Arguing with Heaven
By Lawrence Kushner
Meditations November/December 1999
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|The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev
that once on Kol Nidre, the holiest night of the year when all sins are
confessed, the tailor, one of the most devout members of the community,
was absent. Concerned, the rabbi left the synagogue and went to the tailor’s
home. To his surprise he found the tailor looking at a piece of paper before
him on the table.
“What’s the matter?” asked Levi Yitzhak.
“Oh, everything’s fine,” replied the tailor. “As I was getting ready to attend the service I made a list with two columns. At the top of one I wrote my name and at the top of the other I wrote, ‘God of all the Universe.’ Then, one by one, I began to list my sins. ‘Cheated Goldman out of a pair of trousers.’ And in God’s column I noted God’s omission: ‘Little girl died of diphtheria.’ Then the next sin, ‘Lost my temper with my children,’ and in God’s column, ‘I heard there was a famine in another country.’” And so it went. The tailor showed the rabbi the completed list. “And for every sin I had committed during the past year, God had done one too. So I said to God, ‘Look, we each have the same number of sins. If you let me off, I’ll let You off!’ ”
But the story doesn’t end there. When the rabbi looked at the paper his face grew red and he scolded his friend: “You fool! You had Him and you let Him go!”
Here is a kind of relationship with God unique to Jewish tradition. Jews don’t just get angry with God. They call God to account. In Abraham’s words, as he argues the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-35)
The man, in effect, is saying, “Just who the hell do You think You are?”
But there’s another curve ball. If you believe, as I do, that “it’s all God,” then how do we argue with what we’re made of? That destabilizes us, makes us very uncomfortable. It means we have to talk to ourselves. We no longer have the luxury of putting all the nasty decisions and deeds on some distant, omniscient, omnipotent God, and freeing ourselves to bask in moral security. God says, in effect, “And whom do you think you’re talking to? Hold up a mirror. When you’re done with that conversation, come back to Me. . . .”
Lawrence Kushner is a writer, teacher, and rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Sudbury, MA.
Excerpt from Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader© Lawrence Kushner (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998). $16.95 + $3.50 s/h. Order by mail or call (800) 962-4544. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.
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November 4, 1999 by the
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