Suffering: Why?

August 21, 2011 | by

I have had a very difficult life, beset by illness, unemployment, and disappointment from those who had pledged to care for me. I am having trouble seeing the benevolent God in all this. What do you say, rabbi?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

I am very sorry to hear about the difficult times that you have had to endure. The trials that you have gone through no doubt have obviously made your relationship to God a difficult one. I can understand why.

As a rabbi, I have witnessed the most horrendous situations imaginable. I have experienced a 20-year-old who lost both of her parents in a car crash. Can you imagine a girl so close to her parents and in one day they're gone? I've lived through a husband coming home to find that his wife had collapsed, and in two days she was dead. There was nothing wrong with her before. And on and on and on.

When someone is in the midst of suffering, that's not the time to offer answers. It's a time to listen and empathize and be with the person as best you can. If there's anyone going through a painful time and is looking for a sense of relief, I am skeptical whether these intellectual answers will offer any kind of relief.

Dealing with pain and suffering is never easy, particularly since we often feel so helpless and out of control. But one thing we do have control over and that is our attitude. Try to stick to this 3-part formula:

    1) Look for the positive side to things.

    2) Try not to judge God, Who knows more than we do.

    3) Ask God for the clarity to understand how this is for the best.

Our perceptions of good and evil are directly related to our understanding of the world. An African tribesman who never saw a hypodermic syringe in his life could think upon seeing a doctor inoculate a child that the doctor was actually trying to hurt the child! Our perceptions change with information.

Therefore the Jewish approach to "suffering" is that everything happens for the good, but since we are finite and cannot see the whole picture, we perceive some things as bad.

God has more information than we do; thus we cannot judge Him and say He is doing something bad. We trust God and say, "I haven't yet figured out why, but God knows this is for the best."

The Talmud (Brachot 60b) tells the story of Rebbe Akiva who was traveling and could not find overnight lodging in a nearby town. He was forced to sleep in the open. His only source of light, a candle, blew out; his mode of transportation, a donkey, was eaten by a lion; and his "alarm clock," a rooster, was taken by a cat. The next morning Rebbe Akiva saw that armed bandits had plundered the nearby town. Had they seen his candle or heard his chicken or donkey, they would have victimized him as well.

We can accept pain and suffering in the world by trying to see what positive side it may have. For example, a woman whose child was killed by a drunk driver went out and started MADD - Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This organization was responsible for revolutionizing the laws against drunk driving in America, and as a result has surely saved thousands of lives. It could be said that the purpose of this child was to elevate his mother to the towering heights of greatness that she indeed achieved as a result of the tragedy.

Of course it is not always easy to find the positive side. But even the attempt helps tremendously. It is interesting that if we look back on our own lives, the times we have grown the most are not when things have gone easy, but when they've been difficult. So many times what appears as "bad" or "negative" ends up being a blessing. A person could lose their job, for example, only to realize later that was the opportunity they needed to break into a growing, new field!

In the meanwhile, we have invested so much time and energy into worrying or regretting - all for nothing and all to our detriment. It is wise to remember that worry is defined as "interest paid in advance on a debt which often times never comes due." So when we are having problems, we can ask ourselves, "What have I learned or gained?"

Also, there are two excellent books I can recommend: "Why me, God?" by Lisa Aiken (published by Aaronson), and "Confronting the Loss of a Baby," by Yamin Levy (Ktav).


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