I am put in mind of these verses from “J.B.”, a play by Archibald MacLeish that I worked “Croo” (stage crew) for in high school — so they ring in my head even today, even today:

If God is God he is not good;

If God is good he is not God.

Take the even, take the odd,

I would not sleep here if I could

Except for the little green leaves in the wood

And the wind on the water.

Either God is in charge of everything, and cruel, or we have to allow limits to God’s ability.

In some religions that is heresy. Probably, traditionally, even in mine.

But it is the answer of Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”) God is here to cry with us, not to make bad things happen.

But if that’s true, then I have to waive my right to believe that God makes good things happen too.

That actually works for me. It has been a long time since I’ve believed in a God who messes with human history. Or with the laws of physics. As a friend of mine in college said (probably quoting someone else, but perhaps she made it up herself): “The universal human prayer: ‘Dear God, Please suspend the natural laws of the universe for my convenience!’”

We’re burying the father of one of my 8th grade students tomorrow. “We” by courtesy; thank goodness I am not responsible for this funeral and shiva. But he was a committed and active member of the Jewish community, and I will be at the funeral (though probably not go to the cemetery; yet “accompanying the dead” — halvayat ha-met — is a mitzvah that one may carry out by walking even a few steps along with the direction of the funeral procession).  So I am a small part of the “we”.

So today in class I had us learning some of the mishnayot about blessings recited upon hearing both good news and bad, such as a death. One of my 7th graders asked if I believe in a soul, and I said “Yes; but then you have to ask what I mean by ‘soul.’” Though I couldn’t remember at that moment what I mean by “soul,” only that the word is not a semantic null for me. Fortunately he wanted to ask another question instead: “Do you believe in God?”

That one was easier. “Yes. But then you have to ask what I mean by ‘God.’” And I start by talking about what I don’t mean. Which includes what I wrote above.

We were reading in Mishnah Brachot, chapter 9, mishnayot 5, 4, and 3.

A person is required to bless about the bad just as one blesses about the good.

One of my 8th graders challenged me: Why would you thank God for killing your best friend, for instance?

I agree with him. If God was in charge of this tragic loss, then something is wrong. There are so many reasons why it shouldn’t have been this man, nor this son. If God decided that this man had to die, then there is no way I can or will or would try to justify that to my students.

But I do think that the mishnah teaches something useful and true, and whether or not they can agree with it, I want them to use their imaginations to figure out why it might have made sense to the “Mishnah guys” who wrote this stuff down nearly 2,000 years ago.

It’s easier for me, starting from an assumption that God is not in charge.

“If God is God he is not good;

If God is good he is not God.”

I’ll take that. I need God to be good; I have no use for a cruel god. And that means that God is not a force that messes with our lives; God is not “God” in the classic sense.

But then, why “bless” God for anything, if God’s not in charge? Why acknowledge God as a Source of Blessing? (which is what I think Baruch atah means)

Well, on the gratitude side, it’s not so hard. It’s important to feel and express gratitude: it softens and opens us, it helps us to appreciate what we have, making us better (and generally happier) people. After all, you can be grateful/glad that the sun is shining, that your family is around you, that it’s not 5 degrees in the barn when you go to milk (and when it warms up I will be!). You’re not (necessarily) thanking anyone/anything in particular, but you are glad nonetheless. And a Jewish blessing, a brachah, can be understood as an expression of that gratitude and gladness.

But then what in the world are you grateful for when things go terribly wrong?

Now, I’m not going to be able to explain this to my middle school students. They won’t hear it; not the 8th graders, at least. But it makes perfect sense to me that when we say Baruch Dayan haEmet (or the more colloquial Baruch Dayan Emes) — “Blessed is the Judge of Truth / the True Judge” — we’re saying something like this, which has nothing to do with the actual words: “God, you’re still here. And we’re still here. If you were God before, then you’re God now. If you were good before, then you’re good now. If you were a source of life and strength before, then you’re still a source of life and strength now. And if I was a Jew before, I am still a Jew now.” We’re expressing gratitude for life, for what is good, for what was good, maybe even for what will be good, even while we’re struggling to deal with a terrible bad thing that has happened to us / to our family. You’re renewing your relationship with God at a time when it is liable to be frayed.

And remember, I’m beginning with an assumption that God didn’t actually personally cause and oversee the terrible thing that prompted you to recite the brachah. So it’s easier to reach out and maintain the relationship under those circumstances.

But then there’s the words themselves. And I think that the words themselves are a reflection of the answer found in the book of Job. Which is what MacLeish’s J.B. is a retelling of, after all. Basically, God’s answer in the book of Job is this: “Me big, you small. It’s not ever going to make sense to you; get over it.”

Baruch Dayan Emes is an acknowledgment of that. God may be the true Judge, God may know what’s going on, but we haven’t a clue, and that’s just the way it is. It does not make sense to us and we are not supposed to try and pretend that it does or it will. We just have to live with it. I almost turn the brachah on its head: Instead of being an affirmation that God does know what’s going on, I read it as an affirmation that we don’t know what’s going on and aren’t going to. Even though the brachah seems to affirm that somewhere, somehow, all this is supposed to make sense, I don’t think that’s what people who are grieving and angry are going to want to hear.

There’s a great metaphor that our lives are like the back side of a tapestry: all short threads, knots, tangles, lines that apparently are leading nowhere. But viewed from the other side, from God’s side, it all makes sense.

Again, I reject that answer, because it’s too cruel. Even though it is beautiful. We have to suffer, a beloved man and father has to die young, just to complete one of God’s patterns? It hurts too much for that to be ok. There are times when that view is comforting to people. This is not going to be one of those times.

So I reject that idea that Dayan haEmet really means that God’s in charge and that seen from God’s point of view it’s all ok. But I embrace the flip side: that from our point of view it doesn’t make any sense, and isn’t ever going to make any sense, and that’s simply part of the lot of being human. That is, in some weird way, a comfort. Perhaps because to me it’s a statement of reality.

But this is why I am a committed Jew and a rabbi: Because to make that statement, I want to say it in a way that our people have used for dealing with death and tragedy for millenia. I want to say it in a way that affirms life and hope and love and reality by connecting me to community and learning and continuity and caring.

I don’t know if this is good writing or not. But I am going to publish it anyway because it’s so important, these questions. And to honor a good man.