The Jewish Ethicist: Reacting to Suffering


How should we react to natural disaster?

Q. How can religious faith understand natural disasters like the great wave that just struck East Asia?

A. It would be quite presumptuous to think that we could resolve the
paradox of suffering in the world overseen by a benevolent God in a few
hundred words. But the magnitude of the human tragedy certainly compels us
to present some basic principles to relate to this ancient problem.

The most important thing to know about the Jewish attitude to this question
is that it takes the issue very seriously. Jewish tradition doesn't accept
many of the easy ways of explaining away human suffering.

One easy way out is to say that suffering in this world is of no
consequence; this world is a vale of tears and the highest object of
religious life is to escape this life or to ascend to a higher existence in
heaven. But the Torah greatly esteems the life of this world, and
repeatedly promises us worldly blessings. "And you shall serve the Lord your
God; and He will bless your food and your water, and I will remove illness
from among you. There will be no miscarriage or barrenness in your land; I
will fill the number of your days" (Exodus 23:25-26).

Another easy solution is to say that all disaster is a deserved retribution
for sin. The Torah certainly acknowledges the propriety of retribution for
the wicked; already in the first few chapters of Genesis we learn of the
exile of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, of the wandering decreed on
Cain, and of the flood brought on by the wickedness of the generation that
experience it. But these catastrophes were accompanied by explicit
prophecies explaining the specific nature of the judgment involved. The
Jewish Sages who lived after the era of prophecy warn us against thinking
that we can automatically infer anything about the moral level of a specific
individual from the misfortunes that befall him. (1)

Misfortune does, however, indicate some special concern or message. Maimonides write that thinking that disaster is merely happenstance is "cruelty". (2) Misfortune is meant
to galvanize us, to stir us to mend and improve our ways. If we fail to recognize this, we are cruel to ourselves by failing to improve, and also adopt a cruel outlook on the world, as if God brings suffering in a way unnecessary for the ultimate benefit of His creatures.

Our tradition teaches that suffering is real, that we must strive to reduce
suffering among mankind, and that the benevolent God supervises the world.
It also teaches us that if mankind carefully adheres to the directives of
God, as revealed in the Scripture and in His ongoing revelation through
prophecy and careful study of His law, we will succeed in transforming this
world into one where suffering is absent, and where all humans enjoy the
blessings of this world with an active consciousness of their source in
transcendent Divine benevolence.

This reward will be shared by all the righteous of mankind. This is one
message of the Resurrection. One of the fundamental principles of Jewish
faith is that at the time of the ultimate redemption, the souls of the
righteous will be restored to a physical, bodily existence though a
refined physicality suited to the ideal state of mankind. (3) Rav Kook
explains that if the reward for the righteous were only in the disembodied
World to Come (immediately following death and before the resurrection), we
might think that perfecting this world is impossible or unimportant. The
resurrection teaches us that all the good that humans can experience will
ultimately find expression in material reality. (4)

This approach rejects complacency, the idea that we don't need to be
concerned about suffering. On the contrary, our whole mission is to use
Divine directive to create a world where suffering is absent. But it also
teaches us patience: repairing the world is evolutionary, not
revolutionary; it is an educational process that requires many generations,
and much suffering is endured on the way. Natural disasters are evidently
one way in which humanity learns empathy and concern, sentiments that are
necessary for perfecting human institutions.

In this way we can inject some meaning into misfortune by viewing it as a
painful but necessary step towards a future perfect world, a world that all
of us would be willing to sacrifice for and which ultimately all will share
in. If we complacently wait for the Redemption to arrive, it will never
come. Only if we occupy ourselves in helping others here and now will we
cultivate our ethical perfection.

When we acknowledge the reality of suffering, we are moved to do what is in
our power to alleviate it. These very sentiments and actions are the ones
which mobilize us to renew our efforts to move forwards towards a world
where suffering is absent and where all mankind, of all generations, will
benefit from the final realization of our unbelievable Divinely-given
potential for benevolence.

(1) See Mishnah Avot 4:14. (2) Maimonides, Laws of Fasts 1:3. (3)
Maimonides, commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 10. (4) See Orot
HaKodesh II:488, Ein Ayah on Berakhot 18.

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