While awaiting his moment of truth with Esau, Jacob recollects God’s assurance, “I [God] will be good (eitiv) to you.” A few sentences later, he repeats that promise more emphatically. “I will surely be good (eitev heitiv) to you,” he remembers God saying. But what exactly is “God’s goodness”? The Rabbis’ answer is surprising.
It surfaces in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), a string of four benedictions, the first three of which thank God for feeding all creation, rebuilding Jerusalem, and providing the Land of Israel. These date from the first or second century C.E., when much of creation was starving, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and our Land was under Roman occupation. What could the Rabbis have been thinking when, after every meal, they thanked God for doing what God had clearly not yet done?
The answer comes in the fourth benediction, called “The One who is good and who does good” (Hatov v’hameitiv). It dates to about the same time, and comes with a story from the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) that was viciously suppressed and punished by the emperor Hadrian.
As the Talmud tells the tale, Hadrian prohibited the burial of Jews who had died in the uprising. When his successor finally permitted it, the blessing “Who is good and who does good” was composed. “‘Who is good’– because God kept their bodies from putrefying; ‘Who does good’ — because God eventually arranged for their burial.”
At stake is the classic Jewish belief in resurrection. We often hear that Judaism is a religion for “this world,” not the next one, but actually, the Rabbis insisted also on some sort of life after death – including bodily resurrection, but also a time to come and a messianic era. Interpreted broadly, “God’s goodness” is the guarantee that life does not stop when we breathe our last. Nor is the world doomed to remain as it is now. In ways we cannot imagine, both the world and we continue in a better time to come.
Elsewhere, the Rabbis consider blessings for good and bad tidings. For bad news, we say Baruch dayan ha’emet (“Blessed is the Judge of truth”) — the blessing used now when mourners’ rip their clothes (or a black ribbon) before a funeral. So bad news is an announcement of someone’s death. For good news, we say none other than Barukh hatov v’hameitiv (“Blessed is the One who is good and who does good”) – just the opposite, an affirmation that the bad news of death is not the end of the story. There is, as they say, a better world a-comin’.
So the fourth benediction in the Birkat Hamazon promises a messianic future.
Now we understand why the Rabbis had the temerity to say the first three benedictions also: true, in their day, not all the world was being fed, nor was Jerusalem rebuilt or the Land of Israel free. But they believed these things would come about, all in God’s good time.
What we need desperately is a renewed sense of “God’s good time.” Children cannot imagine beyond tomorrow. Why do adults refuse to see beyond the grave? And why do we cut off the world’s potential at the myopic purview of our own personal stories? The human species is some 2 ½ million years old; our historical memory goes back only 4,000 years. What if we are only half way through the human saga, or not even that far along the way? God’s good time indeed!
And improvements in human history mount more rapidly as the tale continues. Only a hundred years ago, people in even the most advanced countries died from simple infections, cholera epidemics, and scarlet fever.
So I believe in progress, albeit slowly, haltingly, and with interruptions along the way. I believe in a messianic era, a world to come, and even life after death. On my good days, that may not matter much. On my bad days, that keeps me going.