God of Abraham … and Job?

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Who else belongs on the list of sainted ancestors that begins our Amidah? I want to share with you a daring, stimulating and challenging midrash that may provide a harmonic note for your prayer.

An early medieval midrash, Pesikta Rabbati (Aharei Mot, #47), includes this passage:

א”ר חנינא בר פפא אילו לא קרא תגר כשם שאומרים עכשיו בתפילה אלהי אברהם אלהי יצחק ואלהי יעקב כך היו אומרים ואלהי איוב

“Said R. Hanina bar Pappa: Had Job only not complained against God, then as we now invoke in prayer: The God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, we would also have invoked the God of Job.”

The opening verses of Job attest to his moral excellence: he is “pure and upright, fearing God and shunning evil,” so wonderful that even God says, “there is none like him on earth.” The Talmudic Sages were perplexed by this extravagant praise of an (apparently) non-Jewish character, prompting a lengthy discussion (Bava Batra 15a-16b) comparing Abraham, the father of our nation, with Job, the paradigm of hasidei umot ha’olam, “righteous gentiles.”

I see our midrash as part of that same conversation, treating Job in the same class with our patriarchs. This alone is a fascinating element in the rabbinic repertoire. R. Hanina bar Pappa (or whoever was the authentic author) envisions that ideal Jewish prayer might legitimately invoke – not only our clan’s noble forebears – but at least one spiritual giant from outside the tribe. What a daring expansion of the concept of zekhut avot, “the merit of our ancestors!” For the sage who authored this text, his “ancestors” were spiritual, not only lineal. Even davveners who would not alter the received liturgy might enjoy a meditation before prayer: which hasidei umot ha’olam/righteous gentiles, would you invoke in your prayer?

At the same time, this midrash also explains why Job is not part of the Amidah: he complained against God.

Nowadays, especially after the Shoah, Jews love the theme of religious protest. Abraham challenging divine justice at Sodom. Levi Itzhak of Berditchev refusing to blow the Shofar amid pogroms. Elie Wiesel after Auschwitz. We are properly attuned to all the world’s unwarranted suffering. Sick children, tsunamis, terrorists, genocidal tyrants. Such evil often prompts Jews to rail at heaven, to summon God to repent, to demand an answer to Abraham’s insistent challenge: will the Judge of all the earth act unjustly?

I’m not deaf to that religious response. But I think it is incomplete.

Everyone suffers. If we’re lucky, we will grow old and sick and decline and die. If we’re lucky, we will have many loved ones and friends, who will grow old and sick and decline and die. The wheel turns, and sometimes we will have enough funds and enough food. And sometimes we won’t. Suffering might make us shake our fists at heaven and rage at God. Is that all we want to do?

Religion should help us bear suffering with grace and dignity. Profound human beings love life and love God even when they suffer. Life may beat them up, but it need not break them. I pray for the spiritual resources to find life beautiful even when it is painful and disappointing, to find it meaningful even when chaos threatens to overwhelm, to be able to hold fast to values even when they are not easy to summon or apply.

That’s the theme of Job. He begins very Zen. When suffering assails him, he responds (1.31): naked came I from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return there. God gives and takes away. May God’s name be blessed. But the pain becomes too much, and he rails against the injustice of it all. We should admire Job’s stubborn insistence that his Satanic injuries are undeserved (despite the pious rebuke of his friends, who claim that every event is just after all), as even God will attest. But, according to the midrash, that’s not enough to warrant inclusion in the Amidah.

In the book’s climax (ch. 38-40), God speaks from a storm wind, teaching Job that there is no theodicy, for no human can make sense out of all of life: where were you when I founded the earth? … when I dressed the world in clouds and wrapped it in darkness? … Does your hand command the dawn to rise? Job replies (42.3): I spoke without understanding. It is beyond me; I cannot know.

Any one of us may not find spiritual sustenance in this call for serene acceptance. I find it profound. Bringing this midrash about Job and the Amidah to my own prayer, I try to summon personal dignity and serenity. To davven this prayer, I tell myself, to really belong among its list of noble names, I must try to find within myself the strength to bear what I cannot understand.