While awaiting his moment of truth with Esau, Jacob recollects God’s assurance, “I [God] will be good to you.” A few sentences later, he repeats that promise more emphatically. “I will surely be good to you,” Jacob remembers God saying. But what exactly is “God’s goodness”?
It surfaces in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), a string of four benedictions, the first three of which thank God for feeding all creation, rebuilding Jerusalem, and providing the Land of Israel. These date from the first or second century CE, when much of creation was starving, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and our land was under Roman occupation. What could the rabbis have been thinking when, after every meal, they thanked God for doing what God had clearly not yet done?
The answer comes in the fourth benediction, called “The One who is good and who does good” (hatov v’hameitiv). It comes with a story from the Bar Kochba revolt.
As the Talmud tells the tale, Emperor Hadrian prohibited the burial of Jews who had died in the uprising. When his successor finally permitted it, the blessing “Who is good and who does good” was composed. “‘Who is good’ — because God kept their bodies from putrefying; ‘Who does good’ — because God eventually arranged for their burial.”
At stake is the classic Jewish belief in resurrection. We often hear that Judaism is a religion for “this world,” not the next one, but actually, the rabbis insisted also on some sort of life after death, including bodily resurrection, but also a time to come and a messianic era. Interpreted broadly, “God’s goodness” is the guarantee that life does not stop when we breathe our last breath. Nor is the world doomed to remain as it is now. In ways we cannot imagine, the world and we will continue in a better time to come.
Elsewhere, the rabbis considered blessings for good and bad tidings. For bad news, we say “Baruch dayan ha’emet” (Blessed is the Judge of truth); so bad news is an announcement of someone’s death. For good news, we say none other than “Baruch hatov v’hameitiv” (Blessed is the One who is good and who does good), just the opposite, an affirmation that the bad news of death is not the end of the story. There is, as they say, a better world a-comin’.
Now we understand why the rabbis had the temerity to say the first three benedictions; they thought these things would come about, all in God’s good time.
What we need desperately is a renewed sense of “God’s good time.”
So I believe in progress, albeit slowly, haltingly, and with interruptions along the way. I believe in a messianic era, a world to come, and even life after death. On my good days, that may not matter much. On my bad days, that keeps me going.