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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » Bo

Bo: Can We Question G-d

Submitted by on January 1, 2022 – 8:22 pmNo Comment | 12,908 views

Can we question G-d? Many have questioned G-d over the years, especially after the Holocaust, but no matter how upset we are, it always feels awkward to question G-d. I suspect this is why most people find a way to resolve their questions. They either deny G-d, which makes it okay to question Him or they deny their questions, which somehow exonerates G-d.

Neither is a healthy or authentic solution. So, what is the correct answer, can we question G-d?

The Four Sons
This is an important question to ask this week as we read about the Exodus from Egypt. We celebrate the Exodus every year at the Seder table by reading the Haggadah. One of the iconic parts of the Haggadah, are the four sons who ask four questions. Three of those questions, the wicked son, the simpleton, and the one who knows not how to ask, appear in this week’s Torah reading.

We like to think of ourselves as a religion that encourages questions. Indeed, on the Seder night we ask our children to ask all kinds of questions. We even created entire rituals just to pique their interest and get them to ask the four questions. Yet, the question of one of the four sons doesn’t receive an answer. When the wicked son asks, why do you worship G-d, we are told to blunt his teeth.

So, which is it, do we encourage questions or not? Do we pick and choose which questions are acceptable and which are not? Are certain subjects off limits? And if so, why is the wicked son’s question so different from the wise son’s question? On the surface they are rather similar. The wise son asks, what are these edicts, testimonials, and laws that our G-d has given you? Why is that so different, what makes that more acceptable?

Question Vs. Challenge
The answer is that no question is off limits. We are permitted to ask questions about everything. We may even question G-d. But it stops there. We are only allowed to question G-d, we are not allowed to challenge G-d. That is the primary difference between the wise son’s question and the wicked son’s question. The former asks a question about G-d, the latter challenges G-d.

Here is what I mean: Suppose you learn about the Holocaust and your heart breaks. You wonder why a good G-d, Who knows everything that goes in the world, and Who could step in at any moment and save the world (if we didn’t believe that there would be no point in prayer), let so many people die?

There are two ways to question G-d about this:

The first student says, I know beyond doubt that G-d is loving, Omniscient, and Omnipotent, my question is, why didn’t He save the victims? That is a legitimate question that deserves to be asked. There is nothing wrong about that question and we don’t blunt the questioner’s teeth.

The second student says, if G-d didn’t save the victims, How can He be loving, Omniscient, or Omnipotent? That is not a question, it’s a challenge. He audaciously tells G-d what to do, as if he knows. Worse, he proceeds to deny all of G-d’s qualities, if not G-d Himself.

This is not an honest question; it’s a challenge. It is a declaration that G-d isn’t loving, kind, Omniscient, or Omnipotent. He condemned G-d, He didn’t question G-d. If it isn’t a question, we can’t answer it. The only thing we can do, is blunt his teeth. How do you blunt someone’s teeth? What does it even mean to blunt someone’s teeth?

A Circuitous Answer
Allow me to suggest an answer through a story. A heretic once asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha: If G-d were Omniscient, wouldn’t He know in advance that the generation of the flood would sin? Why does the Torah say that G-d regretted making humanity after observing their sins?

Rabbi Yehoshua replied in typical Jewish fashion, with a question: do you have any children? The man said that he did. Rabbi Yehoshua asked, did you rejoice upon their birth? The man said that he did. Rabbi Yehoshua asked, and do you realize that they will die one day? The man said that he did.

Rabbi Yehoshua then asked, if you will cry when they die, why did you rejoice when they were born, didn’t you know that they will die one day? The man replied that when it is time to rejoice, we rejoice, when it is time to cry, we cry. Rabbi Yehoshua concluded that the same applies to G-d. Although He knew humanity would sin in the future, He did not refrain from creating humanity because of the righteous people that would be born.

A Non-Answer
This is clearly a non-answer. It doesn’t address the theological question that the heretic raised. But the heretic never asked a question. He issued a challenge against G-d. Rabbi Yehoshua wasn’t trying to answer a question. He was trying to silence the challenge. He used a debating tactic that forced the heretic to agree to the answer before the answer was even given.

Had he asked the question like a Jew, He would have received a proper answer. But he asked the question like a heretic. It wasn’t a question, so answering it would be a waste of time. A trap that the heretic would hope to exploit to drag Rabbi Yehoshua into a useless debate. Rather than treat the challenge like a question that deserves an answer, he ensured that the conversation ended.

The Wicked Son
The wise son and the wicked son both question G-d, but though their words are similar, their intent is different. The wise son asks a question, and therefore, receives an answer. The wicked son issues a challenge, and therefore, receives a vague response that blunts his teeth or blunts his attack. It stops his charge and foils his plan to monopolize the conversation.

However, contrary to the erroneous translation that leads many to believe that we punch the wicked son in the teeth, we actually engage him as Rabbi Yehoshua engaged the heretic. Our first order of business is to blunt his attack against G-d. Once we have achieved that, we engage him in conversation. In fact, the reason the wicked son receives a seat of honor next to the wise son, is so that the wise son can engage him in conversation and bring him back to Judaism.

We blunt his teeth by telling him that if he would ask such questions and speak of G-d this way in Egypt, he would have been left in Egypt. Once this shocks him into silence, we explain that this would only have been the case in Egypt. But now that G-d took us out and made us His people, no one will be left behind. There is room in G-d’s big heart for all His children and when Mashiach comes, we will all be along.

We will all be along then because we all belong today.[1]

[1] Based on Sefr Hasichos 5751:1, pp. 70–71; Likutei Sichos 1, pp. 249–250; 11, p. 2.