Last Saturday evening, according to CNN, the Michigan shooter drove through the streets of Kalamazoo for seven hours, firing at eight people in different neighborhoods and killing six of them. In between attacks, he picked up and dropped of Uber passengers without incident.
“There isn’t a connection that we’ve been able to establish between any of the three victim groups with each other, any of the three victim groups with the defendant,” said Michigan prosecutor Jeffrey Getting.
What could these victims have done to protect themselves? Why were the survivors chosen for life and not for death? The natural conclusion is that the world is a place of randomness, where we are left to the hands of fate without rhyme or reason.
Amidst all the pain and confusion, is there any way for us to confront the presence of evil in our world and the persistent appearance of disorder without retreating into bitterness and despair?
As we mourn and look for answers, I’d like to offer these thoughts from 2009.
Every night, most of us go to bed without questioning whether we’ll wake up the next morning or whether the sun will rise in the east. Every morning, most of us go to our front doors confident that our cars will start, that the trains will run, that our coworkers and customers will be respectively friendly, or sour, or aloof, each according to our expectation based upon experience.
Is this faith? Or is it rather the reasoned projection of logical extrapolation? Or is there a difference?
Over the past two decades, 50% more tornadoes have swept through the state of Illinois than the state of Alabama. Nevertheless, Alabama has suffered many more fatalities. An article in the journal Science has suggested the following explanation: Because people in Alabama tend to share the religious conviction that their destiny is in the hands of G-d, they resign themselves to the inevitability of Divine Providence. In contrast, people in Illinois more commonly believe that they are in control of their own destiny and masters of their own fate; consequently, they are more inclined to take action toward ensuring their own safety and welfare.
If correct, this analysis might imply that faith is vastly over-rated. If dependence upon the Almighty increases the likelihood of an early demise, perhaps we should all reject the notion of faith and conclude that God really does help those who help themselves.
Alternatively, we might re-evaluate our understanding of faith.
The Hebrew word emunah — commonly translated as faith — is more accurately translated at faithfulness. It is less descriptive of our internal beliefs and more descriptive of our external behaviors. It describes not our feelings but the degree to which our commitment translates into concrete actions. Most significantly, it expresses our conviction that the Almighty keeps faith with us, even when we may fail to keep faith with Him.
Consider the husband on a business trip a thousand miles from home who resists the overtures of an attractive young woman in the hotel lounge, the teenager away at college who leaves a party when hard drugs start passing around, the lowly private who doggedly advances according to orders even when he is cut off from the rest of his company — all these are examples of faithfulness that endures even when human logic and fear of consequences offer no objection, even when peer-pressure urges us to abandon duty and loyalty. These are the truly unsung heroes, who set aside the relentless calling of self-interest and immediate gratification for nothing but the commitment to another person, to a code of honor, or to an ideal.
According to Jewish philosophy, our trust in the Almighty is not the “leap of faith” that comes from believing without logic or reason, but the confidence that comes from knowing that the Almighty has proven His faithfulness again and again over 3,300 years of uniquely supernatural history. It derives not from our faith that everything will turn out the way we want all of the time, but our certainty that everything is guided by Providence, and that the logic behind every divine edict is true and just — even when it is unfathomable to human understanding.
Finally, faithfulness does not require us, nor even advise us, to sit by passively and await the Divine Will to reveal itself before us. Rather, it requires us to act in our own best interest while adhering to the moral laws of God and man.
Almost everyone has heard the story of the clergyman forced to seek refuge on his rooftop by the rising waters of a flood. One boat comes and offers to save him, but he replies, “I have faith in God.” Another boat comes,and then another, but he refuses to accept help. Finally, a helicopter drops down a ladder and warns that they are the last of the rescuers. But the man of the cloth declares, “I have faith in God.”
The floodwaters continue to rise, and the clergyman drowns.
Upon arriving in the next world, he asks why, in spite of his devout faith, the Almighty did not save him. And God replies: “What did you want from Me? I sent you three boats and a helicopter.”
G-d does indeed help those who help themselves. But He ultimately rewards those who remain faithful, who recognize that there is both a time for taking matters into our own hands and a way to do so without compromising our faithfulness to the Master of the Universe. There is a time to live — through determined effort, with honor and dignity and self-respect. There is also a time to die — either when the cost of personal integrity becomes too great, or when one’s time is simply up, no matter how random the events that end a life may appear.
Learning to strike the perfect balance between determined effort and principled resignation is the work of a lifetime. It is also the key to achieving true faithfulness to God while taking comfort in the promise that, despite the illusion of chaos and the very real pain of loss, everything happens for a reason.
Originally published in Jewish World Review