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Maintaining a positive outlook
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Maintaining a positive outlook

Va’etchanan | Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

A Protestant pastor remembers preaching a sermon on loving God and being interrupted by a congregant who blurted out, “Love God? Look at the problems God causes: devastating illness, hurricanes, earthquakes. And look at the problems God doesn’t prevent: wars, cruelty, persecution. Sure, this is stuff human beings bring about, but God just lets them happen. Love God you say?”

Jews don’t talk about loving God as much as Christians do, but it is our problem, too, because the Shema itself (Deuteronomy 6:5, from this week’s portion) commands us: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.” 

How indeed can you love a God who allows such human suffering? I once worked with a woman who wore a T-shirt saying, “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

Traditional commentaries, like the Malbim, answer the objection by comparing God to a physician who causes a little pain now to avoid worse pain later — either in this life or the world to come.

But you have to believe in two things for that to work: a God who can and does reward the righteous; and an afterlife for the reward to happen. And nowadays, most people disbelieve both.

Yet these very same people may still wallow in the equally medieval notion of an all-powerful super-deity who ought to micromanage our everyday affairs but doesn’t. If you still picture God that way, then you are stuck with the problem, and I don’t know any way around it except to remind you that almost 1,000 years ago, Maimonides urged us to stop imagining God as a human being like ourselves, and adopt a more sophisticated idea of the divine.

But more sophisticated views of God come with more sophisticated questions — like the fact that love is an emotion, and you can’t command emotions the way you do behavior. That’s why Judaism deals in deeds. You can be expected to do what is right, whether you like it or not, but how can you be asked to dredge up love that just isn’t there?

The S’fas Emes, Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter, provides the classical answer here: Love really is there, he says — hardwired deep inside us; we just have to work at finding it. His answer follows classic chasidic cosmology of a universe where sparks of divine light are trying to escape the morass of darkness that infiltrated the universe at the moment of creation. Finding love of God within us is like releasing the light from its darkened jail cell. 

Still, suspecting I have love buried deep within me is not the same as being able to find it, and then to identify with it enough to overcome the insistent feeling that “Life is a bitch and then you die.” You can command behavior; but not emotions.

So Torah commands behavior, but Torah is more than commandments alone; it is also stories and poetry and just plain deep-down wisdom from an age-old tradition. What makes little sense as a command may still be great advice. “You shall,” here, may mean, “You really ought to,” as in, “You really ought to love God, you know, because, otherwise, you end up wearing the ‘Life is a bitch’ T-shirt, and that’s a terrible way to greet each day.”

Maimonides, on one hand, and Einstein, on the other, gave up on God as a puppet master pulling the strings of our everyday lives. God is not even a “someone” at all. God is the cause of all causes, the ultimate sustainer of the natural order, an integral part of the universe. To love God is to appreciate that universe: to admire its beautiful sunsets, find the good in others, and marvel at equations that describe the laws of nature.

A positive outlook cannot be commanded, but it is really good advice: and it comes with its own T-shirt: “Someday we will die, but appreciating the world meanwhile is a gift worth living for.”

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