By Eugen Schoenfeld
We just celebrated Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the day G-d gave humanity His greatest treasure, the Torah, which contains the moral teachings that should serve as universal guidelines.
In the Jewish view, the moral principles in the Torah are so powerful that Jews and G-d are equally bound to obey. Jewish view holds that G-d and the people of Israel are bound by a covenant in which Israel and G-d are subject to the laws of the Torah.
This covenant consists of a declaration by G-d of a reciprocal relationship between Himself and the people of Israel. G-d proposes that He shall be our G-d so long as we obey His commandments. To me, the commandments to which we have committed ourselves are the moral commandments, the most important of which, as our prophets have reiterated, is the moral principle of justice.
It is important for us to understand that a covenant is a contract in which two parties agree to certain stipulations. In this sense, G-d and the people of Israel have stipulated we and He will be guided by the Torah principles, and thus the world will enjoy a collective well-being.
This idea is beautifully stated in an ancient tale in which G-d was held accountable for seemingly having violated the reciprocal expectations. Let me briefly relate this tale.
An old widow came out from her hut carrying a freshly baked small loaf of bread and a smidgen of olive oil. She baked the bread with the last bit of her flour, and the jar contained her last few drops of olive oil. This was going to be her supper. She wasn’t concerned about her future because she knew, after all, G-d would provide for her future sustenance.
Content with her life, she sat down on the bench in front of her hut, faced the Mediterranean Sea, and anticipated a joyful albeit meager meal while enjoying the setting sun and the balmy breezes.
Suddenly everything changed. A sudden wind tore the bread out of the widow’s hand and carried it out to sea.
The widow became indignant and angry. “What have I done that G-d should unjustly punish me,” she thought. “Is it not enough that I have lost my husband and been left alone without any income?”
She felt that what happened to her was an unjust act by G-d and that she did not deserve such a cruel fate. Hadn’t she been assured by the teachings in the Torah that G-d protects widows and orphans? Wasn’t the Torah a binding covenant between her and G-d? Had not the sages also assured her that G-d, like all Jews, must adhere to the stipulations set forth in the Torah? And had not G-d stipulated to uphold the cause of the fatherless and the widow, to provide them with food and clothing. Hadn’t He also declared a curse on anyone who subverted the rights of the stranger, the fatherless or the widow?
In spite of all that, G-d had treated her unjustly by taking the last morsel of bread from her, a widow. She decided that she had a case against G-d. Let G-d defend Himself in the court of law in front of the wise judge King Solomon.
Solomon agreed to hear the case. The widow walked all the way to Jerusalem and appeared in his court, accusing G-d of violating His own laws. She wished nothing more than what was due to her — she wished justice.
Just before Solomon pronounced judgment, the door to the courtroom burst open, and a band of sailors appeared. One of the sailors identified himself as the captain of the boat and wished to relate a tale that he assured the king was pertinent to the case being tried.
The captain began his tale. He and his comrades were sailing in relatively calm seas; however, as sometimes happens, a storm suddenly brewed up. In spite of their great efforts to row ashore, the ship did not respond to the rudder. In the midst of a gigantic wave, the boat hit an object, and its keel sprung a leak. The men stopped rowing and devoted their efforts to bailing, but no matter how hard they bailed, they could not stop the water from flooding the vessel.
When all human efforts were exhausted, they turned to their last resort: prayer. They prayed to G-d for a miracle because their own efforts were no longer adequate to save their lives. Suddenly there was a thump. A strong gust of wind, it seemed, carried an object that slammed into the keel and became firmly wedged in the hole, thus stopping the ship from being flooded.
Now with renewed might, the men rowed ashore, where they examined the object that stopped the leak and saved their lives. The object, as you could have guessed, was a loaf of bread.
The captain continued with his tale. The men walked to a nearby village, where the population was abuzz with news about the audacity of a widow bringing G-d to a din Torah. Perhaps even more important was the news that King Solomon, the one who had just completed building the Temple to G-d, decided to sit in judgment on whether G-d had violated the laws that he established to protect widows and orphans.
The captain was sure the bread that wedged into his boat was the same loaf that the wind snatched from the widow. In the end, G-d was acquitted, and the widow received gifts from the captain and the crew.
When I was young, I considered it an interesting tale. It was one of the many tales about the wise King Solomon. It must have made a great impression on me because I still remember it. But as an adult, I get great insight into the Jewish view of G-d from this tale.
It tells me that we Jews have a unique perception of G-d, a view far different from either Christianity’s or the Islam’s. In those two religions, G-d rules supreme, and His actions cannot be questioned — one must merely accept. While many Jews concur with this view and never dare to challenge G-d’s actions, others believe that G-d himself is subject to laws, even when the laws are of His own making.
G-d is supreme and often sits as a king in judgment, but even a king must abide by the laws of justice. Whatever G-d does, He cannot exclude himself from the principles of justice.
Abraham did not accept G-d’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenged G-d: “Will you destroy the righteous together with the evil ones?” Would that be just?
Abraham challenged G-d’s intent because He cannot disregard justice. G-d can be held accountable for His actions.
In the story, the widow asks whether G-d can disregard the moral laws that He has given to us. He must be held accountable, just as He holds us accountable. In the Hasidic tales, we encounter a similar point of view.
Now and then I found the Berdichever Rebbe asking G-d to justify His actions in the same way that Abraham and the widow did. G-d must be our exemplar. This tale also implies that G-d, just like human beings, is subject to an even higher power. Only a tyrant holds himself free from any accountability.
G-d, just like human beings, is accountable for His deeds. G-d can be questioned, as the widow did, whether He abides by the principles He set forth in the Torah.
Our sages tell us that when we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d also accepted His obligation to abide by the moral principles in the Torah. In a sense, G-d is subject to the laws under which this universe exists.
Our sages tell us in many of the agadot (legends) in the Talmudic tales that G-d is obligated to abide by all the moral principles that He expects us to obey. Even more important from our perspective is that G-d also can be held accountable for His deeds. In this sense, G-d is bound to the higher principles in the Torah, which is the repository of the essential moral ideals that govern not only man-man relationships, but also G-d-man relationships.
First and foremost, He must adhere to the two most important ideals: the principle of justice and the moral law of reciprocity.