Thinking of the Book of Job, at Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem

USH Trip to Israel at Robinson's Arch, Jerusalem, summer 2009

A Visit with Job at the Kotel

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg’s sermon on Yom Kippur morning, 2009/5769)

It's a peculiar place to pray, amid all these huge, broken stones.  It’s peculiar to celebrate in a place like this that bears so many physical reminders of tragedy.

It’s Friday evening in Jerusalem – you are wearing your special clothes for shabbat -
joyous melodies to welcome shabbat surround you - and yet there is something incongruous about the setting, because you're sitting atop ruins, bits of Roman-Jewish buildings from long ago. As the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai described this place, “Capitals and broken pieces of columns scattered like chessmen in a game that was interrupted in anger.”

You are at the place known as Robinson’s Arch – the area along the Western Wall – otherwise known as the Kotel - that is set aside for non-Orthodox Jewish groups for communal prayer, where men and women can sit together unlike the Orthodox regulations at the main Kotel plaza.

With the two-thousand-year-old wall in front of you, you take note of how miraculous it is that that wall is still standing today, when around you are so many signs of destruction. You see a huge rock jutting out of an immense hole in the 2000-year-old pavement.  Scholars believe that it was the keystone of a huge arch, dismantled by the Roman Empire during the course of the Destruction of the Temple and the Destruction of the City of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.  You sing the words of Lecha Dodi- a song of comfort and consolation - while around you is the residue from what was for centuries the greatest act of destruction perpetrated against the Jews, the event that even became the yardstick of suffering against which the Holocaust itself was measured.

Suddenly, traditional Jewish words come back to you – words you have heard at a Jewish funeral, or at a shiva house:  the traditional words with which Jewish mourners are consoled, even today:  ha-makom yenachem etchem be-toch she’ar aveilei tziyon vi-rushalayim.  “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”   And you realize that these words attach every Jew who is suffering today to the community of Jews throughout history that has mourned the destruction of Jerusalem –making the destruction of Jerusalem a symbol of all Jewish tragedy and all human tragedy….. For centuries, this place has been the focal point of the question "Why?"  Why does this world include suffering and loss and brokenness?  When we are the ones suffering – why is it happening to us?  When it is our friends and acquaintances suffering – what can we say to them?

As you sit amid the ruins at Robinson’s Arch and begin to ponder these questions, however jarring to do so with joyous sounds all around you, you notice that there is one man nearby who doesn’t seem to be part of your group.  He’s sitting on the ground.  He’s notable because of his clothing – he looks like he stepped out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie, with his robe and staff and sandals.  You notice that every so often he is clenching his teeth in pain and scratching the skin on his arms.  Your impulse is to move away from him– but you fight that impulse and decide to approach him, to ask if there’s anything you can do to help, as he seems to be in such pain.  He responds to you:  “Thank you.  Maybe you can explain to me What exactly I did to deserve all this suffering.” 

And he begins to tell you his story – about how he once was a wealthy man, with a beautiful estate, and fields, and animals – and a beautiful family.  Until – all of a sudden – he lost everything.  His animals died,  his fields were stolen, and most tragically, while all his children were at a celebration together, the building collapsed….. he didn’t go on, but you could tell from his tone, and his tears, that there were no survivors.

“And then,” he said, “I was afflicted with this skin ailment – to give me physical pain to compound my poverty and my emotional torment. I don’t understand it.  All these things to befall me – I don’t know why God is punishing me.  Truthfully, I have lived an honest life, a righteous and a generous life.”

Suddenly, you realize that his story sounds familiar to you.  You think you may have met this man before. You ask him, “What is your name?”

He says:  in Hebrew they call me Iyov.  But since you speak English, you might know me as Job.”

The tour guide had told you that when you travel to Israel, the Bible comes alive.  But you didn’t expect the bible to come alive quite THIS way.  And now you’re wracking your brain trying to remember anything you remember about the book of Job.  You don’t think you studied it in Hebrew school.  But in High School English, you think you may have read a play or a novel based on this unfortunate man.  You think you remember something about a bet between God and Satan, with Satan telling God:  “Your righteous friend Job, he’s only righteous because of all the blessings you shower upon him.  His beautiful family, his possessions, his health – just let me take away all those blessings, and he won’t be so righteous after all.”  And God, perplexingly, agrees to the bet.  So THAT’s why all these terrible things are happening to Job.  Job has a FEELING that he’s the victim of injustice, but that injustice is actually far beyond what he imagines.   You decide not to let him know that you know this.  It would only upset him further.

“It's terrible what has happened to you,” you say.  “I’m so sorry.”

And Job’s facial muscles relax just a bit, as he says, "It's just good to hear you say that."

“Really,” you say. “Hasn't anyone said this to you before?"

And Job responds, "Well, it's a breath of fresh air.  compared to what THOSE three have been saying.”

And he motions to his left - and you see - you're not sure why you hadn't noticed them before - three more Biblically-clad men right from central casting,  “Those three - my so-called ‘friends.’ "   This story is becoming more and more familiar to you.  You seem to remember that there are three friends who visit Job right after all these calamities strike.  They sit on the floor with him and cry with him for seven days.  Now this is sounding familiar - you think your rabbi mentioned once  that this is why Jews sit shiva for seven days, in memory of Job's friends' genuine act of empathy for their friend in distress.

“Why do you call them “so-called friends?” you whisper to Job.  But you didn’t whisper it quietly enough.

“He calls us his “so-called friends,” says one of the three men, “because we tell him the truth.  He asked us why he is suffering.  How God could do this to him.  And we answered his question.  There are lots of possibilities.”

“Perhaps he’s being punished for some sin that he doesn’t know about,” volunteers one of the friends.

“Actually, we’re not sure why this is happening to him, but we retain our faith in God’s goodness,” says another.  “Whatever God does is for the best.”

And the third chimes in, “God only gives us what we are able to handle, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Job is waving his hands, then covering his ears. “You guys were so much more helpful for those first seven days, when you kept your mouths shut.”

“Well, what did you expect us to do?” answers one of the friends.  “Let you keep talking, let you keep complaining how unjust the world is, how unjust God is?”

You are dumbstruck at how obnoxious these friends are, what lack of empathy they show.  They seem so self-satisfied – with their claims that they have figured out how the world works, that they have figured out how Job’s suffering is consistent with the rules of the universe.  But you look closer at the faces of the three friends, and you realize –they’re not really self-satisfied.  They’re terrified.  Their friend Job’s suffering is a horrifying reminder to them that all the calamities that happened to Job could just as easily happen to them.  Now you understand that their reaction is simple psychological self-protection.  It is so scary to live in a world where calamity can appear to strike at random – So they have to come up with some explanation about why it’s not really random – why suffering is supposed to happen to JOB but not to THEM.

You make a mental note about what you’re going to say or not say the next time you’re making a shiva call, or visiting a friend who is ill.  Whatever you do, you don’t want to be like Job’s friends.  But you realize it’s not so easy.  You realize that you, yourself, have been in the position of helping someone at a time of crisis - someone who has been full of anger, And you didn’t want to listen to what they were saying.  You didn’t want to absorb their anger.  You just wanted to calm them down, to cheer them up.  It is making more sense to you now why Jewish tradition says that in a shiva house, the mourner has the right of way.  The person who is suffering is the one who can decide what to say, where the conversation should go.  And the worst thing you can offer is a theological explanation.  You want to find words that will help them open up, not close them down.
Sometimes, when you feel that the world is broken, all you want is for your friends to share the world’s brokenness with you.  And you certainly don’t want your friends to tell you that the world’s actually not broken…..

….You look again at your surroundings, and again you notice the ruins, the toppled pillars, the signs of destruction, juxtaposed with the laughter, the celebration, the songs of joy to welcome Shabbat, the throngs of people of all ages.  You realize that, for many centuries, this place, the Kotel, has been the focal point for Jews to ponder the existence of suffering in the world, to ask the question “why” – and yet at the very same time, it has become a place to celebrate, to affirm all the blessings in the world.  And that this juxtaposition itself does not answer the “why” questions asked by Job, but it does transform the discussion.  You remember hearing of a rabbi [Rabbi David Wolpe] who remarked that when people approach him and say the words “Why me?”, invariably they mean "why has this bad thing happened to me?"   But that, for some reason, no one ever went into his office and said,  "I was born in a nation where I never went without food — why me?"  "I have a family that loves me — why me?" "My life has been blessed each day in thousands of ways — I just don't understand— why me?"

As the sun begins to set, you notice that Job and the three friends…seem to have faded away. You are left with the incongruous image, again, of joyous singing amid the ruins, the strewn stones, the broken ancient pavement, the beautiful buildings willfully destroyed. But now that incongruity is no longer as jarring.  You find that it comforts you, to see how your eye is wide enough to witness destruction and celebration in the same glance.

You couldn’t have told this to Job – at this moment, in the depth of his pain, he wouldn’t be able to hear it.  If you tried to communicate it to Job – you would be no better than Job’s so-called friends.  But you pray that he will be able to discover it on his own someday – that it won’t relieve him of his pain, but that over time perhaps it will temper that pain.

And you wonder:  perhaps that’s what it means to be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


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