Portion of the Week: ‘All His Ways Are Justice’

Parashat Haazinu.

'Job And His Friends,' by Ilya Repin (1869).
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In last week’s Torah reading, Vayelech, God expects that, after Moses’ death, Israel will betray him by worshipping other gods and that he (the Almighty) will conceal his face from them and punish them. Apparently to ensure that future events will be properly interpreted, God instructs Moses to teach Israel the poem that describes and explains those events: “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the Children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). 

Interpretation is important here, because without it, it is not clear why Israel should know that God and Moses expect them to sin in the future. With the help of the poem, which will be remembered by heart, future generations will be able to understand that the disasters they will encounter are a reflection not of God’s betrayal but theirs, and that these disasters are his predictable, justified reaction to their betrayal.

The poem appears in this week’s reading, Parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1־32:52) and, immediately after the opening, we read, “The Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4). This verse is traditionally recited during the part of the Jewish funeral related to “justification of the Divine decree,” because when things go smoothly, emphasizing God’s righteousness is unnecessary. The need to justify God’s actions arises only when doubt arises regarding his justice – namely, when bad things befall us and God’s goodness is called into question.

Justification of the Almighty’s actions is part of every theology and is especially necessary in monotheistic religions that do not allow responsibility to be divided among good and bad gods. Philosopher John Leslie Mackie formulates the problem of with three propositions that cannot be supported simultaneously: (1) God is good; (2) God is omnipotent; and (3) There is evil in the world. Logically, only two of those statements can be supported simultaneously: If evil exists in the world, it means that God is unwilling – or unable – to eliminate it. The other option is to continue believing that God is good and omnipotent and to deny the fact of evil’s existence. 

Every solution to the issue of evil depends on denial of one of the above three statements. Let us take, for example, one of the classical explanations: free will. The argument is that responsibility for evil’s existence must be placed not on God’s shoulders, but on the shoulders of the human beings in whose hands he has entrusted their own fate and that of the world. The implication of free will is nullification of one of the first two above-mentioned statements. One possibility is to claim that God is not omnipotent because he cannot intercede in human actions. Against this interpretation, individuals of faith will argue: “Heaven forbid, God can certainly intercede whenever he wishes; nevertheless, he chooses not to in order to enable mortals to develop and live a moral life.” But can we then use the label of “good” for such a God – who chooses not to intervene in the face of the human atrocities committed in every generation?

Other solutions for the problem of evil involve nullification of one of the attributes we assign to God. For example, Jewish mystics attribute evil to certain components in the godhead, rendering the statement “God is omnipotent” inaccurate because it is not clear which of these forces is actually the Almighty, or to what extent the distinction between good and evil is dependent on him. Additionally, the statement “God is good” becomes invalid if the godhead also includes an evil side. Another proposal undermining these two statements is that God is hidden and beyond our comprehension, in which case the attributes “omnipresent” and “good,” which reflect our only partial moral understanding as human beings, cannot fully describe the Almighty. 

In the opening to Parashat Haazinu, the third proposition concerning evil’s existence in the world is negated. Since God is “a God of faithfulness” and since the future catastrophes that will befall Israel cannot be attributed to another factor – because “there is none else beside him” (Deut. 4:35) – the only alternative is to say that what appears to be evil is actually good. The denial of evil also has different variations, the most radical of which ignores the human experience of suffering and claims that what looks like suffering actually derives from a hidden Divine plan, the culmination of which will show retrospectively that everything was for the good. The version offered in this week’s Torah portion is more moderate: While not denying the existence of evil, it argues that the evil is justified and thus, from the moral standpoint, is actually good.

Instead of denying evil, the poem in Haazinu’s justifies it. The poem’s emphasis of God’s justice is accompanied by the continued emphasis on Israel’s treachery, ingratitude and obstinacy that we hear throughout Deuteronomy and follows the initial “Justification of the Divine Decree”: “Is corruption his? No; his children’s is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse. Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise? Is not he thy father that hath gotten thee? Hath he not made thee, and established thee?” (Deut. 32:5-6). God’s justification and Israel’s vilification are thus intertwined: The greater God’s goodness toward Israel, the more grievous is their sinfulness and the more justified is the punishment.

This solution is not always satisfactory, as the Book of Job illustrates. Job is depicted as a truly righteous individual; the collapse of his world cannot be attributed to his wickedness, although his friends do attribute it to his actions. They prefer to hold on to the first two statements – to continue believing God is good and omnipotent – and to deny the third statement, which recognizes the existence of unjustified evil. Thus, they assume that Job has certainly sinned, but in the end God himself intervenes and justifies Job. It is unclear what answer the Book of Job proposes with respect to the issue of evil. Apparently, it settles for presenting the problem in all its severity, for discussing the various solutions, for criticizing those who aspire to solve it through indifference toward Job’s suffering, and for acknowledging that it is both possible and proper to believe that there is no solution.