Both at home and when I’m in Germany, where I travel frequently, people often ask me: How could a good God allow the Holocaust to happen? The best answer to this question, I believe, lies in the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16).
It was Cain who initiated the idea of an offering to God, and Abel also brought his choicest flocks. However, the efforts of commentators to justify God’s action by saying Cain brought dried out stalks (B’reishit Rabbah, chapter 22) ring hollow.
Why then does God reject one offering and accept the other? I do not know. God does not answer to me, but I try my best to answer to God.
My strong conjecture is that the story is intended to teach us a lesson about how to deal with rejection when it happens to us. And, like it or not, we all face it at some point in our lives. Like Cain we have made offerings that have not been accepted. We tried as hard as we could, but we did not make the team. We loved a woman deeply, but she did not love us. We applied for a certain job, but another candidate was chosen. The list is endless.
Cain felt just as we do when our “offerings” are rejected. He was angry and he was jealous. In his rage, he killed his brother, but often we overlook what happened in the story before the fratricide: God spoke to Cain, encouraging him to do his best.
Doing our best is the highest measure of success and affirmation. Of course, we should all learn from constructive criticism, but knowing we have done our best is more important than affirmation from a coach, another person, or an employer. For many, however, using our own – not others’ – measure of success is among life’s hardest lessons to learn.
Indeed, God in the Torah is a teacher and the truth of biblical stories is not historical and not scientific. The truth is in the lessons we learn from them.
So, when people ask me why God did not stop the Holocaust, I point them to this story. Despite God’s direct encouragement to Cain to do his best, he kills his brother, nonetheless, teaching us that we have no right to expect God to thwart the designs of those who do evil. That, in fact, is our job.
Whether God can stop evil and chooses not to or whether God’s power is limited are questions I leave to others. Instead, I deal with the Truth, which for me always has a capital T, that Torah teaches: God wants us to do what is just and right, but God does not choose what is just or right. Again, that is our job.
Our unwillingness to accept the notion that God never promised to shield individuals or the world-at-large from evil often blinds us to what God does if we allow God to do it: Encourage and inspire us to reject the path of wrongdoing and choose the path of justice, caring, and compassion.
In Psalm 25, the psalmist asks God to: “Show me Your ways…teach me Your paths…All the paths of the Eternal One are mercy and truth for those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies” (Psalm 25:4,10). Indeed, God is the consummate instructor, but only to those who want to learn and who choose to strive to learn and keep God’s teachings.
Among the ingenious innovations of the shapers of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning from Leviticus 16, about the observance of the holiday in biblical times to the majestic passage that reaches its climax in Deuteronomy 30:19. Faced with a choice of good or evil, God urges, “U’vharta ba-hayim,” “Choose life!” As we know from God’s telling Cain to do his best, God, indeed, is the force that urges us to choose life and good, but the choices we ultimately make are solely our own.