Does God Cry?
Think with Kindness
Have you checked in on your Jewish friends this week? Some version of this language has gone around the internet in meme form this week. The notion of there being some responsibility within each of us to respond to every ethnic group when there’s a crisis has always been one I have bristled against. I don’t think it’s fair to require everyone to be so responsive all the time to every little issue.
So this week, when I saw this language being used, my antennae were raised. After all, we’ve been trying hard over the years to remind people that being Jewish does not equal being Israeli. And then after a few days, I found myself feeling a deep sadness, not because people weren’t checking in with me but because the area of their focus veered almost exclusively to the Palestinian people.
I want to be very clear here. There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been irrevocably harmed by this war. It is a tragedy…and this particular war was kicked off because Hamas, an avowed terrorist group whose stated goal is to destroy the Jewish state breached Israeli territory, and went on to kill, raped, and pillage their way through innocent Israelis. For every “Free Palestine” post I saw, it felt like it was giving tacit approval to what Hamas did.
Nothing that the Israeli government has done warrants how Hamas acted. That should be a very clear line for people. Babies were tortured and burned alive. A young woman with cerebral palsy was killed. A group of retirees were gunned down execution style on their way to a vacation at the Dead Sea. It is totally possible to say you identify with the cause of Palestinian statehood AND find Hamas’ actions which kickstarted this round of fighting as morally reprehensible. That is what I haven’t been hearing from friends and it is what has left me wallowing in my sadness wondering how to deal with it.
There have been so many tears this week as a result of this. A real sense of feeling alone as a Jew in the world is new to me, so I wondered to whom or what can I turn to ameliorate some of this sadness. If I believe that God changes as we change, I wonder, does God cry like we cry?
If I listened to Rav Pappa from the talmudic period, the answer would be no:
1Rav Pappa say: There is no sadness before the Holy One, as it is stated: “Honor and majesty are before God strength and gladness are in God’s place” (I Chronicles 16:27)? The Gemara responds: This is not difficult. This statement, that God cries, is referring to the innermost chambers, where God can cry in secret, whereas this statement, that God does not cry, is referring to the outer chambers. The Gemara asks: And doesn’t God cry in the outer chambers? Isn’t it written: “And on that day the Lord, the God of hosts, called to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12)? The Gemara responds: The destruction of the Temple is different, as even the angels of peace cried, as it is stated: “Behold, their valiant ones cry without; the angels of peace weep bitterly” (Isaiah 33:7). The verse continues: “And my eye shall weep sore, and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock is carried away captive” (Jeremiah 13:17). Rabbi Elazar said: Why these three references to tears in the verse? One is for the First Temple; one is for the Second Temple; and one is for the Jewish people who were exiled from their place.
In a wide ranging discussion on God’s emotional response to grief, we go on a topsy turvy journey. We start with the categorical statement that God doesn’t cry at all. Then we learn that actually, no, God does cry but only in private. Then, we expand on that to say actually there are certain situations where God cries: destruction of the Temples and when Jews are taken captive.
I’m not sure I have seen a more apt talmudic text speak to a particular moment in time. Events that tear at the fabric of our identity as a people seem to hold a special place in God’s heart to have God’s tears join with our tears. So does God cry?
I’ve been asking myself that question over the last two weeks. It would feel a lot more manageable to know that all of the tears that we are shedding are being held by something larger than us, especially when we feel let down by others. What are we supposed to do with our grief when we feel so alone?
This week’s portion is a good place to find ourselves as we once again read Noah’s dance with the end of the world.
But before we get there, right at the end of last week’s portion, we read:
2וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃
And יהוה regretted having made humankind on earth, with a sorrowful heart.
That phrase translated as “sorrowful heart” carries a stronger valence in the original where it’s best translated as God was saddened within God’s own heart. There’s a depth there that goes beyond just being sad. The sorrow penetrated God’s very being in God’s loneliness.
The earliest use of the concept of sadness in the Torah and it comes to describe God’s response to the wanton acts of violence that permeated the earth. God wants to blot the earth out of existence. But then God doesn’t because Noah, one person, finds favor in God’s eye. That’s how little an act is required to change God’s mind.
At the end of the 6th day of creation, we learn of God’s joy when completing creation in that God saw and felt that everything was good. Here, we have the opposite end of the spectrum with God’s sadness. The Radak, Rabbi David Kimche, quotes the following Midrash to clarify that emotion:
3A non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah if it is not true that the Jews claim that God knows all that is going to happen in advance. Rabbi Yehoshua answered in the affirmative. Thereupon the non-Jew quoted this verse as proof that if God had known all of this in advance, how could God have been saddened by it. Rabbi Yehoshua asked the non-Jew if he had ever have a son born to him. The non-Jew said that indeed he was the father of a son. He then asked him: “what did you do when he was born?” The man replied that he was very happy when he heard the news. Thereupon Rabbi Yehoshua asked him: “did you not know that the son would die one day, and if so why were you happy that another mortal was born?” The man answered that there is a time to rejoice and a time to be sad. Rabbi Yehoshua told him that God, in spite of God’s foreknowledge, reacts in a similar manner. God was in mourning for the destruction of God’s handiwork.
God has just created this immense project and immediately things go haywire. But God cannot be consumed by this sadness. God’s first reaction is to wipe it all out and start again. Thankfully God does not because joy and sadness dance together. Just this week, as whole families were laid to rest together, other spared families celebrated weddings and b’nai mitzvahs. I can almost feel the Divine tears of joy and sadness intermingling.
In the same way, as much as the news wants us to just obliterate everything and feel like all is for naught, we know how God rolls and we can follow suit. After grief, we have a choice. Do we let it consume us or do we wield it for good?
Noah, as much as his later actions undermine him, his first reaction to surviving catastrophe is to build an altar and to make an offering. In other words, to give something of yourself to something greater than yourself. In response, we hear from God:
וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר4 לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃
יהוה smelled the pleasing odor, and יהוה resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.
God is pleased by this offering and speaks אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ, the very same place which housed God’s sadness earlier. It’s as if that wounded part of God is patched up by this act of seeing how good humans can be. As the Radak comments again:
God would not again punish the community at large on account of depraved individuals, but God would punish all the individuals who are wicked.
God needed the reminder of the goodness of human beings, of their ability to see beyond. I am holding on to this as we end another deeply painful week. I hope that we can be united in our ability to be nuanced when grappling with destruction. No one needs to be a geopolitical expert or a bomb trajectory expert. We need people to be experts in kindness and compassion. All I want is for people to have an understanding of the impact this is having and how this particular moment in time began.
We are all crying, you, me, and perhaps even God. I hope our tears can help one another. I don’t need a daily check-in. I want you to care aloud about Palestinians...and I also want you to care aloud about Jews. In what was the worst attack on jewry since the Holocaust, I want you to see us. I want people to remember that my people are hurting too, for no other reason than they were Jewish: at home, at a music festival, or in their parent’s arms.
Shabbat Shalom…with wishes for a weekend of peace and tranquility.
Babylonian Talmud 5b
Bereshit Rabbah 27:4