G-d is Not a Vending Machine

A little while back, I picked up a book by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, called ‘Finding Light in the Darkness.’ Shaul was in the same school as my husband, albeit a couple of years’ above him; and when he started Aish HaTorah in the UK, he gave a few shiurim in our home.

But Shaul stopped giving shiurim after a month or two, and a couple of his colleagues from Aish took over. At the time, we didn’t know why. Today, we know that his wife, Elana, had been diagnosed with the cancer that was going to claim her life at a very young age.

Rabbi Rosenblatt is a Baal Teshuva. In his book, he’s very open and honest about how he came to be frum; how he came to be married to Elana, and how he struggled to cope with the terrible blow that was his wife’s death.

Why am I telling you all this? Because one of the themes that comes through again and again on Beyond BT (although I think it’s probably applicable to every single Jew on the planet) is that most of us can only accept G-d’s domination over our lives – to a point.

And usually, that point is well within our comfort zones. For some people, it stops well short of considering or attempting aliya. For others, it comes when they think about how their professional careers or businesses would suffer too much if they didn’t keep things ticking over by working on Shabbat or bending a few laws on monetary matters. For others, it takes the form of being unable to accept that as a woman, they won’t be treated exactly the same as a man in shul.

These are just a few examples of how belief in G-d can stretch us out of comfort zones; I’m sure that everyone can add their own.

Then there are the people who can’t accept that G-d is running the show because they have experienced some terrible heartbreak, upset or tragedy. Many of these people can’ t understand how a kind, loving G-d could send them so much apparent suffering, in whatever form it comes. They can’t accept that this is how G-d runs his world – and so, they reject Him.

If Hashem hadn’t tested them so much, they would probably still believe in him. Or at least, that’s what they say. But it begs the question: what sort of belief is it in the first place, if it’s conditional on everything always going their way? That sounds more like an insurance policy for ‘the good life’ than genuine faith; or perhaps even like a clumsy sort of spiritual blackmail – “treat me nice, Hashem, or I’m not going to do what you want / keep your commandments”.

(By the way, let me just make clear here that this post is NOT about judging other people. It’s about taking an honest look in the mirror.)

As Rabbi Rosenblatt makes clear in his book, any test we are sent, we can ultimately pass. And every test we are sent is ultimately for our good.

And his life experiences have given him the authority to say these things. He went through all of the ups and down any BT goes through when they become religious; he devoted himself to helping more jews get closer to Hashem; he married a woman who by all accounts was one of the nicest, kindest, most sincere and genuinely pious people you could wish to meet.

(I have a friend who was very close to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s wife, Elana, and even before her illness, I used to hear glowing reports of her kindness, and all the effort she used to put into becoming a better jew and helping other people.)

And how was he rewarded for all his devotion and hard work? He lost his wife to cancer at the age or 32, when the youngest of their four children was still a baby.

If he wanted to, Rabbi Rosenblatt has every ‘justification’ for going off the derech. Instead, he wrote a book about finding light in the darkness. About using suffering as a mechanism for coming closer to Hashem. About understanding that even if you are doing your best to follow his laws, to live according to his Torah and to pray for your wife to recover from a terminal illness, G-d is not a vending machine.

You don’t put prayer in, and get a solution to all your problems out. You do sometimes; often, even. But not always. Because G-d knows what we need better than we ourselves do. We are often too clouded by ego, appetites, or emotions to have an accurate picture of what we really need in this life – and it gets even more complicated when the needs of the afterlife are also factored in to the equation.

This is something that I’ve certainly struggled with, at times, over the past couple of years. But reading Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book helped me to understand that there is so much about G-d that we, as limited humans, simply can’t understand. And that everything he does, is ultimately for the good.

‘Submission’ is not a popular word in the West; it has connotations of being forced to do something against our will, of being humbled, or negating ourselves, and our sense of self-importance.

That’s why we don’t like it – it grates harshly on a Western mentality that is taught to believe in the supremacy of the individual from a very young age. We all like to think that we are important, that our opinions count (as I’m sure will be borne out by the comments on this post….)

Yet in some very important ways, Hashem wants us to submit. He wants us to get to a point where we can accept that we simply don’t understand, and that we don’t need to. G-d is running the show. We can rant or rail at him all we want – what does it change? Or we can try our best to accept that G-d knows what we need better than we do, and to do our best to be happy about it – even when it hurts.

It’s probably the single hardest thing for any or us to do – I’m certainly still struggling with it.

I can’t do justice to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book – or the very profound ideas he writes very cogently about – in a short post. If anything in this post strikes a wrong chord, it’s probably my (mis)interpretation – please don’t have a go at him in the comments! Instead, go and read his book and get it from the horse’s mouth.

I want to leave you with a direct quote from the book:

“I ask you to ask yourself – and be brutally honest – what are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To avoid pain? To live out seventy or eighty years of life with the least challenge possible? If this is your aim, then many ‘bad’ things will happen along the way – because this is a world of pain, and pain is antithetical to all that you are living for.

“If however, you believe, as I do, that we are to lift ourselves into Godliness, to grow and to ultimately attain self-perfection, than all that happens to us is a golden opportunity – and the more challenging it is, the greater that opportunity.”

21 comments on “G-d is Not a Vending Machine

  1. Ora, my runaway point was we dont ever really know what G-d wants in any interesting set of circumstances, other than that long list of 613 commandments.
    katrin said “if i’m trying something and it’s not working out, then i think that’s quite a clear sign that G-d doesn’t ‘want’ it to happen – because if he did, it would”
    Not quite Katrin.
    Our personal free will is independent of what G-d wants to happen, (or so i’ve heard) so we cant reason with stuff like its sooo not happening therefore G-d doesnt want it to happen and I wont continue fixing/ or focus or whatever…….

    Ora, thats why I brought in the hypothetical hyperactive cubicle hopper , its not a question of whether the cubicle hopper is happy with how G-d is dealing cubicle cards with him or whether he is using company time to share joints and get high with coworkers instead of working or whether he could fix the issues and re-coup money he will have a harder time accounting for but could get back.
    Or if he is happy getting a new cubicle every month or just getting the whole company to join in for mincha minyans and mussar that is irrelevant. Of course the minor issues are fixable, its the question of what exactly is the message.
    And sometimes those rough hands that we think are G-ds,are really just our own shortcomings coming back new and improved. Manufactured by G-d but nevertheless personal shortcomings, starting with the brain and down.
    For every rough hand there are sixty ways to interpret stuff and who are we to pretend we know what G-d meant /wants or would rather not have at this time……..

    So when bad stuff happens, smiling and embracing the bad stuff like old boyfriends you still really love is not the answer. The answer is WhY ,not smile cuz G-d loves you and cuz the sun still shines and flowers are still blooming .

    If we could figure out exactly how our brain functions what shortcomings trip us over constantly on an individual level and tweak accordingly there would less “bad stuff” and more pious saints. The question is when does fixing stuff become playing G-d.

    The question is not whether or not I will be happy and embrace that hand of G-d whether its hugging /slapping/ patting/pushing or pointing or whatever .The question is what am I doing that is causing G-d to act in this manner.
    The answers are endless for even minor stuff forget about stuff you cannot fix.

    And regarding your point on happiness helpers for serving G-d, how do we really know that G-d wants us to take the easy road out and medicate according to our deficiencies.
    Adderall for perfect praying six times a day including corresponding lectures.
    Ecstacy/SSRI happy pills for the other 613 commandments.
    So G-d would be happy if we didnt work as hard and way less effort to listen to him and his commandments o plenty ?
    Isnt life all about the effort and focus.

  2. Jaded (in response to your #9 and #11)–

    First of all, “yagati v’lo matzati al taamin.” A lot of times we think we’ve given our all in order to figure out Hashem’s will without success, but in truth if we try our hardest with good intentions, we’ll find what we need. The rules might be confusing, but they’re not utterly incomprehensible.

    As for neuroscience, we’re told that Hashem looks for effort, not only results. If someone without happy-making drugs manages to be happy half the time, they might be on a better spiritual path than someone with happy drugs who is happy 3/4 of the time. If you get a magic pill to make avodat Hashem easier, Hashem’s standards for you just might go up accordingly.

  3. Jaded–
    I don’t think the Torah worldview is as fatalistic as your A-H options. How about

    I) If she wants to mess up her life, Hashem will stand back and let her, because even His love and intervention can be negative when it prevents personal growth. OTOH, He will still gently intervene to help her, whether that’s by letting her be unemployed for a while or by finding her a new and better job.

    I think you and Katrin are talking about different things. Katrin is talking about working to accept what we can’t change, while you seem to be stretching her point to cover the things we can change as well. I don’t think saying “sometimes it’s Hashem’s will that people get sick” means saying “if someone used dirty needles for two years straight and got hepatitis, it was clearly inevitable.”

    On a different note, I have always taken comfort knowing I have two healthy kidneys, one of which could bail me + family out of poverty for several months if necessary. Fortunately, it’s never been close to necessary.

  4. Katrin,
    Your approach reminds me of the simple simon game I often played when life was somewhat simpler and the care bears were my heroes. If simple simon says “touch your mind” would you tap your head and hope for the best cuz it seems thats what simple simon wanted ? What if you bang your head and you think its your mind your banging, what if mind is a metaphorical term how would you know what to do ?

    G-d is not exactly known for his crystal clear directives and text messaging sometimes.

    Take a common area of concern- money for example, you say that if bad things happen then thats what G-d wanted, the question really is what part of that “bad” did G-d want and what sort of efforts are we supposed to exert to fix the bad and avoid the worse.And what parts are pre-programmed and hardcoded.

    Say an unhappy absentminded person forgets to card clock back in after lunch for a full week and half and her paycheck is half its original size. This then reminds her and reinforces how much she really does not love her work and would rather bartend and or decorate nightclubs . Unrelated unhappy weekend moments and annoyance factors follow in hot pursuit . It seems that G-d is just not happy with her life choices and her yarn like life just cant seem to stop unraveling in so many different ways.
    She then skips work monday and tuesday and by the time wednesday rolls around shes about to get herself fired, she has promised to sign up for bartending courses in case things go wrong and those “we buy your ovaries / kidneys and dignity for large sums ” ads have never looked so tempting .
    In addition she still has to argue for about 18 hours of pay thats basically her word against the manager who is about to fire her for work skipping and tardiness and might not be the best character witness.

    It seems as though G-d may be sending her a message of sorts.

    So using your “Cuz G-d wanted it that way” reasoning which of the following answers is correct ?

    A) G-d wants her to be always on the go and unstable so he keeps creating work annoyances and cubicle circumstances that cannot be accomodated due to inner faults/cracks and brittle brain and never fix always flight parts forcing her to quit cubicle after cubicle until she wins the cubicle quitter of the century award .

    B) G-d wants her to be a bartender and sell her ovaries/kidneys and dignity for extra cash its just so obvious .

    C) G-d wanted her to be absentminded/ flaky and flighty, and wants her to flaunt this and all related shortcomings in addition to pretending they are pink diamonds,purple tanzanites,pink sapphires and rainbow opals decorating her soul in sparkle and glitter and refined shine , charming and flirting her way through stuff.

    (but he wants her to really just pray piously every morning thanking him for her shortcomings and their shiny wrappings and if he could please let her keep her cubicle just another week.
    And then present her pious findings to her managers in the form of profuse apologies and sincere promises.)

    D) G-d is just upset that she didnt give enough charity from her paycheck and had she done so, she wouldnt be poor and would have in fact been promoted ? And G-d wants her to continuosly beg her way back and give half her paycheck to charity ?

    E) Maybe she was supposed to learn mussar during lunch and instead tanned her lunch away in the park.
    and now its just too late.

    F) Maybe G-d thinks she is too much of a flirt.

    G) G-d wants her partying less and spend weekends visiting the sick and tending to the elderly and cheering the homeless ?

    H) G-d just wants bad things to happen to her and she shouldnt think about the why’s and should just rest comfortably on her poor laurels, secure in her belief that whatever happened its cuz Gd wanted it that way and it doesnt matter if she gave more charity/ spent less time partying and opened up a homeless shelter in her spare weekends really cuz that wont change the fact that G-d wants her stupid /poor and jobless.

    All of the above & then some ) In fact she shouldnt bother using trying to keep her job cuz its just so obvious if she is having so hard a time keeping this cubicle G-d just doesnt want her working here.
    Instead maybe G-d wants her drinking her workdays away at the cute irish pub and learning mussar with the morning patrons and she could work her way up to bartender with mussaring.

    Yeah its really that simple, this “cuz G-d wants it this way” reasoning

  5. This relevant passage was found at http://www.ou.org/torah/frankel/haftarot/pinchas60.htm

    The Selection of Yirmiyahu

    The Word of G-d came to Yirmiyahu saying: “While you were still in your mother’s womb, I knew you and I sanctified you, and appointed you as Prophet to the Nations.

    Yirmiyahu: Alas, L-rd G-d, I know not how to speak, for I am young and incapable.
    HaShem: Do not say that you are young and incapable; rather, you will fulfill all the missions to which I will appoint you, and you will be able to say everything that I command you to say. Do not fear the people, for I will be with you to save you, the L-rd has promised!

    And HaShem sent forth His Hand, and touched my mouth, and He said: “Behold, I have put my word into your mouth. Know that I have appointed you today over the Nations and over the Kingdoms to uproot, to break down, to eliminate and to destroy – ultimately, to build and to plant!”
    (Yirmiyahu 1: 4-10)

  6. Truth blares. I’ve never been able to steer away from the voice of inner truth. To me, that’s a powerful force and most everything comes down to whether one faces it or runs from it.

    Forget about vending machines, trials and tribunes, it’s looking truth in the eye that directs and decides life. It’s a common denominator for all of us – look beyond the surface levels to see that.

    In any event, I’m an FFB but am happy I first stumbled upon this site tonight – certainly very helpful perspective is included herein and I hope to take something with me.

    Our paths and destinys are not all that different – you’ve just come to a point in life where you’ve faced truth w/o running away.

    Perspective is everything – don’t get caught up too much in the details.

  7. Katrin, excellent post (again)!

    Sometimes it’s truly difficult, but absolutely necessary to remember Whose in charge. This always brings me back to a terrible loss our community suffered about 8 years ago, when we lost a wonderful woman to cancer. She was in her mid 30’s, a mother of 2 young children, and a totally selfless human being who was always the first to offer any kindness, just a woman who exemplifed chessed. And with a wonderful sense of humor too.

    So at her levaya, the only thing that could get me through this (and believe me, I’m not the only one from our chevra who thinks about her daily, like “what would she do in this situation”), was the fact that Hashem had determined that she’d completed her work in this world, and was now calling her back. Maybe that’s not true, maybe I’m only justifying, because, obviously, as has been pointed out here, we can’t understand the ways of Hashem, but if it helps me cope, what harm is there?

  8. jaded

    let’s take it point by point:

    you wrote:

    “Free will is quite the choice filled pastime. And when I drag new and not so new neuroscience findings into this bleak black and white spiritual picture of submissiveness your painting, belief trust love discipline and related ego fixers are just a brain part tweak ór two away.

    So when you speak so lovingly of submissiveness what exactly are you submitting to ? Science , religion or all of the above.”

    I’m talking about submitting to what G-d wants for us. In each individual’s case, it will be something different – within particular boundaries, as defined by the torah.

    You wrote:

    “How do we know what Gd prefers, or what he would rather not have.”

    2 things: for a broad outline of what he wants and doesn’t want, it’s all there in the torah. he wants me to not speak losh; keep shabbat and kosher; to judge others favourably, give tzedeka and to go out of my way to treat others kindly.

    specifically what he wants from and for me is a matter of trial and error. if i’m trying something and it’s not working out, then i think that’s quite a clear sign that G-d doesn’t ‘want’ it to happen – because if he did, it would.

    you wrote: “Its basically your opinion against my opinion. You think submissiveness involves no choices and misconstruing and or maybe even celebrating misery.”

    This is not what i said at all – this is your intepretation of what i said.

    the whole point of the post is that i may want to get married / have more children / have a better job / have a nicer house etc etc etc – but most of life is out of our hands.

    I’m sure that you’ve had occasions when you desperately wanted something, or didn’t want something – but it happened or didn’t happen anyway.

    our only real choice is how we react to the hand G-d gives us. we can either whine, moan, and be full of anger and hate, or we can do our best to not let negative emotions take over our lives, even when apparently negative things are happening to us.

    just becuase you don’t want to fall down and break your leg, does that stop it happening? ‘bad’ stuff happens to everyone.

    so the choice is that you either strive to find meaning in the bad stuff, and continue to live as happy and fulfilled a life as you can, or you don’t – which is when people can become very bitter, which in turn robs them of every speck of happiness that they still have.

    that is the choice we all have.

  9. Katrin,
    Is that a sidetrack trick question. What part of my longwinded series of points would your question apply to.

    Free will is quite the choice filled pastime. And when I drag new and not so new neuroscience findings into this bleak black and white spiritual picture of submissiveness your painting, belief trust love discipline and related ego fixers are just a brain part tweak ór two away.

    So when you speak so lovingly of submissiveness what exactly are you submitting to ? Science , religion or all of the above.

    For instance, once the part of the brain that regulates humble trusting faithful submissive behavior and tendencies is located , is it ok to stimulate /tweak neurochemical levels and related neuronal circuitry brainwave action in corresponding brain parts to enhance those traits.

    How about gd loving, if I do ecstacy or a legal happy helper from the SSRI family of fun drugs does my no brainer/effortless love for gd count ? Why. Its so easy to love when your happy.

    Take behavioral shortcomings , did gd want us decorating and or ruining our lives with them or could we take hyper helpers and discipline fixers.

    How do you know ?

    How do we know what Gd prefers, or what he would rather not have.
    Its basically your opinion against my opinion. You think submissiveness involves no choices and misconstruing and or maybe even celebrating misery.

    I think the choices are endless if you think about it hard enough. Up to and including enhancing humble ism doing away with misery manually , programming trust belief submissiveness and other ego fixing and happiness fabricating with neuroscience fun facts as your guide. Fun facts that can fix how you perceive and feel about stuff.

    Fixing personalities has never been so easy.

    So is playing around with emotions, dulling hurt, blunting pain enhancing happiness fixing focus is that considered playing Gd or doing Gds will.

    It does get kind of tricky.

  10. I never thought he was a vending machine actually. I think lotto machines at your favorite sparkly casino are what gd could be mistaken for too often. One can spend their entire emotional paycheck tryin to secure that the father in the sky belief and and or bucket of cash, but generally its a sketchy situation. Unless you start collecting daddy of the day daddys that are not gds and or happen to be lucky with the lottery.

    One can whittle their weeks away speaking wisely, thinking positive, playing pollyana in skirts and modest musings, avoiding evil slander , misconstruing misery, judging favorably, overtly overlooking unlucky lickings and respecting all , screwballs, pious saints and insecure persons alike and caring like the care bears, but that’s not the answer or a solution really.

    So how can we be expected to play a game that has confusing instructions, ambiguous rules and cheaters everywhere and no known winners ? Ànd I won’t even discuss the lack of lovable leaders.

    So basically your sayin that not only does gd say nope to dope but he doesn’t make available answers to questions we shouldn’t bother asking cuz we wouldn’t understand ?

    So we should really just tan for the sake of tanning and then just fold up the beach chairs, throw in the towel , and and let the raindrops just fall where they may cuz there are no answers or umbrellas anyway. Let’s just enjoy getting drenched until we don’t know the difference between raindrops and hail and we should embrace both elements and treat them like family cuz they are good for growth.

    And we should all just stop secondguessing everything and just bask in the spiritual sunlight of material modesty, challah baking , candlelighting and baby breeding, piously pretending we know what Gd wants , needs , loves and doesn’t like.

    And even though he created us with shortcomings they are soo not meant to screw us over , help us fall hard and ensure that continuous wrong decisions are a constant background theme. In fact shortcomings are actually life enhancers and should be embraced treasured and flaunted like pink diamonds, purple tanzanites and rainbow opals.

    I can’t wait to play this game.

  11. pripinchik

    you raise some points that require careful consideration; it’s true that if we don’t have ‘good’ parent figures, it’s then much harder for us to accept that Hashem as a father figure can be ‘good’.

    but i still feel that it’s possible, if certainly that much harder.

    there is definitely an appropriate basis for you to build a relationship with Hashem ‘out there’ – but you are the only one that will be able to work out what it is. i wish you the best of luck with your search for Hashem – and i think that you are much closer than you think you are to connecting to him.

    feeling that we are unworthy of that privilege is an enormous, and enormously positive, step in the right direction.

    mordechai y – with pleasure – although all the credit goes to the 3 rabbis i basically plagiarised the sentiments from: rabbi rosenblatt, rabbi lazer brody and rabbi pinchas winston

    chaya – i take your point about basically submitting to other people’s notion of what G-d wants, instead of to G-d himself.

    I think we all have a built-in compass that lets us know what G-d really wants. But for many of us, it’s buried deep down, and it’s hard to know what it’s showing us / telling us without a great deal of introspection.

    i think your point is akin to people going to a rav for a ‘bracha’ or advice, without bothering to make the effort to pray, and directly ask Hashem for help, guidance etc.

    if we make the effort to ask (and sometimes, we have to make that effort over and over again) Hashem will send us the right ‘impulses’ and he will also put us in the path of the right people to guide us, when we are just simply too stuck to see what to do or which direction to take.

    that’s certainly been my experience, and historically i’ve been very wary of rabbonim etc. but when you meet someone who really practices what they preach; who is humble and self-effacing; and who really gives an awful lot of themselves to others purely for the sake of heaven, then you know that person is ‘connected’ in all the right ways, and trustworthy.

    if you have a relationship with Hashem yourself, it makes it much easier to spot other people who also do.

    again in my experience, i’ve met a lot of rabbis who can quote chapter and verse on halacha, but who are miles away from having a real relationship with Hashem. if a rabbi is an egotist himself, he is no position to preach to others about submitting to Hashem’s will.

  12. The primary sentiments of the post are beautiful.

    Yet submission to G-d’s will is oh-so-often taken to be submission to G-d’s will as interpreted by a particular individual, uncritically once the decision to submit is made. Suspending the right to question or change one’s path can often turn out very, very badly.

  13. Katrin: Yasher Koach! What a hefty dose of chizuk!! Thank you so much. Maybe you could write in regularly on this topic?

  14. One of the finest reminders I’ve read in a long time. Worthy of being saved, shared, and reread. Thank you!

    May I have permission to share it with our hevra?

  15. This is very difficult for those of us who were abused as children – because it is very, very hard to trust G-d if you were not able to trust the grownups in your life.

    Trusting in a “Father” who knows what is best for me? That is a booby-trap that has blown up repeatedly in my face on the level of human relationships. It’s left me with a “kick me” sign on my back more often than not.

    So on what basis do I build a healthy relationship with G-d?

    This article is most timely for me – after many years I have finally stopped channelling my anger inwards into self-destruction, and I am just now ready (married with kids, in my 40s!) to start thinking about what real love is – which is where I put this issue of trust in Hashem.

    Yes, it’s about love.

    I’m also not comfortable with the notion of submission – but I am really thirsty for real connection, real love. And giving yourself over to the other is part of that.

    The catch is you have to feel worthy yourself before you’ll ever be able to “submit”.

  16. Powerful and well done. A great way to start my day. Thanks.

    We hate the word ‘submission’- so true. And we love the word ‘ego’.

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