In Jewish tradition, when one hears of a death, we are supposed to condition ourselves to say, "Baruch Dayan Emet- Blessed is the true Judge." The theology behind this formula is that everything happens for some divinely-ordained purpose. Since it would be the ultimate chutzpah for us to question God's design of the universe, we are asked to say these words in order to acknowledge that while we may mourn the passing of this individual, God had a reason (unknown and unknowable to us) for ending his/her time on earth.
I have always struggled with this "blessing." In recent years I have preferred to avoid it altogether in my rabbinate, turning to alternate expressions of grief** when conducting funeral services or consoling the bereaved. It seems almost callous to me to suggest to mourners that their loved ones suffered through cancer or were killed in an accident or succumbed to a serious illness because of a capricious deity following some master blueprint. That, to me, is the kind of theology that creates non-believers.
So, when the news came that ISIS had beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff, I- like many others- felt a mixture of grief, disgust, worry, and a myriad of other emotions. I felt tremendous empathy for his grieving family and friends. But I could not say "Baruch Dayan Emet." I simply cannot believe that God ordained this gruesome, criminal act. I cannot believe that God finds any form of justice or truth in the brutal decapitation of someone who disagrees with you. Regardless of where one finds ultimate religious Truth, I don't feel that any meaningful expression of faith can possibly embrace murder.
Much has been made of the fact that Sotloff was Jewish. He actually attended the same Day School as a child that I had gone to through second grade (although we were about 13 years apart in age and thus never met one another). But his death is no more or less tragic because of his religion, ethnicity, or any other characteristic. A human being, a creature of God, has died a horrific death. And God weeps, and joins us in crying out for justice.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf presents another figure who has difficulty with the idea of "Baruch Dayan Emet." Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya is walking with a colleague when he observes a young boy observing two mitzvot for which the Torah promises "v'ha'arachta yamim- [If you observe these commandments] your life will be lengthened." The boy honors his parent by doing as he is told and climbing a tree to retrieve some eggs. Further, before gathering the eggs, he shoos away the mother bird (a commandment, incidentally, that comes from this week's parasha, Ki Teitzei). Just as Elisha is remarking on how meritorious this child is, the boy falls and is killed. In anguish, Elisha cries out (in Aramaic), "Leit din v'leit Dayan- There is no justice and there is no Judge."
I do not reject that God tries to serve as Judge of the world and mete out justice, whenever possible, in a merciful manner. But I am aware that God has also granted us free will, and that some individuals have perverted and abused their free will to contravene justice and serve their own evil plans. This is why justice does not always seem to prevail. This is why we are left to cry out in anguish and disgust when the Steven Sotloffs and James Foleys and other innocents are murdered in cold blood. There is a Judge, and my faith in the love and mercy of that Judge remains unshaken. But we ALL must work hand in hand with the Judge to ensure that justice will prevail.
May the memory of Steven Sotloff ever be a blessing.
* Apologies for any mangling of the Aramaic
** I prefer to recite (with the mourners) "Baruch Ata Adonai, ha-notei'a b'tocheinu chayei olam- Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has implanted within us the opportunity for eternal life," which acknowledges that those whom we mourn live on in our hearts and our memories.
This post is part of #BlogElul, a project started by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer