"The Numbering of the Israelites," engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, mid-19th century
"The Numbering of the Israelites," engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, mid-19th century

How to speak of God’s love in a hurting world? In a whisper.

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Bamidbar

Numbers 1:1-4:20


God loves us.

That sentence sounds Christian. 

And yet the traditional commentary on this week’s Torah portion includes an assertion that God does indeed love us.

​At the beginning of the parashah — the first in the Book of Numbers — there is a detailed description of a census taken of the Israelites in the wilderness. God instructs Moses and Aaron to designate census takers in each of the 12 tribes, and the text relays the results in meticulous detail. The total from all the tribes comes to 603,550 Israelites.

​This is not the only census that occurs in the Torah. At various points, population figures are given for the Israelites.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, argues that God repeatedly counts the people of Israel because God loves them.

Rashi gets this idea from a midrash teaching that a census is like a man with fine pearls he counts over and over again. Similarly, God says to the Israelites, “You are my children… Therefore I count you all the time.”

What a beautiful image. God counts us like someone who carefully counts their precious jewels.

I’d like to suggest that we Jews give this idea of God loving us a chance, even if we can’t definitively account for all the theological ideas in the three words “God loves you.”

I get it — it can be hard to swallow that sentence.

When we watch the news or consider human history, thinking about God loving us can be difficult to do. We run quickly into the classic problem of theodicy — of how to explain that a benevolent, omnipotent God exists when good people suffer.

In recent times, one of the most famous Jewish responses to the problem of theodicy has been Rabbi Harold Kushner’s best-seller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

In it, Kushner presents the possibility that God is not, in fact, all-powerful. Instead, Kushner says that God can comfort us and give us strength as we overcome difficulties. Kushner writes especially movingly about this idea in the book’s sequel, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.” Kushner writes: “I have met [God] in sunshine but more often in shadows, not in the elegant perfection of the world but in the resilience of the human soul, the ability of people to find even a pain-filled life, even a grossly unfair life, worth living.’’

Kushner’s books are humble and do not provide easy answers to the question of how God could love us in a world in which people suffer. It is a question all of us struggle with. It is one of the most difficult questions for humans to contemplate.

Avivah Zornberg, a biblical scholar and writer, addressed the question in a 2018 piece in Moment magazine. Zornberg offered a beautiful reflection on how we can think about God in our complicated times. She argued that it’s very difficult to say anything loudly and confidently about God when our world has been filled with war and so much pain. Zornberg wrote that we moderns must talk about God humbly and in “an intimate and personal tone.”

She quoted a Hasidic rabbi who says that anything we say about God today must be said in a whisper.

This idea of speaking about God in a whisper resonates deeply with me. In a whisper, we can be quiet and provisional. We can question. When we speak in a close whisper, we are also often speaking out of very real personal experience — or sharing intimate feelings.

​Perhaps God’s love can best be found when we whisper. There are no easy answers to the question of how to think in our times about whether and how God loves us. And yet, we can remember that the Jewish tradition teaches of a loving God. When we are in need, it is very Jewish to whisper for a God who loves us.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.