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For children: Think about a time when you shared a toy with someone else, or said sorry to someone, or listened to your mummy or daddy or teacher. Whenever we do something that Hashem wants us to do, especially when we don’t really want to do it, He loves it so much that He wants to be there with us because it makes Him so happy to see us do something good.
For adults: When this question was asked to the Kotzker Rebbe, he famously answered ‘Wherever we let Him in’. This cryptic answer in fact demonstrates that while God is everywhere, He is hidden in this world. We have the power to reveal Him by connecting with him through his Mitzvot. The word Mitzvah literally means connection (not 'commandment' or 'good deed'). When we ‘connect’ with God, we have the power to bring Him into even the darkest parts of the world.
For Children: God is like a mummy or a daddy. He is in charge of everyone so everyone has to listen to Him. That means that if He says something like ‘let there be light’ it must happen, just like when a teacher or parent says something, we have to listen and do it straight away!
For Adults: God created the world through speech. Our speech is a paradigm for creation as it is the contact point between our thoughts which are non-physical and the physical world. Speech takes those thoughts and brings them into the physical world. Similarly, God’s speech takes His ‘thoughts and desires’ and makes them physical.
For Children: God wants us to pray because it reminds us that He is the source of all our blessings. It also reminds us to be grateful for what we have. God always answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. He won’t give us something that we don’t need or would be harmful to us, and He won’t give us something we could have worked for ourselves.
For Adults: God knows what we need better than we do, but we still have to pray. The reason is that prayer helps us to acknowledge the source of our blessings is Him. Left on our own we would struggle to succeed. However, God does not always give us what we want as there is a difference between what we want and what we need.
For Children: We don’t understand everything that God does. But even the bad things that happen to us can help us grow as people. The following is one of my favourite stories and may indeed help children who are experiencing a range of struggles and difficulties:
Once a little boy was playing outdoors and found a fascinating caterpillar. He carefully picked it up and took it home to show his mother. He asked his mother if he could keep it, and she said he could if he would take good care of it.
The little boy got a large jar from his mother and put plants to eat, and a stick to climb on, in the jar. Every day he watched the caterpillar and brought it new plants to eat.
One day the caterpillar climbed up the stick and started acting strangely. The boy worriedly called his mother who came and understood that the caterpillar was creating a cocoon. The mother explained to the boy how the caterpillar was going to go through a metamorphosis and become a butterfly.
The little boy was thrilled to hear about the changes his caterpillar would go through. He watched every day, waiting for the butterfly to emerge. One day it happened, a small hole appeared in the cocoon and the butterfly started to struggle to come out.
At first the boy was excited, but soon he became concerned. The butterfly was struggling so hard to get out! It looked like it couldn’t break free! It looked desperate! It looked like it was making no progress!
The boy was so concerned he decided to help. He ran to get scissors, and then walked back (because he had learned not to run with scissors…). He snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger and the butterfly quickly emerged!
As the butterfly came out the boy was surprised. It had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. He continued to watch the butterfly expecting that, at any moment, the wings would dry out, enlarge and expand to support the swollen body. He knew that in time the body would shrink and the butterfly’s wings would expand. But neither happened!
The butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly…
As the boy tried to figure out what had gone wrong his mother took him to talk to a scientist from a local college. He learned that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle. In fact, the butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. The boy’s good intentions hurt the butterfly.
As you go through school, and life, keep in mind that struggling against things that appear bad is an important part of any growth experience. In fact, it is the struggle that causes you to develop your ability to fly!
For Adults: We cannot fathom the workings of the world. We do not know why God would allow something bad to happen. Lord Sacks put it beautifully in his book ‘The Great Partnership’.
From ‘The Great Partnership’ Chapter 12 – The Problem of Evil (pp. 233 – 238)
How can God allow unjust suffering in the world? How can he allow his creatures to use, abuse, manipulate, dominate, injure and kill one another? How can he allow an earthquake, a flood, a drought, a famine to cause thousands, even millions, of deaths? How can he allow one innocent child to die? No question so lacerates the heart of faith as does this. How, if God is good, is there so much evil in the world?
After the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 that killed 230,000 people and left more than a million homeless, I went to visit one young woman who had been in Thailand at the time and only narrowly escaped. She was in a state of extreme anguish. This was her story. She was in her hotel room when the wave struck. She was able to swim through the window, but then she found the surface of the water blocked with debris. She could only raise an arm above the surface and wave for help.
A local Thai man saw her waving, swam over to her and brought her to safety. Without this she would have died. Hours later, when the water had receded, she saw among the wreckage the dead body of the man who had rescued her. ‘How’, she asked me, ‘could God have allowed him to die? He saved my life. Of all people, he should have earned the right to live.’
This question, or something like it, causes more people to lose faith than any other. There is none deeper. To fail to take it seriously is to fail to be serious at all. It is the question of questions, and it calls for nothing less than total honesty.
To give it its most famous philosophical expression: either God cannot prevent evil, or he can but chooses not to. If he cannot, then he is not all-powerful. If he can but chooses not to, then he is not all-good. How does a good God permit evil to deface and defile his creation?
No sooner have we asked the question than we realise something strange about the Bible. The later response of theologians, long after the biblical canon was closed, is familiar to us. We cannot fathom the workings of providence. If we could understand God, we would be God. Who are we to know what is for the best sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity? What we cannot understand we must accept.
It is this view that we do not find in the Bible. Instead we find Moses saying to God, ‘Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you send me?’ (Exodus 5:22). Here is Jeremiah, challenging God:
You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at case? (Jeremiah 12:1)
And here is Habakkuk: How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or ciy out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me: there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4)
Far from attempting to minimise the problem, the Bible maximises it, seemingly at every opportunity. The people who challenge divine justice are not heretics, sceptics, deniers of the faith. They are the supreme heroes of the faith: Moses and the prophets, the people who carry God’s word to the world. This cries out for explanation.
So does the book of Job. The book sets up the following scenario. Satan -not in Judaism an evil force, simply the prosecuting attorney - challenges God on the faith he had in creating humanity. Show me one person who is truly righteous, he says. Job, God answers. Job is righteous, Satan replies, because you never tested him. He has all he wants: a happy marriage, children, wealth. It is easy for him to believe. He has no reason not to believe. But take away his good fortune and you will see that he no longer believes.
In swift, successive blows, Job loses everything. His wealth. His children. His wife loses faith. ‘Curse God and die,’ she says. Job replies, in words Jews have used ever since, ‘God has given. God has taken away. May the name of God be blessed.’ There is a momentous acceptance in those words, and logically the book should have ended there.
But it does not. Satan challenges God again and persuades him to send Job one more affliction. It is a relatively minor one, but this time Job breaks and curses the day he was born. From then to almost the end of the book, for more than thirty chapters, Job challenges God to show him how and why he deserves his fate.
His three companions - later they are joined by a fourth, younger and surer of himself - give Job the conventional answers. God is just. Therefore if Job has suffered, he must have sinned. He is being punished for some wrong he did.
Yet we the readers know something Job’s comforters do not. Job has not sinned. That was how the story was introduced in the first place. Job is the only person in the entire Hebrew Bible to be called sinless. There is therefore a massive irony throughout. Job’s comforters, who defend God’s justice, are in fact slandering Job, accusing him of a wrong he did not commit.
As the book rises to a crescendo, God, who has been absent throughout, finally reveals himself to Job. Now, we expect, we will hear the answer to the question of questions. Instead, for a full four chapters, God simply asks questions of his own - unanswerable questions. ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you?’ And so on.
Job is silenced. Then, in an astonishing reversal, God tells Job that he, who challenged God’s justice, is right and his comforters, who defended God, are wrong. Job is then blessed with a restoration of his wealth and with more children.
For Children:God created the world because He is kind and loving. He wanted us to experience all of the wonderful things in His creation, especially our family and friends.
For Adults: The fact is God is perfect and had no need to create the world. Therefore we believe He did so out of love, for true selfless love is something that is difficult to find among humans. His love is so powerful so we can experience and benefit from all the best things in His creation.
For Children: God doesn’t look like anyone or anything. But we can try to appreciate what it must be like to be with Him. Imagine your favourite relative or friend. It might be your mummy or daddy, grandma or grandpa. Think about why you love them so much and try to imagine just how much they love you. Now imagine going to your favourite place or doing your favourite thing with someone you love and feel so close to. We would feel so special and fortunate to be there with that person. This is a little bit what it must feel like to be with God.
For Adults: We cannot imagine what God looks like. He has no body or even form. We can only imagine what He is like.
For Children: Imagine the happiest event in your life – a birthday party, a family holiday or celebrating a simcha. Imagine all the positive feelings of love and joy you have ever had. Now take all of those happiest memories you have and multiply them together. Now take all of the happiest memories that everyone has ever had and add them in as well! That must feel so amazing. Imagine having that feeling all of the time – that is barely even a tiny glimpse of what heaven is like.
For Adults: Heaven isn’t a physical place as such but a state of being intimately connected with God.
For Children: We don’t believe in Hell as a place that people are punished for their sins as in some religions. We do however believe that sin affects a person’s soul in a similar way that bad there are bad things that can harm our bodies. Imagine what would happen if we ate too many sugary or fatty foods all the time - our bodies would suffer. To get our bodies back into shape we would have to exercise and eat more healthy things. Exercise is good for us but it’s hard work. So too, sin hurts a person’s soul. After a person dies their soul has be cleansed again from the bad influences – this might not be nice, but just like exercise it’s actually good for us in the long term. Far better though to keep our souls (and bodies) in good shape to begin with!
For Adults: God is not waiting to punish us for things we did wrong. The penalties listed in the Torah for breaking God’s commandments are more consequences. This is what is meant by ‘punishments’ being described as middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. Discipline is designed to help us grow to be better people – it comes from the same word as disciple. After a person dies they have a din v’chesbon – a judgement and accounting for all of their actions.
For Children: God wants us to realise our mistakes and give us the opportunity to learn from them and promise not to do them again. That’s why he doesn’t punish us straight away.
For Adults: As in the previous answer, God is not waiting to jump on us and punish us for things we did wrong. Rather, He wants to give us the space to recognise that what we did was wrong and do teshuvah – (lit. return but understood to mean repentance). This is why there is no immediate cause and effect if we sin, or indeed if we do a mitzvah.
For Children: Do you believe in something like love? Can we see love? No! But we know it exists because we see the effect of having a loving parent or grandparent. So too we know that God exists without having to see Him directly. We just have to be grateful for all of the things we have.
For Adults: Hashem doesn’t have a body. But we can sense Him in other ways. We can see the effect He has on our lives and the lives of others.
For Children: Hashem is everywhere, but that does not mean that everything is Hashem. Hashem is everywhere in the sense that He can be everywhere we allow Him to be.
For Adults: Hashem is everywhere but that does not mean He is everything. Pantheism is the belief that the universe or nature as the totality of everything, is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God. This is not a Jewish idea. A table is not Hashem.
Yet without Hashem the table wouldn’t exist. This idea is known as Panentheism (from the Ancient Greek meaning "all-in-God"). It posits that God interpenetrates every part of the universe and extends above time and space beyond it. Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical, panentheism maintains a distinction between the divine and non-divine and the significance of both.
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