In the Bible, Abraham was the first Jew, a man of great faith in God. Abraham also had the honor of another first. He was the first person to question God.
In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God wishes to destroy the two sinful cities. Abraham bargains with God and asks God to spare the Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 innocent people can be found. Abraham even questions God, saying “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” In this story, our ancestor shows great character and conviction.
In reflecting on Abraham’s life, what perplexed me is that there are other times when it seems that Abraham should question God but does not. Earlier in Genesis, God tells our ancestor to leave his home and his native land and go to Israel. Abraham packs up and goes, without saying a word. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to go to the mountain and sacrifice his son. Abraham leaves immediately at God’s bidding, not offering up a word of protest!
Why does Abraham argue against God on behalf Sodom and Gomorrah, but does not utter a word when asked to leave his home or sacrifice his son? Why does Abraham sometimes protest against God, and sometimes keep his mouth shut?
One possible answer has to do with speaking up for others. The Bible teaches that we must speak “truth to power” to defend those in need. When it came to his own life, Abraham felt that he could trust God without questioning the Divine plan. But when the innocent lives of others were threatened, Abraham had to stand up, even against God, to help them.
When we witness the injustice and suffering of others, Abraham reminds us that we too must speak out. The prophets of Israel were not afraid to rebuke those in power in order to pursue justice. Amos said: “Let justice well up as waters, righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) Abraham and the prophets teach us that we too must question and try to mend the inequalities in our society, by volunteering our time, giving tzedakah, charity, and by writing and speaking out on behalf of those in need.
Abraham’s story also offers a lesson about belief. Like Abraham, sometimes we may question God and at other times we may feel close to the Divine. In Judaism, belief in God is not absolute. At times in our lives, we may feel that God is with us, just as Abraham knew that God would accompany him and protect him on his journey to a new home. Yet when difficult circumstances arise, like the terrible fires that I witnessed on a recent trip to San Diego, we may question God, asking why bad things happen to us or those that we love. Judaism realizes that acceptance of God, and questioning God are two natural parts of being a Jew, and that faith in God can vary at different times in our lives.
As a rabbi, people come to me and question if God exists and what God does. I often say to them: Belief in God is meant to be a struggle. We are not always supposed to have all of the answers. But the key in Judaism is to continue to search. To look for ways that God may appear in our lives, in the form of a beautiful sunset, or the birth of a new child, or the kind words of a friend in a hard time, or the strength we find to overcome a difficult situation. And to accept that sometimes we may be still be unsure if God is really out there.
One of my favorite poems by Aaron Zeitlin describes very well how belief in God is a struggle, but a journey that we engage in for all of our lives:
Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Praise me or curse Me. And I will know that you love Me.
Sing out My graces, says God.
Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God,
Sing out graces or revile,
Revile is also a kind of praise, says God.
But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don’t cry out,
If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.