Do you really believe in bashert?

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This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16.

I wish I could believe in bashert — predestination. Sometimes, I joke that I believe in bashert when good things happen, but not when bad things happen. But if you really believe in bashert — if you really believe that God preordains events in the world — then you have to believe that God preordained the recent mudslides in California and the wildfires that preceded them.

I write these words on Jan. 12 — the eighth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, which devastated hundreds of thousands. If you believe in bashert, you believe that God decided to send that earthquake — as well as countless other tragedies, undeserved suffering endured by small and large numbers of people.

Do we really believe that God operates this way — that God decides, for some reason, to wreak such havoc on so many lives?

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An uncritical reading of the Ten Plagues — which we read about in Parshat Va’era and will continue reading about in Parshat Bo — yields such a conclusion. When nature produces terrible events — floods, earthquakes, blood, frogs and darkness, it’s because God has decided to unleash them.

It’s clear to me that the biblical authors believed that this is the way God operates. For literary and theological reasons, the plagues serve the narrative of the exodus from Egypt.

But if God decided to punish the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues, how are we to respond to other instances of nature’s cruelty?

The issue of undeserved suffering is not new. In the philosophy of religion, it’s known as theodicy. In talmudic theology, it’s known as tzaddik v’ra lo (a righteous person to whom bad things happen), rasha v’tov lo (an evil person to whom good things happen). Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” became a best-seller almost four decades ago, because it addressed issues that people have struggled with since time immemorial.

Nature is unpredictable, and nature is often cruel. And even though modern technology allows us to control nature to an extent, every once in a while Mother Nature cruelly reminds us: You think you control me, but you don’t completely control me.

And, of course, many of us have abundant reason — from our shared historical legacy and our own personal histories — to doubt God’s justice. Life is unpredictable, and it is sometimes unfair.

Despite what I’ve just said, I’m not willing to take God out of the picture. A world without God is untenable to me. A world in which God doesn’t care about us is a chillingly lonely place.
Judaism presents to us a multi-faceted “God picture” in which God cares about us — so much that God liberated us from Egypt, so much that God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.

And so, I struggle with the theological implications of Parshat Bo. This portion — as all Torah portions — strives to put a sense of God’s presence into our lives. And my struggle is to figure out how I believe that God was present in our ancestors’ lives thousands of years ago — and, no less, how God is present in our lives today.

Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, a chaplain at Hebrew Home and Jewish Social Service Agency, and a teacher at Shoresh Hebrew High School.

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