Death, tragedies, loss—these experiences often ignite rage at the one entity we thought was meant to protect us. During the High Holy Days, a time when we are supposed to feel closer to God than at any other point in the Jewish calendar, how do we reconnect with Him if we feel He has abandoned us? Rabbi Kushner explains.
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Is it a sin to be angry at God?
I have been a rabbi for 50 years. For the last 30 of those years, I have been known as the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a book that suggested a different understanding of God’s role in all the misfortunes that occur in our world.
Between those two roles, I have had countless conversations with people who had reasons to be angry at God, some because of tragedies and disappointments in their own lives, some because of the Holocaust, some because of famines, floods or genocide in other parts of the world. I have spoken to any number of people who have stopped believing in God altogether because of all the terrible things that keep happening (it’s interesting how angry people get at God for not existing), and others who still believe in Him but refuse to pray to him.
In the opening chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, last of the five books of the Torah and the one we read in synagogue during the weeks before the High Holy Days, Moses does something completely out of character. He expresses anger at God. He complains that God has treated him unfairly. Moses has spent his entire life, at considerable personal sacrifice, bringing the word of God to the Israelites. He has endured their complaints and their deviations from God’s ways, and instead of rewarding him for his efforts, God has decreed that the people who have made his life miserable for all these years will get to live in the Promised Land and Moses himself will never even set foot in it.
Whenever I would read that surprising outburst on Moses’ part, I would attribute it to his advanced age and fatigue. But a few years ago, I heard a lecture by Professor Aviva Zornberg of Jerusalem on the subject of Moses’ anger at God. She suggests that Moses did that deliberately as a way of giving the Israelites permission to vent their anger at God, which they promptly do. “God must hate us to have made us wander in this desert for 40 years. If God loved us, He would have let us remain in Egypt and sent the Egyptians into the desert.”
Zornberg goes on to note that, immediately after the people express their anger toward God, we find something in the Torah that we have never seen before: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….” We had previously been commanded to obey God, to revere and honor God, to walk in His ways, but never before to love Him. Zornberg’s explanation: You cannot truly love someone with all your heart if you are afraid to be angry at them. Anger need not terminate a relationship. It need not shatter a relationship. Anger, disappointment are a part of an honest, healthy relationship.
For years, I wondered why the Kaddish, a hymn of praise to God with no mention of death or loss, was the prayer we asked mourners to recite at services. I have come to understand that asking the one person in the congregation with the most reason to be angry at God for what has happened in his or her life to publicly praise God is not to demand an act of hypocrisy. It is to recognize that a prayerful relationship to God remains even at a time of pain and anger. Ultimately I would like to think that the mourner will come to see God not as the source of his grief but as the source of his resilience in the face of grief and the inspiration behind the efforts of friends and neighbors to comfort him.
I would like to believe that God is not offended by our righteous anger at the world’s unfairness nor does He need our flattery. Just as in our personal lives, there are few moments more reassuring than the experience of getting angry at someone we care about and discovering that our love is genuine enough to survive the anger. We should find it reassuring that we can get angry at God because we expect so much from Him, and at the same time recognize how much we need and rely on Him.
Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., and the author of 12 books, notably “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”