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When Bad Things Happen: Judaism’s First Approach to Wrestling with Suffering

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February 2, 2022 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

How to be open to receiving and deciphering God’s personal message.

Why do bad things happen to good people? There’s no simple answer to this question. But Jewish sources do offer a number of approaches which a person can struggle to apply to his or her personal situation. And it is a struggle. Moses himself wrestled with this very question.

The Talmud gives concrete advice to someone experiencing suffering. The first approach seems simple and clear, but it requires integrating a couple of prerequisites in order to apply it to our lives.

The Talmud says, “If a person sees that afflictions are befalling him, he should investigate his deeds” (Brachot, 5a).

God is our Father in Heaven. Just as a good parent engages in discipline with his child who is misbehaving and going off track, so too God is sending you a wake-up call, trying to show you where you need to improve and rectify yourself. Examine your actions, determine where you’re making a mistake, and work on doing better.

For example, as many of you know, my wife and I have been blessed with a son who has Down’s syndrome. Yehuda is almost 18 and has been a source of tremendous nachas and joy in our lives. But that was not our initial reaction when he was born and we were shocked to discover that we were now parents of a special needs’ child.

God was giving me a personal message. I needed to read it and take it to heart.

We had a week to wait for the conclusive results of the genetic testing. Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, didn’t mince his words when I went to him for advice. “How would being parents of a cognitively impaired child change you? Make those changes now, and perhaps you can avert the decree. You’ve got seven days.”

Rabbi Weinberg was telling me that God was giving me a personal message. Read it and take it to heart.

A Personal Letter from God

Imagine you got a hand-written letter directly from God, signed, sealed and delivered, with your name on the envelope. How would you react? A personal letter from God! Would you just chuck it into the garbage without opening up? Wouldn’t you be curious to know the contents of the letter?

Chances are you’d drop everything you’re doing to read an actual letter written by God addressed to you personally. So you rip open the letter and it’s written in a foreign language you don’t understand.

Shoot. Would you just toss it into the garbage?

Of course not. First, you’d use Google translate to get the gist of what it means. Then you’d call the leading linguist of that language and pay him whatever it costs to get him to accurately translate the letter. You’d devour every word. Perhaps you’d even become proficient yourself in that language so you could detect every nuance in the letter.

We do not have prophecy today; God doesn’t send us direct WhatsApps, emails or hand-written letters. But He does communicate with us. Rabbi Avraham Grodzinsky, a great Jewish scholar and leader in the early 1900s, writes in his work, Toras Avraham:

Divine providence has granted us something to take the place of prophecy, and it is challenges (suffering) These are God’s agents to teach us about our past mistakes and to help us to avoid any additional transgressions in the future, without which, it would be impossible for us to do teshuva... These challenges are a very powerful way to help us search out and uncover, to analyze and understand the secrets of the heart, even more than a Prophet of God.

Rabbi Weinberg was telling me at the time to decipher God’s message and embrace the wake-up call.

But there are two essential prerequisites that need to be in place before one can do that.

Random or By Design?

The first is living with the reality that events that happen are not random. I am not a victim of arbitrary circumstances who got stuck with a raw deal. According to that viewpoint, bad things happen to good people because life sucks and has no meaning, and you, through sheer bad luck, got dealt a lousy hand. Oh well.

Do we believe life is random and God isn’t a part of the equation, or do we believe God supervises everything happening in His universe?

According to the Jewish perspective, God is Infinite, All-Powerful, and Omniscient. Nothing is an accident; everything is designed and governed by His Divine providence. That means we were selected to deal with the challenge of raising a special needs child. It’s perfectly calibrated. Now we need to go figure out why this is exactly what we need.

Suffering forces us to be real with our relationship with God. Do we believe life is random and God is uninvolved, not a part of the equation, or do we believe God is our Creator and ongoing Sustainer who supervises everything happening in His universe? As the Talmud says, “No person stubs his toe below unless it has been decreed upon him from above” (Chulin 7b).

Connecting to God’s Love

The second prerequisite is living with the reality that God loves you. The emotional tenor of a relationship shapes how we interpret the actions of others. Someone who feels that God is out to get him will view challenges very differently than someone who feels God is has his back and genuinely cares for him.

For example, Rachel has been working hard on completing her Master’s degree. She and her husband have been going through some rough patches in their marriage. Tonight is her graduation and she says to her husband, "Meet me there at 8:00 pm and please, don't be late."

"Don't worry. I'll be there on time."

Eight o'clock rolls around and he's not there. Rachel starts getting agitated. It's 8:10 and still a no-show – now she's getting angry. By 8:30 she’s livid, feeling hurt and dejected.

Imagine another couple whose love and trust for each other are strong. Susan tells her husband to be there at eight and to try not to be late.

"Are you kidding?" he says, "This is such an important evening, I wouldn't miss a minute of it!"

Eight o'clock rolls around and he's not there. What does Susan think? "Maybe he got stuck in traffic." It’s 8:10 and she starts to worry. At 8:30, she starts calling hospitals in a state of panic.

If we are not connected to God's unwavering love, we will misinterpret God's message.

Same situation with two very different reactions. When the relationship is one of resentment and mistrust, when the emotional bank account is in minus, the action is interpreted through that negative lens. When the relationship is one of love and trust, it doesn’t cross her mind that he just doesn’t care. There must be a good reason for his being late.

If we are not connected to God's unwavering love, we will misinterpret God's message. In order to properly translate God’s message, we need to ensure that our relationship with Him is rooted in trust and love.

God is not a dysfunctional parent. He does not lash out in anger, inflicting pain because of His own frustration and lack of impulse control. Everything that happens stems from His boundless love. Whether the rebuke is coming from a spouse, a parent or a friend, we need to feel it’s coming from a place of love to accept it, and even then we still have to overcome our ego in order to hear it. (How to build a loving relationship with God is a great topic for a future column.)

Measure for Measure is Our Letter Opener

Only now, with the awareness that this challenge is not an accident and feeling connected to God’s love for you, can you begin to introspect and think about what is the message.

How?

Rabbi Grodzinsky writes, “Through the analysis of mida k’neged mida – measure for measure – we will be able to determine which transgression would have logically caused these challenges to have come upon us.”

Only you can decipher its message; it’s a private correspondence for your eyes only. And don’t try to read someone else’s letter. It’s none of your business.

Measure for measure means, loosely speaking, “the punishment fits the crime.” Examine the area in which God is placing the challenge and look for the poetic meaning of the message. For example, with the birth of our son, Yehuda, I realized I had to examine my whole approach to parenting. I was making a major mistake somewhere. (Click here to read what message I derived from this.)

The measure-for-measure principle is the letter opener we have at our disposal. It may take a few tries to get the envelope open, it may not open in one clean swipe, and we may not fully understand every single word. But you’re reading God’s letter, digesting its contents and bringing meaning to a difficult situation.

Only you can decipher its message; it’s a private correspondence for your eyes only. And don’t try to read someone else’s letter. It’s none of your business.

This is the Talmud’s first approach to wrestling with suffering – it’s not the only one. Of course, it doesn’t address every situation. God willing, I will address another approach next week. And lastly, click here to read about the occasions we receive a letter that is sealed shut, totally inaccessible.



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