Tradition Today: Time and mishap

When confronted with death, we are supposed to react with the words, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Scene of Moroccan cafe bombing 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)
Scene of Moroccan cafe bombing 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)
When confronted with death, we are supposed to react with the words, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Taken literally, this seems to mean that this death is the result of the active will of the Lord. Yet this is often difficult for us to accept, especially when the death is untimely, and even more so when it is caused by violence.
This was brought home to me earlier this year when I heard the tragic news of the death of a friend of mine from London, Peter Moss, who was killed in a terrorist bombing in Morocco. Peter, a talented and unusual person who was a travel writer, had been sitting in a popular café where my wife and I had sat a few years before.
For us, it was an exciting trip to Morocco; for him, it was the violent end of his all-too-short life.
Was this indeed the will of God? King Solomon may have had it right when he taught that “time and mishap will befall them all.
Nor does man know his time, like fish caught in an evil net and birds held in a trap, men are ensnared in a time of misfortune when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12).
THE TORAH deals with this problem in the tale of Cain and Abel, the iconic tale of violence and murder. It is the story of two brothers – the first two human beings to be born – who quarrel over something unspecified, although the true cause is obviously Cain’s jealousy of Abel. The Torah says that when they were in the field, “Cain said to his brother Abel...” and deliberately does not tell us what he said, as if to indicate that it does not matter what his quarrel was; there was no excuse for his subsequent action: “Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). Six times in five verses, the word “brother” is repeated, stressing the idea that we are all brothers – and as such, the killing of any human is the killing of a brother.
The story makes it clear that this terrible deed was not – I repeat, not – the will of God. It was the exact opposite – the defiance of God’s will. Cain had even been warned before that “Sin crouches at the door: Its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7), but he did not heed this.
Still, the question remains: Why did God not intervene? The rabbis themselves asked that question in a midrash based on the verse “Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:11). Why does it say “to Me”? They relate a parable based on Roman gladiators: Two athletes are in an arena grappling with one another; one is poised to kill the other, who cries out to Caesar to stop him – “Let my case come before the ruler!” But Caesar is silent.
Thus Abel’s blood cries out to God – “Hear my plea!” There is no reply (Genesis Raba 22:10).
Unfortunately that is the way of the world. God has given each person free will, and the result can be devastating – the careless driver who kills with his car, the unscrupulous contractor who kills by constructing a faulty building, the terrorist who kills untold numbers with a bomb or an airplane. Indeed, “time and mishap will befall them all.”
GOD IS not the problem. We cannot expect God to step in like Superman and hold back the deadly train or destroy the villain. That is our task. It is our task individually to control ourselves and our task both individually and as a group to combat evil and work toward a better society and humanity. Someone could have prevented my friend’s death, and someone can prevent future tragedies as well, but that someone is human and not divine. Therefore, we bless God at all times for granting us life on earth, but we do not blame God, even as we wonder why these tragedies have to occur.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.