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Not in Hashem’s Name 

These terrorists are actually not worshiping G-d. They are worshiping the Sitra Achra


The events of October 7 were horrific. We are all overwhelmed by the brutality of Hamas.

What can we make of a religion that murders in the name of G-d?

While all decent people struggle with the idea of a religion that murders in the name of G-d, it has a particular sting for people such as we, who are maaminim.

How difficult it is for us, who hold religion to be elevating. We expect faith to bring out everything noble in human nature — love, decency, ethics, morality. Yet for some it evokes the exact opposite. How can this be?

Even more troubling to us is any lingering sense of association with “them” under the heading of religion. Do the events of October 7 give credence to the secular canard that religion leads to fanaticism and even to violence in the name of G-d? Instinctively, we recoil even at this question. But how do we respond?

Even when we are hesitant to articulate it, on some level, we may still grapple with this question. The need for any feeling of defensiveness is misplaced; we share nothing with these events. Yet how do we fully understand what we know in our hearts?

The urgency we face to deal with these questions was brought home to me in a very revealing exchange with an earnest talmid. After Minchah he approached me, in his characteristic innocence, with a question that troubled him.

He asked, “In our recitation of Tehillim for our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, we just said the pasuk that refers to our enemies as ‘those who don’t know You’ [asher lo yida’ucha]. How can we say that? These people certainly feel they know G-d. They feel that knowing G-d is the very basis for their atrocious behavior, that these horrible acts are called for by their G-d.”

The sincerity of his question was a shocking call to action for me. I felt as though his ability to connect to Hashem through the hallowed words of Tehillim hung in the balance. I knew it was imperative to respond with emphatic conviction.

“No!” I responded vigorously. “They don’t know Hashem.” And I continued as follows.


Belief in G-d vs. Belief in Hashem

They are not the same thing. G-d is a human conception. He becomes to people whatever they impose on Him, however they envision Him. However good or bad their concept is, G-d becomes that to them. He becomes a hologram of whatever they idealize. But that doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to what Hashem really is.

We learn from Ramchal that the highest conception we can have of Hashem is as tov u’meitiv. He is good, and He desires good. Any other conception that is either not loving or that doesn’t inspire love, is the deepest corruption of who He is.

Based on this understanding, my rebbi, the mekubal Rav Nachum Lansky, makes the bold assertion that these terrorists are actually not worshiping G-d. They are worshiping the Sitra Achra, the kabbalistic term for the cosmic force opposed to kedushah (literally, “other side”). It is a worship no less idolatrous than the worship of graven images.

Monotheism — with which we credit them — just means a belief in one deity. But if that one deity is evil, then it is the absolute antithesis of the true G-d, of Hashem.

Our parting of ways at this point could not be more abrupt! Our conception of a loving Hashem stands in direct opposition to their belief. The belief in a G-d of chesed has inspired and elevated the world from the time it was first espoused by Avraham.

When we consider the ancient world, we begin to appreciate just how revolutionary Avraham’s concept was. The error of the pagan way was not polytheism per se. It’s that they perceived the gods as tyrannical. They were like human dictators or tyrants on steroids.

The pagan gods trafficked in power. If you wanted their favor, you had to pay them off.

If you wanted crops, you had to pay off the god of rain. If you wanted your wife to conceive, you had better pay off the goddess of fertility.

Avraham’s teaching was earth-shattering. His position that Hashem is loving and without any needs turned everything on its head. Hashem is here to give, not to get. He needs nothing; He is here to give goodness and blessing. Even more than material benefit, He is here to share Himself with us, to provide a spiritual dimension to man. Our avodah is not a payment of tribute to Him, but an opportunity to raise ourselves to a shared consciousness with Him.


Where Did This Breakthrough Come From?

The key to understanding Avraham’s epiphany lies in understanding him on a neshamah level. There are two attributes of Avraham so fundamental to him that they almost compete for primacy in our understanding of him. On one hand, Avraham was hikir es boro, the bold discoverer of a Creator who taught monotheism to the world. On the other hand, Avraham is the very epitome of chesed, celebrated for his kindness to others. Each defines him so deeply that we cannot separate them or rank them. They are intertwined as one.

When he discovered Hashem, he discovered the absolute epitome of lovingkindness. Avraham’s trait of interpersonal chesed is thus a natural expression of how he envisions the divine — the model of existential meaning — to which he himself aspires.

Everything we learn in childhood about Avraham arriving at the truth of Hashem through scientific study of the universe takes on entirely new color from this perspective. The way we are accustomed to understanding this narrative is that he saw the beauty of the world, the sophistication of the laws of nature. Observing this, he concluded that it is all too perfect to have emerged from chaos or from nothing.

But I believe there is much more to it than that. Beyond being impressed with the masterpiece of the universe and the Creator behind it, he was thoroughly moved by the sense of love that underpins it all. He saw the world as a wonderful place to be, a place created for life, a place where man’s needs are breathtakingly provided for by a G-d of chesed.

The clue to this understanding lies waiting to be revealed in the wording of a well-known midrash that describes how Avraham, through scientific study of the universe, discovered the existence of a single G-d. In the midrash, Avraham is compared to a person who beholds a palace and exclaims, “If there is a palace, there must be a builder.”

What makes this analogy so powerful? If all the midrash seeks to convey is the so-called “intelligent design” concept, you could use so many other analogies. For example, the well-known analogy that the universe is like a watch, with its complex working of hands, wheels, and springs, is often cited.

But the midrash is intent on showing that Avraham is not just studying an intricate item. His frame of reference is a palace, a splendid home, a beautiful place where man is taken care of in grand style. Not just the work of a practical engineer, but the beneficence of a true giver. Indeed, our entire premise that Avraham’s study of creation was not simply a study of divine design but a study of divine chesed is laid bare in a most well-known pasuk, “olam chesed yibaneh — the world was built in lovingkindness” (Tehillim 89:3).

The pasuk’s evidence of chesed in the creation of the world is telling within itself. But there is an even more powerful discovery here. The lashon of the text shifts from the word creation to the word “built.” The word “built” is so evocative that it jumps right off the page.

It gives voice to everything we’ve traced so far in the midrash; we know exactly the secret that lies behind this shift in language. Building conveys the notion of edifice, of seeing the world the way Avraham did, as a palace, a wonderful abode purposefully made to suit its inhabitants.

But if that were not enough, there is a final, magnificent revelation in this kapitel of Tehillim.

It opens with the words, Maskil l’Eisan, a serenade of Eisan. Who is Eisan? Rashi says it is none other than Avraham, who is also called Eisan.

So it was Avraham who composed the words olam chesed yibaneh! He is the one who gave voice to this entire conception of the world and to the conception of Hashem that flows from it as the One who gives everything.

Avraham’s concept of a G-d of chesed is diametrically opposed to the tyrannical gods of polytheism, and all the more so to the amalgamated god of Sitra Achra, which we are tragically seeing emerge in our own time. It is to Avraham’s G-d of chesed we so passionately cling and Whose influence we seek to advance in the world. We categorically reject any association with a god of violence or any religious notion that does not ennoble the human condition.


But Do We Only Give Lip Service to a Loving G-d?

Let’s be real here. Are we truly living this truth? Or does the idolatrous, pagan notion of a harsh god subtly creep into our consciousness? There is no more consequential question today in our relationship to Hashem.

Instinctually we recoil from the very idea. None of us preach barbaric things. It’s the furthest thing from our relationship to Hashem.

Yet many of us in fact relate to Hashem with a strict, disciplinary approach. A number of my talmidim have confided in me that the strictness and minutiae of halachah leads them to think primarily in terms of a G-d of reward and punishment. In their heads, they know that Hashem is a G-d of chesed; yet in their hearts, they find it difficult to shake off the primal association of a wagging finger from on high.

What is actually happening is an imbalance, a misalignment in the perception of Hashem and what He desires from us. Think for a moment of a loving parent whose entire motivation is love. Rules are only a tool the parent uses to help the child find his way in the world and develop to his greatest potential.

Important as rules are, they are only a vehicle to achieving the goal of developing the whole person. They are not an end in themselves and are not meant to supplant the foundational relationship of love. Indeed, for the child’s healthy development, the primal association with the parent must be as a love figure whose rules are understood as caring for the child’s well-being. We want the child to understand the rules as training wheels that are only attached as long as they serve to guide the child.

The same is true about Hashem on a more profound level. He is absolute love. That’s what defines our relationship with Him; that is the entire raison d’être of Yiddishkeit. All the halachic obligations and the assessment of our behavior are simply a means to help us grow and foster our neshamos, to make more of us than we might have made of ourselves.

It’s not about discipline per se at all. The Ramchal writes that although middas hadin — reward and punishment, or consequences for behavior — is Hashem’s general modus operandi, he notes that it is not absolute. In fact, Hashem might suspend it in relationship to us at any time He deems it appropriate.

In Ramchal’s view, Hashem is not constrained by anything. Even middas hadin doesn’t constrain Him. He uses it, but He uses it for His ultimate goal of love. He is like the parent whose goal is to bring up the child lovingly. Discipline is a tool to achieve a loving goal. It’s never really about the din per se.

What may get in the way of our feeling the relationship this way is the childhood baggage some of us carry of experience of adult authority figures who did not convey this wholesome, embracing connection. Then discipline seems to take on a life of its own, as if that were the sum total of the relationship.

If you think about the first words Hashem will say to you on the other side, do you imagine His first concern will be, “Were you a good boy or girl?” Or do you imagine that His first message to you will be, “I love you”?

We are all familiar with the questions that Chazal teach us that Hashem will ask us in His judgment, but Chazal never insist that these questions are all there is to this encounter or even its very essence. I intuitively believe that anyone who has forged a healthy bond with Hashem knows what His first words will be.


Finding Purpose in the Current Tragedy

So then what are we to make of the horrific events of October 7? Nothing could be further from our comprehension than Hamas’s atrocities. They defy our very humanity, our very belief in the world of Hashem’s creating. But now we understand that people who believe in a god that inspires such cruelty are really worshiping the Sitra Achra — essentially an amalgamation of tyrannical pagan gods. How different is that from our belief in Avraham’s G-d of chesed! Now we can confirm my response to my worried talmid, that “No, we do not all believe in a god such as theirs.”

Perhaps even pursuing this line of study makes us uneasy. What could this possibly have to do with us? What can we possibly get out of trying to understand the depraved deeds of these monsters?

But listen to the following provocative pasuk from the Chumash: “Do not worship Hashem the way they worship their gods, because they do everything abominable for their gods; they even burn their children alive” (Devarim 12:31).

At first glance, it seems superfluous and even offensive to us that the Torah has to caution us against adopting such abominable behavior for ourselves. In our present age it seems all the more “over the top.” But with our faith in a Toras Chaim, we know that it must be addressing some ever-present phenomenon in the human condition.

The Torah is cautioning us not only against foreign forms of worship, but against the false conceptions of others that can insidiously creep into our consciousness. As we have seen, it is possible that we might unfortunately come to associate Hashem with harsh, unnatural demands. No one is in the mindset of the terrorists, chalilah, yet in more subtle, barely noticeable ways, our relationship to Avraham’s G-d of chesed may slip toward a relationship based more on fear than on love.

Let us take from this horrible experience a renewed dedication to our own authentic faith. Let us exude a brand of Yiddishkeit for ourselves, our children, and everyone in our sphere of influence that will resound with the positive embrace of Avraham’s G-d of chesed. May we, the am hanivchar, show the world a better way. —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 991)

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