Judaism is not a religion of particularly transcendental death. It is a religion that prizes life and survival above all things, and it should come as no surprise that this Vernal equinox holiday is not about spiritual renewal, but about the survival of the Jewish people.
But why do we survive? What purpose is there to life? What meaning is there to the trials we pass, the difficulties we undergo, the tests we have to take? I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Judaism, on this score, is a little inadequate. Judaism, above all other things, is a religion of ethics. It distracts us so busily with concerns about our conduct in the here and now that the purpose of such good conduct seems almost secondary.
The closest thing we have to an answer is in the Book of the Bible that directly follows Esther. The Book of Job, or Iyov in Hebrew, is the book that faces up to the fact that as a religion, we're not much concerned with the purpose of life. Judaism, a religion that has an answer handy for every ethical and legal question under the sun, has no ready answer to the question of 'why.' Christians and Muslims alike can bask in the smile of salvation's grace, but the afterlife is of such negligible concern to Jewish texts that who can blame us for getting a reputation as a depressed people? In the Torah alone, we have 613 laws, and we have thousands of years of commentary upon them which explain everything about how we are to comport ourselves to the world, but as to why we should comport ourselves this way, the Sages, the Prophets, Yahweh himself, is almost completely silent.
On Yom Kippur, there is a part of the service known as the martyrology, in which a medeival German-Jewish poem recounts how the Romans killed the great Rabbis at the end of the Bar-Kochba era (138 AD... ok... CE...) in ways that would curdle the blood of even the most saintly Christian martyrs - claiming that the Emperor Hadrian decided to kill Judaism's greatest ten rabbis as punishment for the ten older brothers of Joseph having sold him into slavery. At the end of the poem, the angels cry out "Is this the reward of Torah?"
In the siddur I grew up with, the translation told us that God responded "The road to justice is often filled with affliction and pain." When you learn what it really says, you realize that this is a hilarious and deliberate mistranslation. What God actually says is "This is my decree. Accept it or else." Or else what? He'll kill the angels too? He'll destroy the world? Our Yahweh is, as always, sublimely touchy about people questioning his quixotic judgement.
But it can't be denied, this is the cry that Jews have had to make from time immemorial. In every age, there is a cry such as the angels made, and a cry such as Iyov makes to God in Chapter 3 of his Book.
This operatic soliloquy of despair, this foundational moment in the history of human thought, is more powerful to me than all the Shakespeare in existence. As I've often said on this blog, I love Shakespeare, but I don't get Shakespeare. Maybe it's a cultural thing. I would imagine that as a culture, high tragedy and romance is a bit alien to Jews - no human being is so great that their fall means that much in the grand scheme, and we're the religion that invented the sheet with a hole in the middle for sex (which some people claim is apocryphal, I have my doubts...), so however lucky some of us are to have great sex sometimes, great sex is clearly not a priority Jews are taught to have. In any event, why is everything in Shakespeare so... dramatic? Everything about Shakespeare: the fascination with great men and royal intrigue, the rhetorical bombast, the obsession with sexual jealousy past every other human concern, the cynical nihilism, the unconcern with morality, feels a little off from life as I've experienced it.
The Bible is about people like me: little people, outsiders, weirdos. It's about how people far too isolated to ever appear in a Shakespeare play can still find their voice and place in the world. Even if I disagree with an enormous amount of what's in the Bible, I still 'get' its concerns much more than I get Shakespeare.
What's extraordinary about the Book of Iyov is not Iyov's suffering, which, let's face it, the Bible obviously distributes to its characters as though it costs God nothing but a penny to make his subjects writhe. What's extraordinary is its acknowledgement that doubt is completely natural to have, and its acknowledgement that God may be at best indifferent to our suffering, and at worst, we may be His plaything.
There is no true explanation in Judaism of why the world is the way it is. There is only the reality that the world is what it is. At no point does God defend His conduct, He simply says after the manner of a celestial hipster: "You wouldn't understand it." As is an omnipotent being's prerogative, he dodges the question with some of the world's most sublime poetry that would not feel out of place in Walt Whitman or Herman Melville. This is just the last quarter of it when God fixates on the Leviathan - a whale-like creature whose presence is peppered throughout the Bible as a metaphor for the incomprehensible enormity of the divine:
I first truly encountered Iyov not in Jewish school, but in Mr. Spaeth's twelfth-grade English elective classroom. We had to read passages from Job in order to analyze Moby Dick. Melville begins the final chapter of Moby Dick with a biblical quote from the beginning of Job, "...And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." I often felt that way during those final years of high school, "I only am escaped alone with my independence of thought intact," and it was perhaps at the price of a particular kind of mental darkness that will follow me all the days of my life.
The identification which so many millions for 2,700 years have had with Iyov is not simply because of the idea that virtue will not be rewarded, but that in the eyes of many, suffering is indicative of vice. Islam implies exactly that very strongly - often stating in the Koran that suffering is a result of not sufficiently submitting ( the word 'Islam' itself means submission) to the will of Allah. In Christianity on the other hand, suffering is so paramount that suffering is a virtue in of itself.
But whether Christianity or Islam hold the more correct interpretation of suffering, it can't be denied that the human brain is far more hard-wired to believe something like the Islamic interpretation. So many millions in the world, of so many different beliefs, equate virtue with heroism - the strong are virtuous not because of deeds but because they are strong. We see extremely modern incarnations of this idea in everything from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn - the strong do not equivocate and need not humility, they neither admit to weaknesses nor need they search for them. Excepting perhaps Odysseus, every ancient epic hero from Achilles to Beowulf to Aeneas to Siegfried to Gilgamesh seems to equate strength with moral uprightness. In the same way, evil is automatically equated with weakness, with duplicity, with misfortune itself. Evolutionarily, this is surely explicable considering how difficult survival was for the vast majority of human pre-history. But in an agricultural and literate era, when there was more time for contemplation, when virtue was not related to the glamor of the hunt, perhaps we required new rules for what constituted good and evil.
The presence of Iyov, much more than Odysseus, shows a new kind of human consciousness. Evil and misfortune are not necessarily equated with each other. We do not necessarily deserve whatever suffering we experience, but whether our lives are owed to God or natural phenomena, we cannot comprehend the cosmic plan that makes us live as we do. Even if I find Islam's interpretation of suffering to be heartless, and find in Christianity's interpretation a convenient excuse for exploitation, at least those religions have explanations. Judaism remains completely janus-faced in the face of suffering. The closest it comes to an explanation of suffering is in Iyov, and its explanation is not only Miltonic in its anger at God - but positively Bergmanesque at its agony at God's silence. And when we get to chapter 23, Job seems to speak for us all, wanting a justification for the ways of God to Man, but never getting one. It may be Biblical, but it thoroughly, utterly, essentially in all senses, modern:
1 Then Job answered and said, 2 Even to day is my complaint bitter: my stroke is heavier than my groaning.* 3 Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! 4 I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. 6 Will he plead against me with his great power? No; but he would put strength in me. 7 There the righteous might dispute with him; so should I be delivered for ever from my judge.
8 Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: 9 On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: 10 But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.† 11 My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. 12 Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.‡§
13 But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. 14 For he performeth the thing that isappointed for me: and many such things are with him. 15 Therefore am I troubled at his presence: when I consider, I am afraid of him. 16 For God maketh my heart soft, and the Almighty troubleth me: 17 Because I was not cut off before the darkness, neither hath he covered the darkness from my face.