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Who is responsible for our pain and suffering? In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe tells the Israelites that God, described metaphorically as a rock, is perfect and just. He is without iniquity; is righteous and upright. Destruction is not His. The blemishes belong to His children, who are a warped and twisted generation (Devarim 32:4-5). The Rambam, based on these verses argues that we are responsible for our own suffering:
Man's existence is nevertheless a great boon to him, and his distinction and perfection is a divine gift. The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! (Moreh Nevuchim 3:12)
It is true that we don’t fully understand God’s ways. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and we don’t have justifiable explanations as to why. But that does not take away the fact that there are examples where suffering is both justifiable and explainable, even absent the concept of Divine punishment. Often there are natural, negative consequences to our actions that cannot be blamed on God, but fall squarely within our own responsibility.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski connects the concept of a “warped and twisted generation” to the warped and twisted thinking he often encountered in his work with alcoholics. While they think they are being logical, there are so many holes and distortions within their thinking that lead to harmful behaviors. For instance, an alcoholic can refuse to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting because he is afraid he will be exposed as an alcoholic, but has no problem drinking, becoming intoxicated, and acting foolishly in public.
This kind of thinking is not just endemic to alcoholics. We all have warped and twisted thinking at times. Cognitive therapists have identified many cognitive distortions and thinking errors that cause mental distress and lead to harmful behaviors. As an example, control fallacies can manifest as us believing that we have absolutely no control over our lives. Perhaps these verses are alluding to the subset of people who claim they have no control over their pain, placing the burden directly in G-d’s hands. The message from Moshe is that we have more control than we think. We bear the burden and responsibility of changing our fate.
Another cognitive distortion that is related to these verses is “labeling,” which is when we reduce ourselves or others to a single, negative characteristic or description. The Netziv assumes that the “warped and twisted generation” is referencing the people who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. These people were learned and driven by holy causes, yet their actions were twisted. Their perverseness stemmed from the fact that they judged anyone who transgressed to be a Sadducee, traitor, or heretic. This led them to become corrupt and led to “bloodshed for the sake of heaven.” They labeled people in totality without regard to the total human being and this led to their own destruction. This stands in stark contrast to our Patriarchs who were straight and upright (not warped and twisted). They were able to even treat idolaters with favor and love.
While we won’t always understand G-d’s ways, if we are reflective and honest with ourselves, we will recognize that there are things that go wrong in our lives and communities that can be traced back to our own thoughts and behaviors. If we can identify and change our warped and twisted approaches, perhaps we can be on our way to more happy, fulfilling, and spiritual lives.