We too are living in troubled times, in days of anger and distress. We have been afflicted with violent pogroms and have become accustomed to suffering. In the past fifteen years [1941–56] we have undergone tortuous ordeals that are unparalleled in thousands of years of diaspora, degradation, and destruction. This chapter of suffering did not end with the establishment of the State of Israel. To this day the State is still in a condition of crisis and danger, and we all fear for its future. We are all eye - witnesses to the rising star of the iniquitous and to the corruption of international law by the Western nations out of indifference to the principles of justice and fairness. All try to curry favor with our enemies and bow and scrape before them with false humility and shameful hypocrisy. All are concerned with the welfare of our enemies, and remain indifferent to the suffering Jewish State (much like the rich man who stole the lamb of his poor, powerless, and uninfluential neighbor [II Samuel 12:1-6]).
The well-known metaphysical query surfaces and the sufferer asks: “Why do you show me iniquity and cause [us] to behold mischief … for the wicked man besets the righteous, so that justice goes out perverted?” (Habakkuk 1:3–4). Indeed, as we emphasized above, God does not address this question, and it is not answered. It remains hidden, beyond the realm of logic. For “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). When the desire for rational inquiry seizes man, he can do nothing but fortify his belief in the Creator, accept God’s judgment, and acknowledge the perfection of His action. “He is the Rock, His works are perfect: for all His ways are just” (Deuteronomy 32:4). If we want to ask a penetrating question at a time beset by terrifying nightmares, it is incumbent upon us to do so in a halakhic mode: What obligation accrues to the sufferer as a result of his suffering? What commanding heavenly voice breaks through from the midst of suffering? As we have said, this question has a solution which is expressed in a simple halakhah. There is no need for metaphysical speculation in order to clarify the rules of rectifying evil. “For it is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). If we succeed in formulating this doctrine without dealing with questions of cause and telos, we will earn a complete salvation, and the scriptural promise will be fulfilled for us, as it is written: “Take counsel together, and it shall come to naught; speak your harshnesses and they shall not come to fruition, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10). Then and only then shall we emerge from the depths of the Holocaust with enhanced spiritual stature and augmented historical splendor, as it is written, “And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” ( Job 42:10) — double in quantity and quality.
When the doctrine of the corrective effect of suffering is put into practice, it demands of the sufferer courage and spiritual discipline. He must gird himself with extraordinary strength, make a detached assessment of his world, examine his past and look to his future with complete honesty. The lesson of Job’s suffering did not come to him easily. And we, too, who are soft hearted weak-willed, bound by fate, and devoid of spiritual strength, are now bidden by Providence to adopt a new attitude; to ascend and raise ourselves to a level where suffering teaches us to demand from ourselves redemption and deliverance. For this purpose we must look at our reflection with spiritual fortitude and pure objectivity. This reflection bursts through to us from both the present and the past.
If God’s grace, which is given to either an individual or a community, requires certain actions of the beneficiary, even if the gifts (such as wealth, honor, influence, power, etc., which are attained by exhausting effort) are granted to man by natural means, how much more so is it true that Divine gifts given supernaturally, in the form of miracles that transcend the framework of the elementary laws of historical causality, must subject the recipient of the miracles to God. Miraculous grace places upon man an absolute responsibility to fulfill the larger imperative that calls out from the miracle. A transcendental imperative always accompanies miraculous activity. “Command the Children of Israel” (e.g., Numbers 5:2, 28:1, 34:2, 35:2). Woe unto the beneficiary of a miracle who does not recognize it for what it is, and whose ear is deaf to the echo of the imperative that arises out of this metahistorical event. Pity the one who benefits from the miracles of the Master of the Universe but the spark of faith is not kindled in him, and his conscience is not stirred by the sight of this singular event.
When a miracle does not find its appropriate echo in actual deeds, a lofty vision dissipates and is squandered, whereupon Divine Justice indicts the ungrateful recipient of the miracle. “The Holy One sought to make Hezekiah the Messiah and Sennacherib, Gog of Armageddon. However, God’s Justice said to Him … ‘Hezekiah, for whom You wrought all these miracles, did not sing in praise before You. Shall You make him Messiah?”.5 Then comes distress, the hour of misery. Suffering is the final warning given by Providence to the man, who is devoid of gratitude for the good God has done for him. To the final proclamation that issues forth from suffering, one must react quickly and answer the call of the Almighty, who cries out to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Judaism has been very careful about not missing the appointed hour. It has a very sensitive time awareness; any delay is considered sinful. Man may sometimes lose his entire world for but one sin — that of tarrying. “But he lingered” (Genesis 19:16). What is the sin of leaving over a sacrifice, if not missing the appointed hour (Leviticus 19:5–8)? What is the desecration of the Sabbath, if not the performing of prohibited actions one second after the setting of the sun — work that just one second before was permitted? How does the loss of the ability to perform a mitzvah occur if not for the tarrying of a few moments, such as reciting the passages of the Shema after its appointed hour or the taking of the Lulav and Etrog after sunset, and the like? Two kings of Israel, both equally the anointed of the Lord and heroes of the nation, sinned, repented fully, and confessed. One God did not absolve; the other was immediately forgiven upon his confession. With regard to Saul, God acted in accordance with the demands of strict justice and tore the kingdom from him. With respect to David, He tempered justice with mercy and his dynasty was not wrested from his children. Why was the Holy One so strict with Saul and compassionate with David? The question does not require special analysis. The answer is quite simple. David did not miss the opportunity and immediately confessed his sin; Saul tarried a bit, and for this delay kingship was wrested from him. When Nathan the prophet came to David and uttered his cry, “You are the man!” (II Samuel 12:7), David, in the blinking of an eye, began his confession. “And David said to Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord” (II Samuel 12:13). After he heard Samuel’s reprimand, Saul wasted one precious second, a second “more precious than gold and pearls” (Proverbs 20:15). “And why did you not listen to the command of God but instead went after the booty?” (I Samuel 15:19). Saul began to argue with the prophet and only later confessed: “And Saul [initially] said to Samuel: ‘Indeed I have done what God has commanded me to do, and I have gone along the path in which the Lord has sent me’" (I Samuel 15:20). Indeed, in that confrontation, [after a moment’s reflection] he also confessed his sins out of a broken heart and a tempest-tossed spirit. “And Saul said … ‘I have sinned, for I transgressed God’s command and your instructions’" (I Samuel 15:24). But this confession was not timely, and a momentary lag such as this caused Saul to lose his kingdom. By the time Saul confessed, the decree was already sealed and the opportunity was lost. “The Lord has rent the kingdom of Israel from you” (I Samuel 15:28). If Saul had not missed the proper moment, and had he not been among the laggards, his dynasty would have continued.6
What is the essence of the story of the Song of Songs, if not the description of a paradoxical and tragic hesitation on the part of the love-intoxicated, anxiety stricken Lover, when the opportunity, couched in majestic awe, presented itself? What is it, if not the deferral of a great and sublime opportunity pregnant with a possibility of which she dreamed, for which she fought, which she sought, and for which she had searched with all the fervor of her soul? The delicate and refined Lover, passion-driven to her fair-eyed Beloved, who in days resplendent in brightness wandered the paths of the vineyards, the mountain ridges, through wheat fields and orchards, and in evenings bathed in the pale light of an enchanting moon or gloomy with darkness passed between the walls in search of her Lover — she returned one rain-stormy night to her tent, tired and weary, and fell asleep. The patter of quick-moving, light footsteps was heard in the stillness of the tent. In that mysterious and strange night, the Beloved for whom she had so hoped and kept watch, suddenly appeared out of the darkness and beckoned at the entrance of her tent. He knocked and pleaded that she open the door for Him. “Listen! My Beloved Is Knocking, saying, ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is drenched with dew, and my locks with the damp of the night’” (Song of Songs 5:2). The great moment for which she had been waiting with such longing came at a time of inattentiveness. The elusive and secretive Beloved, weary of wandering and tribulations, appeared with His curly locks, black eyes, powerful build, and shining countenance. He stood in her doorway and thrust His hand through the hole in the lock, seeking shelter from the dampness of the night. He wanted to recount to her His mighty love, His longing and yearning for a life together filled with desire and joy, and of fulfillment of expectations and realization of dreams. A simple extension of the hand to turn the lock separated the Lover and her Beloved — the great dream from its complete fulfillment. With one leap the Lover could have attained all her life’s desires. “Draw me, we will run after you. … We will be glad and rejoice in you” (Song of Songs 1:4). Deceitful is the heart (Jeremiah 17:9), however, and who can explain it? That very night, sloth, the result of a strange inertia, took hold of the Lover. For one small moment the flame of yearning that burned within her was buried, the mighty desire withered, and her feelings and dreams were silenced. The Lover refused to leave her bed. She did not open the door of her tent to her handsome Beloved. A cruel confusion swept her into forgetfulness and apathy. The Lover became lazy and stubborn, she poured forth countless excuses and pretexts to explain her strange behavior. “I have removed my cloak, how shall I put it on again? I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them?” (Song of Songs 5:3). The Beloved continued to beckon, and as His beckoning became more persistent, so too did the insanity that chilled and tainted the Lover.
So long as the whispering of the Beloved split the hush of the night, so did the heart of the Lover harden. Pleading and patient the Beloved continued to beckon while the minutes and hours of the clock were ticking away. The Lover did not respond to the voice of the Beloved. The door to her tent was locked shut. The opportunity was lost, and the vision of an exalted life died. True, after a brief delay the Lover awoke from her slumber and jumped in haste from her bed to greet the Beloved. “I rose up to open to my Beloved” (Song of Songs 5:5), but the leap came too late. The Beloved had stopped beckoning and had disappeared into the darkness of the night, “My Beloved had turned away, and was gone” (Song of Songs 5:6). The joy of her life was exiled. Her existence became a desert, a storehouse of emptiness. The episodes of feverish search returned. She, the Lover, still wanders through the dwellings of the shepherds seeking her Beloved.