Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Alon Goshen-Gottstein – The Question of God and Auschwitz

Strona: 4

Text4 1: Esh Kodesh, VaYishlach
Genesis 32:4–36:43, December 14, 1940


We learn in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:12) about the verse describing the meeting of Moses and God at the burning bush. The Midrash says the following: “When God saw that Moses was going to investigate, He called to him from inside the bush. ‘Moses Moses!’ He said (Exodus 3:4). The name is called twice: Moses Moses. The Midrash notes: “At the critical moment in the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac), when we hear God calling Abraham, we find the words “Abraham, Abraham!” (Genesis 22:11). There is a comma between the two words. When God calls to Moses however, there is no comma: “Moses Moses!”
Why is this so? asks the midrash, answering, “the answer may be found in the example of a man foundering beneath an unbearable weight. He calls to whomever is nearest, “Hey you come quick and help me shed this load!” God calls urgently, “Moses Moses!” twice in quick succession without any punctuation between the words, because God has as it were, an unbearable burden upon Him. He calls to Moses who is closest to Him, to help relieve Him of the burden.
 
So this Midrash serves as the point of departure for the homily. Now what the Piaseczner does is to take this Midrash, and endow it with great existential meaning that he finds from his own context and situation. The key verse that we will see time and again is the verse from Psalm 91:15.
The Hebrew says: i’mo a-noki be’tza-ra, “I am with him in his distress.” In the biblical verse when you say: “I am with him in his distress” it means, “You, man, call God, and God is there to help, God is in the heavens, at the same time He is with man to help him. The rabbis read it: “I am with him in his distress, meaning, when he suffers, I suffer.” I am with him in his distress not just to save him, but I am suffering with him. This is already a move made by the rabbis in the first centuries, 1800 years before our text was composed. But this insight that God suffers with us is the key to Rabbi Shapiro’s entire religious response.
 
This is the difference: at one level the verse, “I am with him in his distress”
means that when Jews are in pain, God forbid, there is a point at which God
bears the distress together with us.
 
Not I am with him to redeem him, but I am there to suffer with him. That was the move the rabbis made. Now, Rabbi Shapiro will take us to another level – not to help, not to suffer with, but to reverse the relations of who is suffering, and who is with whom. He introduces it by saying:
 
“Another level, however, is when the pain of the Jews is so great that they have no strength to bear it. Then the strength to resist, to continue to endure, to remain alive in the midst of such terrible hardships and merciless affliction, is provided solely, exclusively by the Holy One Blessed One.
In this case the brunt of the burden is, as it were, upon God. It is not human Jewish strength that bears and withstands such agony, but God’s strength that He gives to the Jews. It is by far the greater burden of the pain that is borne by God. So God is praying to the Jewish people as He prayed then to Moses, “Please relieve me of this unbearable burden.”
 
So what does it mean “I am with him in suffering?” No longer, “I am there to help,” or “I am suffering with him,” but I am the One who is suffering. It all got reversed. You Jews are with me in My suffering, not I am with you in your suffering. So Rabbi Shapiro has taken the biblical verse “I am with him in suffering” and he has extended it to the point that divine suffering is so profound that it is God who is asking us to help share His burden, to help share His pain. The Piaseczner asks:
 
“In the midst of such terrible anguish, how can we possibly help relieve God of His unbearable burden?”
 
Just think of what it takes for someone to no longer ask: “God how do you help me,” but, “God how do I help You?” Just think of shifting the consciousness from worrying about us, God save us, to thinking: Oh God you are suffering so much, what can we do for You? Just think what it takes for someone whose son has been killed, who has lost four or five family members, first in the bombing, and then in the Warsaw ghetto, surrounded by people in the most horrible conditions, that he can raise his mind under those conditions. He is not sitting in the comfort of this space here doing theology, he is in the Warsaw ghetto. He is asking not how will God redeem me, but how I can help assume God’s burden. What power of spirit it requires of someone to so totally transform their vision, to so totally transform their perspective, with all your family dead, and people coming to your door daily, the suffering mounting and piling at your doorstep, you turn to God and say, “God you are suffering so much, what can I do for you?” And he doesn’t say it to himself. This is said to his community, which means that the question I asked earlier with the analogy to Padre Pio and priests, what can be said only by the mystics, and what can be said to the community, is almost answered by the context.
He takes up this question of helping to relieve God’s burden and shares this answer on a Shabbat afternoon with his entire community. Obviously not all will be able to follow. The fact that he can take an idea that grows out of his own mystical experience and present it to his community as a way of reorienting their experience, so that it is not God who helps them, but
they who help God, this takes enormous power of spirit:
 
In the midst of such terrible anguish, how can we possibly help relieve God of His unbearable burden? We can do it with repentance, with prayer, with charity, and with the compassion we show one another.
 
Fr Manfred earlier asked the question: “Where was God in Auschwitz? God was in the compassion that people showed one another.” This is really the same teaching that Rabbi Shapiro is giving here. The compassion we show one another will relieve God’s suffering. Our prayer, our charity, both how we are with God, but also how we are with one another, will have its impact on the supernatural world, on the higher world.
 
When the pain was not in itself so unbearable, and He God was only at the first level of, “I am with him in his distress…,” then we might conceivably have asked ourselves whether we were worthy of redemption and salvation. But in the present circumstances, he says in 1940 in Warsaw, the pain is so great, may the Merciful One help us, that a level has been reached where all the burden of the pain is really, as it were, upon God Himself. It is so painful we can no longer suffer it. It is so painful only God can suffer it. At this time, in heaven above, there must be great haste with mercy and redemption, because He, God, is guiltless, and why should God, our Father, our King have to suffer, God forbid, so much pain?
 
So everything has been transformed, and even the request for salvation is a request for God’s salvation. Let salvation come because God hasn’t done anything to deserve this. For God’s sake this has to end. Let’s do everything we can to end it. For God’s sake, let us be compassionate to one another, let us have charity, let us repent, let us get close to God, let us do whatever we can to relieve this great burden that is upon heaven.
 
So we have here the first passage that introduces this notion of sharing Divine suffering as a way of transforming our vision and I believe it draws from Rabbi Shapiro’s own mystical experience. Rabbi Shapiro is actually one of the most self-conscious mystics in the history of Jewish thought.
I am a great admirer of his. Most people admire him for this book Esh Kodesh composed 1940 to 1942. I came to appreciate him greatly through his earlier works, where he turns the power of his own personal mystical testimony into a programme for education. It is stated with such perfect clarity that it has made him one of the most appealing and available figures in the history of Jewish mysticism. In Rabbi Shapiro we see someone who is already formed as a mystic prior to the war, he takes his spiritual resources and applies them to this specific context. The key is transformation of consciousness from ourselves to God.
True to his character as a mystic, and indeed this is almost a key to understanding all the great Jewish mystics, we find in his writings a strong yearning for the return of prophecy. Theorizing about prophecy is actually one of the constants of Jewish mysticism. Christians still have prophets, that is, they continue to refer to various great figures, such as Martin Luther King as prophets. We don’t have prophets anymore. Part of the issue of course is that we use the word ‘prophecy’ differently. Very rarely, a few instances in 2000 years, would Jews say so and so is a prophet. This came back through Christianity. People say of Heschel, “he was a prophet.” But we wouldn’t use the term in relation to such figures as Heschel and King in a strict sense, because our basic understanding is that prophecy has ceased. However, we are in the process spiritually of regaining prophecy, aspiring again for prophecy, prophecy understood not as a social vision and message for humanity, but as a deep union with God and a mystical experience. Therefore you move into prophecy through the mystical life. In the mystical literature you will find references to prophecy that you won’t find in other literatures. Rabbi Shapiro already in his prewar writings discusses prophecy extensively. You can see that he is struggling to attain a spiritual state of prophecy. This is part of the context for the following passage:
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