September 24, 2023 |

Does God Hate Us?

This week, we begin the final book of the Torah, the book of Devarim. The Rabbis often called this book Mishna Torah (not to be confused with Maimonides's work of the same name). This literally means the "reviewed teaching of the Torah" because it reiterates - albeit with some changes - many of the laws of the Torah from previous books. This is essentially the same meaning of the Latin root deutero- that led to the clumsy-sounding and inscrutable English name of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy (Devarim) consists of a number of lengthy speeches by Moses soon before his death. The first topic of the first speech is a kind of "How Did We Get Here?" Moshe reviews how the journey from Mount Sinai to the promised land ought only to have taken 11 days at the most. Yet, here we are, having only arrived 39 years later, and it's not because the trains weren't running on time.

Moshe reminds them that it was the sin of the spies (see the portion of Shelach in Numbers/Bemidbar) that caused the delay. The pessimism of the spies about conquering the land of Israel spread like a virus through the Israelites, who rose up against Moshe's leadership. The consequence was God's decision that the generation that left Egypt would never enter the land. They would wander for 40 years in the desert instead.

Why were the Israelites so pessimistic about conquering the land of Israel? Let me suggest 3 possibilities:
a) lack of faith in God
b) lack of perspective
c) lack of self-esteem

a) If the problem was a lack of faith in God, it is easy to see why they were nervous about the future. A Godless universe is much scarier than a God-intoxicated one. It is also easy to see why God was angry at them and determined that they would not reap the ultimate reward of inheriting the Holy Land.

b) If the problem was a lack of perspective, it means that the Jewish people did not properly appreciate what was being given to them. Rashi indicates (Dev. 1:27) that they basically thought that America, oops, I meant Egypt (J) was a nicer land than Israel. Their pessimism was caused by a feeling that they didn't really WANT Israel that much. Understandably, God felt that if they didn't want it that much, He wouldn't give it to them. Thank God, at least he held it in escrow for their children.

c) If the problem was low self-esteem, it means that the pessimism was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-confidence and courageousness were prerequisites for conquering and settling the land of Israel. Even given that God would miraculously assist them (ala the walls of Jericho), only a people with the convictions of their values and mission would succeed. Hence, He decided to groom the next generation, rather than the rag-tag bunch of ex-slaves who had left Egypt and crossed the desert.

I hate to suggest it, but it also could be that they were suffering from all 3 maladies -lack of faith, lack of perspective and lack of esteem -- all at once. In a vicious cycle, each one reinforces the other.

As an example, let's say that low self-esteem begins the cycle. Check out this verse:
"But you did not want to ascend [to the land of Israel] and you scorned the word of Hashem, your God. And you murmured in your tents saying: "It was out of God's hatred for us that He brought us out of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us." Devarim 1:26-27

Can you even believe that the Israelites would say such a thing. "God's hatred for us?"
After the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea and the clouds of glory and the water and manna in the desert and the leadership of Moshe and the giving of the Torah? What about Dayyenu? None of that was enough for them to realize that God loved them!!?? It reminds me of a teenager in a loving home with loving parents who says "You hate me!" because they won't let her go out on a Sunday night before a test.

The ability to imagine that God hates us (for them and for us) says nothing about what we think about God, only what we think about ourselves. We can only imagine that God hates us if we imagine that we are hate-able. This is a lack of self-esteem.

Of course, once God hates us (and this has morphed into a fact in our eyes), you might be tempted to start hating Him back. Hating God easily leads to a crisis of faith. First, a God who hates us can't really be relied upon to be Godly. He can only be counted upon to hit the smite button, drop heavy safes on our heads, deliver us over to the Amorites etc. Second, it is very wearying to have a God who hates us. It becomes easier to say that if God hates me, why waste time hating Him back? I just won't believe in Him at all. This is certainly true in our world. People today often relinquish their beliefs for theological convenience.

Lastly, once we have properly punished ourselves and God for existing, we might be tempted to throw in the towel on the whole Judaism thing. After all, maybe it would be easier to be Christian, Hare Krishna, Buddhist, Kabbalist or something else. Maybe someone else's heritage begins to look more beautiful than our own. As I mentioned, each of these "lacks" reinforces the other, often without our even realizing it. If one begins to be ashamed of their Judaism, they might also begin to be ashamed of God and, ultimately, of themselves. And so on and so forth.

I believe that God loves us, because He is a loving God and because we are a love-able (if sometimes stubborn) people. I believe that our inheritance is the most beautiful inheritance for us, that our Torah is the most beautiful Torah for us and that our land is the most beautiful land for us. I want to believe - and I live my life the way I do so that this is not just a fantasy - that if I had been standing there when the pessimism of the spies reared its ugly head, I would have done like Calev, who said, "Let us go up and conquer her, because we ARE equal to the task."

Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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