Dear God, I Don’t Understand

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

My maternal grandmother, Rachel Freedman, had a very loving view of God. She imbued in me the idea that the God of Israel was compassionate, forgiving. In my grandmother’s mind, God would always understand — within my grandmother’s religious and moral boundaries, of course.

For instance, my grandmother kept a strictly kosher home all of her life. So she would never eat ANYTHING at my mother’s house because my mother had been brought up in a kosher home (my grandmother’s), and therefore she should know better than to be a Reform Jew who didn’t uphold all the Judaic rules.

Yet my grandmother ate at MY home – also within certain boundaries – because I, her darling ainekel, had been brought up in a home that DIDN’T KEEP KOSHER, and therefore I hadn’t been taught better.

So my grandmother sat down, along with my parents, at my Friday night table most every week from the time that I married (at 22, which seems so young today, but then was quite normal, even late, to be wed) until almost the day she died. But my grandmother only ate the fruit salad I would specially prepare for her on a glass plate never used for any other purpose.  Also a small piece of the kosher challah. And she always had a glass of red wine because it was good for her heart. God would understand, she said.

Since my husband and I lived quite a distance away from her own apartment, she allowed herself to be driven (by my parents) to our home for Friday night dinner and then back again at the conclusion of the evening. God would understand, she assured me, that it is more important to share a Sabbath meal with your beloved grandchild and her husband (and later with her great-grandchildren) than to obey the injunction not to drive when distances were so far. (It’s not as if we had to throw a blanket over a camel or commandeer a horse and wagon). My grandmother was pretty good at getting God to approve of what she wanted.

My long-deceased maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had been a labor socialist immigrant to Canada from Russia in 1903. Although he claimed to be an atheist, he was nevertheless active in organizing the Russian-Polish Society’s Jewish cemetery in Montreal. It is still there on rue de la Savane, where my grandfather’s name – Joseph Freedman – is etched in stone as one of its founders.

In fact, when my father, Rachel and Joseph’s son-in-law, graduated as a dental surgeon from McGill University, his first job was with the landzman Russian-Polish Society, whose members he tried to educate in taking better care of their teeth. This he did with the aid of the Talmud. In the 1837 Jubilee Anniversary book of the Society, he began his article, “Dentistry and the Jewish Public,” with this story:

“The Talmud tells of a pseudo-scientist who, although able to count diligently the planets of the sky, did not know how many teeth there were in his oral cavity. One day this man bragged about his profound knowledge of astronomy in the presence of the great Rabbi Gamliel and said: ‘The number of stars is well known to me.’ Smiling, the Sage replied, ‘Tell me how many teeth you have.” The braggart, confused, put his hand to his mouth and began to count them. The Rabbi then exclaimed, ‘You don’t even know what you have in your own mouth. How do you expect to know what there is in the sky?”

As we approach Rosh HaShanah In 2017, we humans think we know quite a lot scientifically about stars and planets and how to travel to them, and about crashing meteors, and even multiple universes, perhaps to an unimaginable infinity. But we are still trying to discover whether life existed on any of them before the created beings of this Planet Earth did. We are still awed by the constantly changing “facts,” whether allegorical, scientific, evolutionary, or theological, and the manner of creation.

And, even with all our technological tools, we are still overcome by the unpredictable patterns of the sea and the devastation to the land and its people that overflowing waters and uncontrollable air currents – and human greed — can wreak. How much has really changed since the biblical generation of Noah inhabited the earth?

This is the greatest who-done-it story of all time. Is God the Creator the perpetrator of this chaos? Of the deaths of so many innocent people? Is God the perp? Or do we humans have a hand in it? Or is that just the way Nature is? I feel as if I’m still counting the teeth in my mouth. Dear God, I don’t understand.