The poet Khalil Gibran writes, "Your children are not your children. They are the [children] of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts..." These words are forever sung in my heart by the harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
I have two kids who are now 5 ½ and 8 years old. These days I have been asking myself, "Are my children really my children?" They are both profoundly different from me and from each other. There is a story from our second night Passover seder that I think captures it best.
We were eating dinner. It was getting late. But I had told my kids that they got extra dessert for every question they asked. They took the challenge seriously and the questions just kept coming, until one of them asked the most existential question of all. "Where did the world come from?" Without skipping a beat and in near unison, one kid emphatically said "God!" and the other kid emphatically said, "The Big Bang!" There you have it. Each of them, with their own clarity and thoughts.
What followed was theological outrage that the very God who created the world also caused the Israelites and the Egyptians to suffer the horrors of the plagues. I can still hear them asking, "Why did people have to die?!"
I have been asking this question myself all week. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, which is but the latest anti-Black violence in a 400-year litany of racist plagues, "Why?" The horror of the violence and the fear that it inspires in Black bodies is truly cruel. Where is God in all of this?
As someone who believes in both God and the Big Bang, I am constantly searching for a relationship with God that I can reconcile with my postmodern sensibilities. Like my kids, I cannot relate to a God that caused the plagues to fall. And these days I am not drawn to a Divine that can redeem us with an outstretched hand, as the book of Exodus promises. For me, God does not need to be rational or tangible, but it does need to be comforting.
This past week I had the privilege to study Torah with Rabbi Julia Watts Belser. She shared a midrash that I want to share with all of you, which provides a pathway into a God that can't get us out of a jam, but can surely be with us in our pain and our pursuit of liberation.
Exodus 3:2 reads,
"An angel of God appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a thornbush."
One midrash imagines about this moment (Shemot Rabbah 2:5),
"Rabbi Yannai says,
Just as with twins,
If one suffers an ache, the other feels it."
In the world of this midrash, we B'nei Yisrael / Children of Israel are the children of Life's longing for itself. We come through God but not from God. The Burning Bush is God's origin story as much as it is our own.
So the midrash continues,
"The Holy One said to Moses:
Even if you do not feel that I live in pain when Israel lives in pain–
Know it from the place from which I spoke to you, from within the thorns.
As if to say, I share their pain with them..."
While I have often thought about the burning bush, I have never before called attention to the bramble-like quality described here. Not just a bush, but a thornbush.
And so the midrash asks,
"Why from within the thornbush?
To teach you that there is no empty space devoid of divine presence,
Not even a thornbush...
Just as the thornbush is the hardest of all the trees,
And no bird (read: people) that enters within the thornbush is able to go forth whole..."
The midrash then explains the relationship between God and Israel, saying,
"It is like one who takes up a lash and strikes two people
Both of them receive the lash and know the pain."
I am so moved by the image of a God so radically enmeshed in the world, even as they are so limited in their power to prevent our suffering. A God who experiences the pain of the slave-master's whip. It is not just that God knows our suffering, but God feels our suffering. This midrash reminds me that God has a visceral stake in our liberation.
As I reflect on the thornbush that has been this week, I am drawing strength and comfort from this ancient wisdom. Our journey is to emerge from the thicket as whole as possible. And to remember that the Holy One is pressed up against the thorns with us, working to realize real freedom with us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.