At the beginning of my last year in seminary, I stepped into a class on evil. The professor, Shannon Craigo-Snell, opened the class by reading us a passage from John Calvin. I don’t have the precise reference here, but it described heaven as a place of transcendent joy and emphasized that even when our world below was shaken, still all in heaven was clear and calm and bright. Craigo-Snell put down the text and asked us, “Do you find that comforting?”
It was a day or two past 9/11, and I did not find it comforting at all.
Our nation was reeling; fire still burned in the twisted heap of steel and glass that had been the Twin Towers; trains had pulled into the station in New Haven and disgorged cars full of the injured; and I did not know much, but this I did know: if these things did not trouble God’s peace, I wanted no part of him. We had enough — more than enough — of indifference in this world. I wanted a God who cared.
All these last few days, the words of the kaddish have been going through my mind:
Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say, Amen.
Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.
Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the Name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort, to which we say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel, to which we say, Amen.
May the One who creates harmony on high bring peace to us and to all Israel, to which we say, Amen.
It is an astonishing thing to pray when a person we love has died, not least because it never names or even mentions the dead. At the dawn of grief, the Jew is to rise and proclaim that God is magnified (even when God seems to be powerless), that there is a plan (even when we cannot see it), that our grief does not diminish the majesty and beauty of God, who shines beyond our earthly pain, even beyond our words of comfort.
Is that what Calvin meant?
And then, there is the refrain: “to which we say, Amen.” In the world of kaddish, it is the human act of assent that binds together the transcendent God and this broken world. Please note: this is not an assent to what is broken. Rather, it is assent as a form of resistance: stitching this world back together by asserting God’s majesty and holding it up against whatever seeks to impede its way.
Is it enough?
Perhaps not, but it is what we have.
There is no gesture that can atone for the fact that a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor was gunned down in her synagogue in Pittsburgh. No words that can make it be all right that two differently-abled brothers who dedicated their lives to kindness and hospitality will not be in their pew next Shabbat. Just as there is no human achievement which can make up for the cartwheels that the children in Sandy Hook will not get to turn, or for the lunchtime banter that Philando will not be able to exchange, or the sermons that Clementa Pinkney will not preach. Each loss — every loss — tears a hole in the fabric of the universe — a hole we cannot repair, but can only honor with our grief and our wonder.
But we can hold onto the hope that one day, those holes will be no more. That one day, those lives will be restored. That God’s plan will be fulfilled — not because God is indifferent to our loss, but because God finds our loss intolerable.
This is how God responds to what is intolerable.
Why do we force ourselves to tolerate what God cannot?