they infused these
words with the deeper meaning and intention of blessings, as spelled out by
Rabbi Shimon. In effect, by using these negative expressions the sages bestowed
the greatest of all blessings on Rabbi Elozor: They released him of his need
to actually experience any such loss, and instead be blessed with good life
and marriage for his and his children.
In practical terms that each of us can relate to, we too
must recognize that in our lives we receive two types of blessings, corresponding
to our two forms of experience: Conscious and unconscious.
There are blessings that are apparent and revealed for
all to see. But then there are blessings that are camouflaged, sometimes in
“garments” that don’t appear to the naked eye to be blessed.
But the naked eye is just that: Naked. It sees very little
and understands even less.
These deeper blessings can take on the shape of formidable
challenges in our lives. They can take on the shape of “special
children” (as discussed in last
week’s article), or perhaps a loss that
at the moment seems irreplaceable.
Lest it be misunderstood, by all means we always ask for
revealed blessings, and we deserve to see with our naked eyes the gifts of
life. Yet, when we are faced with a seemingly insurmountable difficulty, never
underestimate the possibility of it containing profound blessings, and your
ability to reveal them.
Yes, after all is said and done, we were given the power
to reveal the “unrevealable.” G-d created and
gave us the resources, but He concealed them in this world
of ours. Everything valuable in the world lies hidden. From
precious stones to oil, from hidden potential to genius
talents. We have the ability – and responsibility
– to excavate these resources and bring them to the
On Lag B'Omer, the yahrzeit and day of celebration of
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (also known by his acronym: Rashbi), his ability to
see and reveal the inside becomes more accessible to us.
A concluding story:
As a child, Rabbi DovBer
of Lubavitch, along with the rest of the congregation, would listen to the
weekly Torah reading read by his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. One
year, his father was out of town on the Shabbat when the chapter Ki Tavo is
read, a chapter that includes a section of admonition (not 49 but 98 curses).
After hearing the Admonition read by the substitute Torah reader, the child
was so emotionally upset that even a month later his father was unsure whether
his son would be able to fast on Yom Kippur. The child was later asked, "Why
were you not disturbed this way when the admonition was read in past years?"
The child replied, “When father reads it, no curses are heard.”
Yes, it all depends on
who’s doing the reading. We all project our attitudes on others. When “father
reads” – the father that see the inner soul even in the darkest places – we
May we all open our ears to hear how “father” reads and reveals
the profound blessings in all of our lives.
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