A Palace In Flames: God's Representatives On Earth Must Do Tikkun Olam

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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"So begins a dialogue between earth and heaven that has no counterpart in any other faith, and which has not ceased for four thousand years. In these questions, which only the other can answer, God and man find one another. Perhaps only together can they extinguish the flames. God gives His word to man, and man gives his word to God. God teaches, man acts, and together they begin the task of tikkun olam, repairing, or mending, the world. They become, partners in the work of creation."

Avraham was the first monotheist who deduced there was one God who created and rules over heaven and earth. He looked around at the world and saw that that it had order, and therefore believed it had a Creator. But then when he saw the evil man had done in the world he started to doubt this.

The Talmud says that this is can be understood with the following parable: a man is traveling and in the distance he sees a palace, but the palace is in flames. Now, no one builds a building and then deserts it. If there is a fire there must be someone to put it out. The building must have an owner. If so, where is he? Avraham was observing that despite the existence of God, the world is full of evil, violence and injustice. He asked:

“Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it? The Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him, I am the Master of the Universe.” (Beraishit Rabbah 39:2)

From time immemorial to the present, there have always been two ways of seeing the world. The first says, There is no God. There are contending forces, chance and necessity, the chance that produces variation, and the necessity that gives the strong victory over the weak. From this perspective, the evolution of the universe is inexorable and blind; there is no justice and no judge, and therefore there is no question. We can know how, but we can never know why, for there is no why. There is no palace. There are only flames. The ultimate display of arrogance is denying God’s existence.

The second view insists that there is God. All that is exists because He made it. All that happens transpires because He willed it. Therefore all injustice is an illusion. Perhaps the world itself is an illusion. When the innocent suffer, it is to teach them to find faith through suffering, obedience through chastisement, serenity through acceptance, the soul’s strength through the body’s torments. Evil is the cloak that masks the good. There is a question, but there is always an answer, for if we could understand God we would know that the world is as it is because it would be less good were it otherwise. There is a palace. Therefore there are no flames.

The faith of Avraham begins in the refusal to accept either answer, for both contain a truth, and between them there is a contradiction. The first accepts the reality of evil, the second the reality of God. The first says that if evil exists, God does not exist. The second says that if God exists, evil does not exist. But supposing both exist? Supposing there are both the palace and the flames?

Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be. It is in that cry, that sacred discontent, that Avraham’s journey begins, for surely the easy answer would be to deny the reality of either God or evil. Then the contradiction would disappear and we could live at peace with the world. But to be a Jew is to have the courage to refuse easy answers and to reject either consolation or despair. God exists; therefore life has a purpose. Evil exists; therefore we have not yet achieved that purpose. Until then we must travel, just as Avraham and Sarah travelled, to begin the task of shaping a different kind of world.

What haunts us about the Midrash is not just Avraham’s question but God’s reply. He gives an answer that is no answer. He says, in effect, ‘I am here,’ without explaining the flames. He does not attempt to put out the fire. It is as if, instead, He were calling for help. God made the building. Man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Avraham asks God, ‘Where are you?’ God replies, ‘I am here, where are you?’ Man asks God, ‘Why did you abandon the world?’ God asks man, ‘Why did you abandon me?’

So begins a dialogue between earth and heaven that has no counterpart in any other faith, and which has not ceased for four thousand years. In these questions, which only the other can answer, God and man find one another. Perhaps only together can they extinguish the flames.

God gives His word to man, and man gives his word to God. God teaches, man acts, and together they begin the task of tikkun olam, repairing, or mending, the world. They become, partners in the work of creation.

To be a Jew is to be a blessing to others. That is what God told Avraham in the first words he spoke to him, words that four thousand years ago set Jewish history into motion. ‘Through you,’ He said, ‘all the families on earth will be blessed.’ To be a Jew is not to ask for a blessing. It is to be a blessing.

Judaism is about creating spiritual energy: the energy that, if used for the benefit of others, changes lives and begins to change the world. Jewish life is not the search for personal salvation. It is a restless desire to change the world into a place in which God can feel at home. There are a thousand ways in which we help to do this, and each is precious, one not more so than another.

For every Jew today there are roughly 155 Christians and 120 Muslims. More than three thousand years later, the words of Moses remain true: 

“The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of peoples.” (Devarim 7:7)

Why did God choose this tiny people for so great a task, to be his agent of good here on earth? To be His witnesses in the world, the people who fought against the idols of the age in every age, the carriers of His message to humanity? Why are we so few? Why this dissonance between the greatness of the task and the smallness of the people charged with carrying it out?

There is a strange passage in the Torah: 

“When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no mishap will come on them when you number them.” (Shemot 30:12)

The implication is unmistakable. It is dangerous to count Jews. Centuries later, King David ignored the warning and disaster struck the nation. So why is it dangerous to count Jews?

Nations take censuses on the assumption that there is strength in numbers. The larger the people, the stronger it is. And that is why it is dangerous to count Jews. If Jews ever believed that their strength lay in numbers, we would give way, God forbid, to despair. In Israel they were always a minor power surrounded by great empires. In the Diaspora, everywhere they were a minority.

Where then did Jewish strength lie if not in numbers? The Torah gives an answer of surpassing beauty. God tells Moses: Do not count Jews. Ask them to give, and then count the contributions. In terms of numbers we are small. But in terms of our contributions, we are vast. In almost every age, Jews have given something special to the world: the Torah, the literature of the prophets, the poetry of the Psalms, the rabbinic wisdom of Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud, the vast medieval library of commentaries and codes, philosophy and mysticism.

Then, as the doors of Western society opened, Jews made their mark in one field after another: in business, industry, the arts and sciences, cinema, the media, medicine, law and almost every field of academic life. Indeed, they revolutionized thought in physics, economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Jews have won Nobel Prizes out of all proportion to our numbers.

The simplest explanation is that to be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life. Though our ancestors cherished their relationship with God, they never saw it as a privilege. They knew it was a responsibility. God asked great things of the Jewish people, and in so doing, made them great.

When it comes to making a contribution, numbers do not count. What matters is commitment, passion, dedication to a cause. Precisely because we are so small as a people, every one of us counts. We each make a difference to the fate of Judaism and the Jewish people. The prophet Zechariah said it best: “Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Almighty Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)

Physical strength needs numbers. The larger the nation, the more powerful it is. But when it comes to spiritual strength, you need not numbers but a sense of responsibility. You need a people, each of whom knows that he or she must contribute something to the Jewish, and to the human story. The Jewish question is not, What can the world give me? It is, What can I give to the world? Judaism is God’s call to responsibility, to be His agent of good here on earth.

Daily Goals:
When we give, when we say, ‘If this is wrong, let me be among the first to help put it right,’ we create moments of imperishable moral beauty. We know how small we are, and how inadequate to the tasks God has set us. Even the greatest Jew of all time, Moshe, began his conversation with God with the words, ‘Who am I?’ But it is not we who start by being equal to the challenge; it is the challenge that makes us equal to it. We are as big as our ideals. The higher they are, the taller we stand.

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