Our weekly Talmud study group met again this morning (as we will every Thursday at 9:30 a.m. - join us if you're in town!), and we're up to our second full page of Talmud (which, being the Talmud, is actually page 3. Of course). The whole first section of Talmud deals with trying to figure out when we are required/allowed to say the evening sh'ma - in other words, knowing that we are obligated to say the sh'ma "when we lie down," what does that mean? Literally at our bedtime? At the time of evening when most people go to sleep, even if we aren't? Just "nighttime," perhaps? And, how, exactly, do we define those times? It's all very detailed and technical, and, on occasion, headache inducing.
This week, though, we took a side journey through a quote from Rabbi Eliezer (this is Berachot 3a, if you're following along). Eliezer says, "At each and every watch [3 times a night], the Holy One, Blessed be God, sits and roars like a lion...and the sign for this is as follows [e.g. this is how you know that each watch, and therefore each time of "roaring," has been reached]: at the first watch, a donkey brays; at the second watch, dogs howl; and the third watch, an infant nurses from its mother's breasts and a woman speaks with her husband."
Obscure, to say the least. But, with some helpful hints from the footnotes (which point us further down the text) and some talking it through, we came up with a possible interpretation. The first thing that we need to know is that, according to the sages, the reason for God's howling is the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, three times a day, God sits in heaven and cries over the lost Temple and, with it, our exile. The Temple, in case you didn't know, is traditionally understood to have been destroyed because of our sins - it was our fault.
But, why those three signs? What, in God's name [pardon the non-pun], do a donkey, dog and baby have to do with any of this? Quite possibly, nothing. It's possible (and this is strictly my interpretation) that these signs are there because they are so ordinary. Donkeys bray, dogs howl and babies suckle. In other words, those are symbols of ordinary life. Life goes on. The world continues as it was, and as it is.
But, not for God. For God, life is torment. God looks down every day, and sees our people scattered, God's Temple in ruins. Sees discord and pain. And, to make matters worse, sees a world in which no one pays any attention to this. A world which seems to think that this is normal.
Imagine a Social Worker who spends all day trying to help the homeless and hungry, and then goes back home to have dinner at a restaurant with her family. She sees people throwing away mountains of food, not even aware that their scraps would be desperately coveted by those in need. Imagine how hard it would be watching a world where people are so unaware of the pain and misery that surrounds them. Wondering - what would happen if everyone here tried to feed one hungry person today? Could we, together, stop hunger? At least for a while? Imagine how hard it would be for God to watch us, unaware of how far our world is from its potential, and how little we do to fix it.
It is, to me, an incredibly poignant image. So many people criticize God (usually, a God they don't believe in, by the way) for letting bad things happen in the world. What if our sages were on to something, and God is up in heaven, weeping and screaming because we aren't taking charge? What if, through our own actions, we could actually make God smile, instead?
That same passage in the Talmud says that every watch here on earth is paralleled by a watch in heaven. What we do here is reflected "on high." It changes the cosmos. I don't care if you take that literally (I don't). Just know that if you do something good here, you've brought comfort to God.