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Answer #4 - Alexander Poltorak

Answer #4 - Alexander Poltorak

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We all try to make sense of things around us. Making sense of new experience entails relating it to one or more familiar experiences stored in our memory. If we are unable to relate a new experience to familiar ones, the new experience "does not make sense." A new, unfamiliar, experience may be dangerous to us but we do not know how to relate to it or what to do about it. When things don't make sense, it frightens us. Therefore, we are evolutionary conditioned (figuratively speaking) to constantly strive to make sense of things for our own survival or, at least, for our psychological comfort. When things make sense, we know, it is safe; and we all gravitate towards our safety zone.

I also try to make sense of things, the best I can. But few things irritate me more than people who make sense out of everything, who think they can explain everything. When people try to "explain" to me the Holocaust or Gimel Tamuz, I promptly recite my favorite prayer: "Lord, grant me the company of those who seek truth… But spare me the company of those who found it!"

I would have loved to live in a world in which everything made sense…where the righteous prospered and where the sinners got a quick slap on a wrist, teaching them to do better next time. It would be like having an instant (or almost instant) feedback – one of the most effective ways to train desirable behavior. Don't we all miss the school days, when our papers were graded after the tests, and we didn't have to wait long to find out if we passed or, worse come to worse, had to take it over again? Our lives, however, are made of daily tests, one more difficult that the other. We never know if we passed or failed them, and we can never take them over again (reincarnations notwithstanding) to improve our score; and each test can be the final…

Some say, had the world been created so that it made sense to us, it would have been too easy; we would have been denied free choice and an opportunity to earn our reward. I am not sure I understand this argument. This world is full of examples to the contrary. Indeed, everyone knows that smoking is bad, yet many continue to smoke. We all know that exercise is good for us, yet the advertising statistics show that millions are watching ball games on TV, from a couch in their living room, instead of running with the ball on the field or, at least, running on a treadmill. Most people realize that good education leads to better jobs and higher earnings, so why doesn't everyone enroll in college? Does every person who knows the power of compound interest saves for the retirement? The reasons people do not necessarily do the right thing, even if the result is obvious and imminent, are many. Aside from socio-economic, genetic and other objective limitations, they include laziness, lack of ambition and desire for instant gratification. Those who overcome these shortcomings achieve more in life than those who don't. Hence, a world with a feedback loop, a life where our actions have predictable and rational consequences, leaves plenty of room for free choice and for an opportunity to earn reward through hard work and sacrifice. Had we lived in a world that made sense, we still could have had our freedom of choice because doing the right thing always requires at least some effort and a little bit of sacrifice.

Alas, the world we live in hardly makes any sense at all. As everyone can attest, we live in a world where the righteous suffer and the sinners prosper. We live in a world where we are promised to be shown our test results in the next word, after it is too late to change anything and when it hardly matters anymore. We live in one world and we are promised reward in another. We live in a world which we are told is purposeful, because it is created by the purposeful Creator, yet that purpose remains hidden, as the Creator Himself. What we see, however, is cruelty, suffering and madness; it makes no sense. The Holocaust does not make sense… Innocent children dying, G‑d forbid, from incurable diseases, makes no sense… Again, we are told, when Moshiach comes, it will all make sense. I can hardly imagine any circumstances under which these things would make sense. In fact, I am not sure I would want to live in a world where such things "make sense."

Our forefather, Abraham, wondered about this too. He knew about the Flood that had washed away all livings beings on earth save for Noah and the inhabitants of the Ark. Yet, when told about imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he tried to reason with G‑d. "Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" he questioned G‑d. "Perhaps, there are fifty righteous within the city; will you also destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous that are there? Far be it from You to do in this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked and that the righteous should be as wicked!" – he implored G‑d. "Far be it from You," Abraham continued to argue with G‑d. "Shall the Judge of all the earth not exercise justice?" (Gen. XVIII:23-25) This is a remarkable conversation recorded in the Torah. Abraham is not only trying to make sense out of G‑d's actions, but he is demanding of G‑d to act in a manner that makes sense to us. This time, G‑d went along and acquiesced to Abraham. On another occasion, when ordered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, however, Abraham no longer tried to reason with G‑d. Abraham was ready to commit the most irrational act imaginable, just because G‑d said so. G‑d promised to build a great nation from Isaac and then commanded to sacrifice him – an obvious contradiction. Yet, although it made no sense whatsoever, Abraham did not question G‑d's command. This is even more remarkable! This is what Kierkegaard called a quantum leap of faith. Although Isaac survived the experience, his mother, Sarah, did not. Abraham was rewarded for his faith with seeing his son live. Jewish parents of later generations, who saw their children marching into gas chambers, were not so lucky.

Moses, too, tried to reason with G‑d. When G‑d threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they worshiped the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with G‑d, "Why should the Egyptians say thus: 'For evil did He bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to destroy them from the faith of the earth?' Turn from your fierce wrath, and change your mind of the evil decreed against your people…" Once again, as a result of this plea, "The Lord changed His mind of the evil which He had spoken to do to his people." (Exodus XXXII:12,14)

However, when witnessing the torturous death of Rabbi Yishmael, who was flayed alive by the Romans, "the heavenly angels cried out in bitter grief: Is this the Torah and such its reward! ... A voice reverberated from Heaven: If I hear another word I will turn the world to water; I will revert heaven and earth to chaos and desolation..." (Yom Kippur Liturgy, Akeida) Apparently, even angels have limit how much they can reason with G‑d...

Some try to explain the suffering of the righteous based on the notion that one minute of joy in the World-to-Come is better than all pleasures of this world and, conversely, one minute of suffering in the World-to-Come is worse than all the suffering in this world. They reason that G‑d, in His kindness, cleanses the righteous in this world so that only good is reserved for them in the world to come. Conversely, even sinners have some goodness in them, for which they are repaid in this word leaving them for eternal damnation in the World-to-Come. But why would Merciful G‑d condemn the poor sinner to eternal damnation if he had some good in him? Why would G‑d amply reward sinners and punish righteous in this world as if to confuse the rest of us? Doesn't the Torah command us not to put a stumbling block in from of a blind? Doesn't it say in the Talmud that G‑d Himself observes the mitzvoth that he commanded us?

Let's stop pretending and let's face it: Most often, the things that G‑d does do not make sense to us. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8) Indeed. We cannot even make sense of quantum mechanics, and why a little electron acts the way it does. How naive and presumptuous would be for us to pretend we can make sense of G‑d's acts. Could we really expect to understand someone who created our very intellect? As one Hassid joked, "If I understood G‑d, why would I need Him?"

A story is told about a holly tzadik, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He once stayed at an Inn during the days of slichot (penitent prayers before Rosh HaShana). As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak rose early in the morning to say his slichot, he noticed the innkeeper reading out loud from a notebook. As the Berdichever Rebbe listen in, he realized that the innkeeper had been keeping a diary where he recorded all his "sins." "On this day I missed a minyan (quorum) for the morning prayer," read the innkeeper from his old notebook with a sigh. "On that day, I missed a shiur (a Torah study session) in Chumash as I was taking care of my guests," he continued. "And the other day, I accidentally desecrated holly Shabbos by speaking of business…" This went on for a while. After the innkeeper finished reading the record of his misdeed, he arose and declared, "Ribonon Shel Olam – Master of the Universe, I am deficient in my deeds, I was late for minyan many a time, even missed a minyan on occasion, did not study enough of your holly Torah… But I have not killed and I have not stolen. You, on the other hand, You take little babies from their mothers and You take mothers from little babies… Who is more guilty? I will make a deal with you: I will forgive you and you will forgive me." After those words, the innkeeper threw his notebook into the fireplace and went on to recite slichot prayers. "Why did you let G‑d off the hook?" exclaimed the Berdichever Rebbe. "With this argument you could have brought the Mashiach!"

The Berdichever Rebbe once remarked that if he was G‑d, he would have created the world without death and suffering. From this we can infer that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak did not want Mashiach (Messiah) in order to understand how babies taken away from mothers and mothers taken away from babies "make sense." He yearned for Mashiach so that no baby will ever be taken away from its mother and no mother will ever be taken away from her baby!

Several years ago, Elie Wiesel wrote a letter to The New York Times just before the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShana. In this letter, Wiesel offered G‑d forgiveness for the Holocaust in exchange for G‑d's forgiveness of our sins today. When I read the letter, I recalled the story about the Berdichever Rebber and the innkeeper. I thought to myself, why is Wiesel offering forgiveness to G­‑d? He and his generation earned by their unimaginable suffering the right to demand of G‑d to answer for the Holocaust; not so that it will all "make sense," but so that it never happens again! What a lost opportunity…

The Lubavitcher Rebbe warned against the mistake of trying rationalize or justify the Holocaust. To the contrary, the Rebbe said, we have right to demand "ad mosai?!" (Enough already, how much more do we need to suffer?!)

There was once a Hassidic Rebbe who passed away leaving a son who succeeded him as the new Rebbe. Hassidim came to the new Rebbe with their problems asking for his blessing. He told them that his father, the old Rebbe knew how to give blessings and how to make miracles. He, however, did not know how to do that. But the Hassidim, nevertheless, insisted; and the young Rebbe asked his father, who was now in Heaven, to pray to G‑d on their behalf. The old Rebbe visited his son in a dream and said to him, "From where I am now, looking down, everything makes sense. I see no problems, therefore, I cannot pray for them. You, on the other hand, down below, see problems and suffering, which make no sense to you. You have the right to pray that they be taken away from people. Sorry, my son but I cannot help you."

When things don't make sense to us we pray. If this is what gives us the right to pray, perhaps, after all, the 'senselessness' is a blessing in disguise (if this makes any sense).

And who am I to complain? The Almighty has been kind to me (thank G‑d!), although I hardly deserve it. Although the undeserving kindness, strictly speaking, makes no sense, I don't complain. And I continue to pray irrationally so that, please G‑d, He continues to be kind to me, my family and the Jewish people­—our countless shortcomings notwithstanding. So, on second thought, do I really want to live in a world that made perfect sense?

Moreover, we, Jews, make no sense. Our very existence makes no sense. Our foremothers Sarah and Rebecca were childless. One midrash even says that they where born without a womb. They were physically incapable of having children. Yet they prayed to G‑d and G‑d answered their prayers. The first Jews, our forefathers, Isaac and Jacob, were born in a way that made no sense. Then G‑d took us out of Egypt and made us into a nation. "Or did any god ever miraculously come and take for himself a nation from within a nation through tests, with signs and with wonders…" rhetorically asks Moses the Jewish people. (Deut. 4:34) Our birth as a nation was as unnatural as the birth of our forefathers and too made no sense. Our continuous and disproportional suffering makes not sense. Our survival despite all odds makes no sense either. This is why when Frederick the Great ask his priest to prove him the existence of G‑d in one sentence, the priest said only one word: The Jews.

The irrationality is engraved in our psyche. Chanukah celebrates the victory of "irrational" Jews over rational Greeks and rational Jewish Hellenists. Assimilated Jews of today – the contemporary descendants of those Jewish Hellenists who lost the war – made Chanukah their favorite holiday. Does this make any sense?

It is all so complicated… who could make sense of it anyway? May be this is why, when the Berdichever Rebbe said, if he was G‑d, he would have created a world with no death and no suffering, the Alter Rebbe replied that if he was G‑d, he would have created the world just as it is.

Dr. Alexander Poltorak, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics, is a noted lecturer on the intersection of science and Torah. He is Chairman & CEO of General Patent Corporation, a patent licensing firm. He served as an assistant professor of physics at Touro College and an assistant professor of biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College. He was US Co-chair of the subcommittee on Information Exchange of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Counsel. He authored A Light Unto My Path: A Mezuzah Anthology, and books on intellectual property. Follow his blogs at Quantum Torah.
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Anonymous Suffern, NY January 29, 2009

That means a lot to me Thank you so much. That really does mean a lot to me. That's really nice of you to give me that advice. I will definetly take your advice [although.. I have been searching for answers for awhile now and it doesn't seem to appear so I don't know how much longer I'll keep on looking, but I'll try a little more.] Can I ask you a question? What makes you suddenly feel that He is watching you? Is it because something good happened or something..? How did you deal with not believing in G-d for awhile? I hope you don't mind me asking..you don't have to answer of course. Just trying to find ways for me to deal with something like that. It's funny..sometimes I feel He is looking over me too, which also gives me strength. Reply

Anonymous Israel January 29, 2009

Keep Searching I think that the fact that you are at this site,(at your young age), reading this blog shows that you are on the right track. Keep searching! There are plenty of brilliant people that shared your concerns yet didn't give up their faith. Don't settle for a meaningless life. Reply

Anonymous Suffern, NY January 28, 2009

It's me again. To Anonymous in Jerusalem: I totally agree with you, who wants to live in a world without a G-d, or someone/ something to fall back on? Not me. One problem that still remains is that there are so many things that, again, just don't make sense. The Holocaust is definetly up there and it bothers me so much to see many religious Jews just shove it away and ignore talking about it. In fact, I find it to be very disrespectful. I would think that they would be the last to do such a thing, and it's sad to think about. They always say "it happened for a reason." So tell me the reason. It didn't help our nation whatsoever. It actually pulled people away and made us look bad to all of the other religions. Anyway, I just realised that by you and I writing on here, we are both trying to find away so that we can udnerstand judaism in a way that is logical to us. I wish you good luck in finding your psychological satisfaction. Please respond to my comment if you can. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel January 28, 2009

Thank You Your article was so wonderfully moving, I wish this was the kind of things we were taught at school.
I stopped believing in G-d a long time ago. My main reasons were the orthodox education that I got and the Holocaust. Lately I started to FEEL that G-D is watching over me and IS with me. Of course I can't prove it to anyone but it gives me a lot of strength. Judaism still doesn't make sense to me, but I don't want to live in a world without G-D. Maybe this is the reason why we hold on to religious believes. Who wants to live in a world w\o a God? Isn't it easier to accept that I don't understand God but I know he is there and therfore I am not all alone? Reply

Anonymous Suffern, NY December 13, 2008

Making sense in Judaism Hi. I am a 15 year old girl who is a Conservative Jew. Many times, I've been thinking about becoming religious, but there are so many things that bother me in Judaism that just doesn't "make sense" [key word]. I have to say that until reading this article, I felt alone. Now I understand that I am not the only one who thinks that life doesn't make sense. I feel like I'll never be able to understand why the Holocaust occured. I also hate it when people try explaining it to me. It drives me crazy. I, personally, do feel that the world would be a much better place if everything made sense. It would definetly give me a psychological satisfaction for sure. I have to say that I too have a good life, Thank G-d, but I also feel like I don't deserve it. My mother was abused, and that also hurts me. She didn't deserve that at all. My question is this: Why? Why do certain things happen..like the Holocaust? Why did G-d have to make life so complicated? It's not fair, and it doesn't make sense Reply

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