Can God have regrets?
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — If everything God does is perfect, can God regret what God does?
Tisha B’Av, literally the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. This year the ninth of Av falls on Shabbat. Therefore, the commemoration and fast are deferred until the next day, Saturday night through Sunday night, July 28th through 29th.
In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Isaiah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem because of the debauchery of the Israelites:
“Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evil doers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, Spurned the Holy One of Israel, Turned their backs [on Him]. (Isaiah 1:4)
Isaiah lived in the last half of the 8th century, B.C.E. While Jerusalem was spared during his lifetime, it fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
Many centuries later, after the fall of THE Second Temple in 70 C.E., Rabbi Yossi had a far different understanding of God than did Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah envisioned an angry and vengeful God, Rabbi Yossi saw God as sad, guilty, and filled with regret over the destruction and exile.
In the Talmud Rabbi Yossi related the following story:
One day I was traveling and entered one of the destroyed buildings of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah the Prophet, may he be remembered for good, waited for me at the door until I had finished my prayers.
After I had concluded my prayers Elijah said to me, “Peace be upon you, Rabbi.”
I answered him, “Peace be upon you my Rabbi and teacher.”
He said to me, “My son, what did you hear in that destroyed building?” I answered him, “I heard a heavenly voice that sounded like a dove that said, ‘Woe is Me, that I have destroyed My House, and burned My Sanctuary, and exiled my children among the idolaters and pagans of the world.’”
“My son,” Elijah said, “I swear to you that this is not the only time that you will hear this plea. Rather, every day, the three times a day when you pray, and every time a Jew enters a synagogue or study house and says, “Amen, May God’s great name be blessed,” God will shake God’s head and say, “Blessed is the King whose subjects praise Him thus, and woe to the Father who has exiled His children among the idolaters and pagans of the world, and woe to the children who have been exiled from the table of their Father.”
This is an incredible piece of rabbinic imagination! Not only does God regret destroying the Temple and exiling the Israelites, every time a Jew prays God is reminded of the destruction and pain God caused, which leads God to break out in lamentations.
This midrash also praises the Jewish People who, despite their suffering and exile, do not turn their backs on God, but rather continue to reaffirm God’s goodness and sovereignty.
Jews do not conceive God as an emotionless and unmovable entity who rules their lives by decree and fiat. Jews believe themselves in a covenanted relationship with God. We are bound to each other. Just as we learn from God, God learns from us. Just as we love God, God loves us.
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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