Notwithstanding the tendency to associate it with dire future punishments, finger-wagging condemnation and joyless self-denial, religion is at bottom an optimistic phenomenon.
The details constituting the world’s various faith systems may differ, but generally speaking all conceive of a higher reality that transcends the temporal cares of material existence and for their adherents hold out at least the prospect of eventually having a share in it.
This in turn depends on how people conduct themselves during their time on Earth, but the relevant directives and guidelines that religions provide gives them the necessary framework and sense of purpose to enable them to make the right choices.
As the world’s oldest monotheistic faith, Judaism further provides the assurance that no matter how bleak things seem to be, G-d is ultimately in command and will ensure that everything comes right in the end. Moreover, it conveys to humankind the empowering message that they are not helpless puppets but thinking, creative beings capable of determining their own destinies, in this physical life and in the higher, non-material plain of existence that will follow it.
The overriding message of the Jewish sacred scriptures (“Tanach”, referred to in Christianity as the “Old Testament”) is that although G-d is in charge of everything that happens and will happen, humanity is expected to exert itself to the extent of meeting Him part of the way.
We are not “flies to wanton boys” whom the gods kill for their sport, but agents in our own destiny capable of influencing the Divine Will through our individual and collective choices and actions.
One of the striking aspects of the Tanach is the relentless, no-holds-barred manner in which the prophets lambast the Jewish people of those times for their transgressions, together with their unsparing descriptions of what the consequences will be if they continue along that road. Theirs is the ultimate “tough love” message, a stern wake-up call aimed at getting the people to mend their ways before it is too late.
And when the dire consequences they predict come to pass, the reaction expected of the people is not to question Divine justice, nor to yield to self-pity and despair, but to acknowledge that it was their own sins and failings that brought such things about. Only once this recognition has been sufficiently taken to heart can the process of remedying matters begin. This is true both for individuals and for the societies of which they are part.
For all the stress that classical Judaism places on the importance of duties and responsibilities, this by no means represents the totality in which it understands G-d’s management of the world and His relationship to those He created.
Just as fundamental is the teaching that the Almighty recognised from the outset that in view of human frailty, the attribute of strict Justice would have to be tempered with that of Mercy if the world was to continue to exist. The Jewish scriptures thus teach that G-d frequently withholds retribution to allow the transgressor to return to the correct path, and that even for the most egregious of sins, the gates of repentance are always open.
It is axiomatic in Jewish thought that G-d is perfect and complete in every way and that there is nothing whatever His creations can do either to add to or diminish that absolute perfection. Rather, the entire purpose of the Creation is to provide a conduit through which to bestow His infinite Goodness upon those created in His image, namely all of humankind. This goal is accomplished, moreover, not just through the abundant wonders and richness of the world we inhabit, but as much — in some ways even more — in the hardships and suffering that results from our own misconduct.
In Judaism, G-d represents absolute truth and absolute justice, the two being indivisible. This means that sooner or later, whether in This World or the Next, everything a person does will be accounted for. No righteous deed, whether small or great, nor any transgression, no matter how ostensibly innocuous, will be overlooked.
With regard to any suffering people might experience during their physical lifetimes, this too is held to be part of a “higher purpose”, since it helps atone for whatever they might have done wrong and allows them to enter the “Next World” with these debts having, as it were, already been paid up.
Similarly, no good deed will go unrewarded even, and perhaps especially, when those concerned receive no reward or recognition in their physical lifetimes for having done them.
Seen through this paradigm, times of difficulty can thus also be understood as a time when great things can be accomplished, both in spiritual and practical terms. For those who have taken on board the reciprocal need for rights and freedoms to be balanced by duties and responsibilities, they provide increased opportunities for doing acts of goodness and kindness on behalf of others.
This has been one of the silver linings that we as a nation have witnessed over the past two years, where people from across the racial, religious and ethnic spectrum have gone beyond the call of duty to ameliorate the suffering of those particularly affected by the long Covid-19 nightmare.
According to the Torah, the foundational text of the Jewish faith, the ultimate purpose of human existence is to come closer to the Creator, and to achieve this, one should to the greatest extent possible strive to emulate His attributes. Since G-d represents the ultimate kindness, helping those in need is thus a particularly powerful way of growing in this area, but there is an equal imperative to at the same time to emulate the other Divine attributes, including those of truth and justice.
In Hebrew the word Tzedaka means justice and charity; they are two sides of the same coin, and a healthy society needs to give due regard to both.
One final thought: the rabbinical authorities teach that G-d is, as it were, long-suffering with regard to slights to His own honour, but far less forbearing when it comes to acts of cruelty and injustice that people inflict upon one another.
To illustrate this, they point to how the violent oppression and robbery that characterised the pre-Flood generation led to the wholesale destruction of nearly all of humanity whereas the subsequent rebellion against Him as represented by the Tower of Babel generation led merely to humanity’s dispersal to different parts of the globe. In facing up to the many serious problems confronting their society in these times, it is perhaps a lesson South Africans would do well to ponder on.