Who Does Hashem Hate?
I walked into Shiur one morning this week, to be greeted by a question, or rather, a statement from one of the guys: “Rebbe, I really don't wanna learn today, Hashem hates me.”
We certainly can't begin learning with that in the air, so I followed up. “What makes you feel that way?” He continued to explain: “Nothing seems to be going great for me in my life.”
I this point, I am trying to be cognizant that there are two distinct possibilities here. This could either be a revelation that something truly horrible is happening, or that I'm talking to an honest, if disaffected and lethargic teen.
Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter, as he continued to explain: “Nothing bad is happening, just nothing great. It feels like Hashem hates me.” A number of other students joined in to express similar sentiments.
But the jump in logic seemed unjustified. Life is normal, boring, unspectacular. COVID is annoying, Yeshiva break is so close; and yet so far. But why does that mean Hashem hates you?
I hazarded an approach, “Please correct me if I am wrong. Hashem asks us to do a bunch of things, right?” “Right.” “We don't always do those things, right?” “Right.” “He also asks us to not do a bunch of things, which we sometimes do, right?” “Right.”
I pressed a little further: “So you guys are thinking, if someone treated me the way that I treat Hashem, I probably wouldn't like them very much. With that logic, it stands to reason that Hashem doesn't like you.” I could see my students mulling that over.
This is where the jump occurs, and it doesn't only affect teens. Once I have concluded that if I was Hashem, I wouldn't like me, it's not hard to project that onto the Master of The Universe.
That projection, of course, is now the basic definition of our relationship. Which means that Talmud Torah is learning the thoughts of a Guy that doesn't like you. Davening is talking to a Guy that doesn't like you. Doing mitzvos, wearing tzitzis, putting on tefillin, keeping Shabbos and Kashrus are simply doing things that you have to do for a Guy that doesn't like you. Or he'll punch you.
From here, it's fairly easy to spiral into a world of religious apathy. Resentment quickly follows.
Now, imagine that doing things for “the Guy that doesn't like you” is also an expectation of your parents and teachers, a school rule, a standard by which you are judged, and, to top it off, a distraction from the things that you enjoy... The picture is unpleasant. I wouldn't want to learn Chumash either.
Without proper attention, there is no natural end point of this trajectory. There are adults that will begrudgingly drag themselves and their children to shul this Shabbos to fulfill some sense of religious or familial duty. Every time is a battle, and any excuse to get out of it is readily entertained.
Of course, there is something to say for the diligence and obedience on display, but I hope that we can all agree that disgruntled acquiescence it's a pretty low bar. Moreover, such diligence tends to attenuate over generations and that guy's kids will most likely drag their own children to shul with less and less regularity. In short, this is not a recipe for success.
To begin to fix this, we need to deconstruct the popular myth, that: Hashem's love, care and concern for us is dependent upon our observance of mitzvos. This is patently untrue..
But, you may protest, The Torah very clearly delineates the notions of reward and punishment! These are emphatically contingent upon our thoughts, words and deeds. Moreover, the Sefer Ha'Ikarim writes that belief in reward and punishment is one of only three axioms of Jewish faith!
Of course, this is all correct. However: Reward and punishment is not the same thing as love, care and concern.
It is easier to understand this with the eyes of a parent.
There are many times, as parents that we disapprove of our children's behavior. Sometimes, as a result, we need to withhold privileges, and risk upsetting our kids; which is (hopefully) never the intention. Despite our best efforts, there are many times that we are disappointed, and even hurt, but with all that, it takes a lot more for a parent to stop loving and caring.
This is a profound, novel and radical understanding of Hashem, that is introduced in our Parsha.
Last Shabbos, Paroah chased us out of Mitzrayim. We arrived at the Red Sea, and when paralyzed with terror at the sight of the approaching Egyptian army, we cried to Moshe that “Surely there were enough graves in Egypt!”
Chazal, and indeed, the Nevi'im are not shy to tell us that the spiritual state of the Jewish people in Egypt was dismal: We were naked of all mitzvos (וְאַת עֵרֹם וְעֶרְיָה” יחזקאל טז:ז”) and we were standing at the precipice of the most despicable and inescapable impurity (במ”ט שערי טומאה – זהר חדש ריש יתרו).
The Medrashim (מדרש תהלים א, כ; טו, ה, זוהר תרומה קע) go so far as to quote the שר של מצרים – “The Angel of Egypt” protesting Hashem saving us at Yam Suf: הללו עובדי עבודה-זרה והללו עובדי עבודה-זרה – These and those are both idol worshipers, why save the Jews and drown the Egyptians?!
How does Hashem respond to such claims? Chazal explain: He does not deny it. Instead Hashem deflects, and makes excuses on our behalf! “They only did it because they were impoverished and enslaved. They only did it because they were abandoned and tortured.”
It is instructive to question what exactly Chazal are teaching here. Of what benefit is it to us to know the mystical inner chatter of the Heavenly court?
In order to answer this, we need to understand a central idea in Medrash: Angels are הכח הצפון בלב האדם – The Voices in Our Heads (בית יעקב הכולל יוה״כ ד״ה והנה). That is to say, there is a voice in our heads that is screaming “You don't deserve to be saved! You're no better than the Egyptian slave driver! You should be drowned!”
The response to this voice is to know that we are not defined by our failures. We need to internalize Hashem's defense: It's not who we are. We didn't want to become this way. Our identity is far deeper than our flaws.
Most importantly, our sages are teaching: nothing and no-one could make Hashem stop believing in us.
(Often, when I have related these ideas, there are those who have challenged these understandings, claiming that this is some new-age, Chassidish, lovey-dovey reinterpretation of classic Judaism. To that end:)
The Rambam (הל׳ ע״ז א:ג) codifies this as the reason Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim:
וְכִמְעַט קָט הָיָה הָעִקָּר שֶׁשָּׁתַל אַבְרָהָם נֶעֱקַר וְחוֹזְרִין בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב לְטָעוּת הָעוֹלָם וּתְעִיּוֹתָן. וּמֵאַהֲבַת ה' אוֹתָנוּ וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת הַשְּׁבוּעָה לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָשָׂה משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ רַבָּן שֶׁל כָּל הַנְּבִיאִים וּשְׁלָחוֹ.
It almost came to pass that the root (of monotheism) which Abraham had planted would have been uprooted, and the sons of Jacob would have turned to the errors of the world and their misguidedness. But because of Hashem's love for us, and because He observes the oath of covenant with Abraham our father, He appointed Moses our Master lord of all prophets, and made him His messenger to redeem us.
Rashi tells us that when our ancestors at the sea saw the Egyptian army approaching them at break-neck speeds, they saw שר של מצרים נסע מן השמים לעזור את מצריים – The guardian angel of Egypt coming from heaven to assist the Egyptians. The Avnei Nezer (שם משמואל תרפ״א) explains: They felt the voice of Egypt rising inside of themselves, and they knew that they were not yet free of it. They could still hear the voices screaming at them that they were worthless, useless failures. They still wondered if they would ever becoming anything more than enslaved pagans. But when they saw the sea split, they witnessed with their own eyes that Hashem loved them.
It's important to note: No-one did Teshuva at Yam Suf. There was no Kiruv seminar. All that happened was that they finally felt like Hashem cared about them, and they broke out in unanimous song: “Hashem is My God!”
Disgruntled Jews do not break out in song. The Egyptian voices in our heads won't let us. But Hashem didn't take Tzadikim out of Egypt. He dragged us out, broken, depressed pagans, and told us that we could be more; that He believes in us.
We begin our Haggadah with מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, וְעַכְשָׁיו קֵרְבָנוּ הַמָּקוֹם לַעֲבדָתוֹ – From the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshipers. And now, Hashem has brought us close to His service.
The Aish Kodesh explains that this is the ultimate lesson to ourselves and our children: You think you have issues? You think you have questions? You think you're irredeemable?! Oh boy, you have no idea what it used to be like. We were awful. No big deal, וְעַכְשָׁיו קֵרְבָנוּ הַמָּקוֹם לַעֲבדָתוֹ – now Hashem has brought us home.
Hashem should help us and children to remember: Hashem doesn't hate you. He woke you up this morning because He believes in you, because despite your despondency, He is rooting for you and me. He's standing on the sidelines, cheering us along; our Eternal, Infinite Optimist.