When Bad Things Happen
A Jewish perspective on one of life's toughest questions.
On the afternoon of Monday, May 5, 1975, I sat down to do a homework assignment for my eighth-grade English class. I was sitting at the desk in our den, next to the kitchen. I was 13 years old.
My father was 45 at the time and had been, until his first heart attack eight months earlier, a heavy smoker. After his heart attack, which occurred one week after my Bar Mitzvah, he had given up smoking. But his heart had sustained damage, and his doctors had told him that he could not engage in any strenuous activity. He had always loved working on our lawn but now he was prohibited from mowing it; from then on, it was to be my job.
But on this spring afternoon, my father decided to mow the lawn. I offered to do it, but he told me that the first mowing of the season was tough. He would do it and I would take over the rest of the year. He was trying to help me but never anticipated what was about to occur.
As I began my assignment, my father had just finished dinner and was still sitting at the kitchen with a cold drink. He looked very tired. After I’d written a few lines, for no apparent reason, I looked up into the kitchen just in time to see him fall off his chair and crash onto the kitchen floor. His body was convulsing.
I ran upstairs and called to him, but he was unconscious. I screamed to my mother, who came running to the kitchen, grabbed the phone and called 911. Then, we waited. Within a minute or two, police cars with sirens wailing came tearing into the cul-de-sac where we lived and screeched to a halt in front of our house. The policemen ran in and instructed us to get a pillow, which one of them put under my father’s head, and a blanket, which he laid over him. Seconds became minutes and then more minutes and then more minutes. The police were getting very agitated that no ambulance was coming.
My father stopped convulsing. One policeman started to scream into his walkie-talkie about an ambulance. I distinctly remember him saying, “This isn’t a joke, this is serious.” Finally, the ambulance arrived and my father was taken out on a stretcher. By this time, the entire neighborhood was in front of my house, and someone instructed me to go find my little sister, who was out riding her bicycle with friends.
The ambulance took my father to the nearest hospital half a mile away, but it was a futile effort. He was dead on arrival.
At the ripe old age of 13, I became the go-to guy when it came to death.
Before long, a police car pulled up in front of our house again. My sister and I were waiting outside on our driveway along with the rest of the neighborhood. My mother got out of the police car and motioned for us to come over, her expression confirming what I had already known when the ambulance had pulled away. I bolted the other way and in a mix of tears and rage, started walking laps around the house. I guess I wanted to get out of there, but I had no place to go.
At the ripe old age of 13, I had stood by helplessly and watched my father die. My sister was 12; my mother was a widow at 39. I sat shiva for my father for a week, and my friends came over and we talked about everything except the fact that my father had just died. For many years, I was the only person I knew with one parent; this was the 1970s, and most people had two. I only knew two girls whose parents were divorced.
After that, I became the go-to guy when it came to death. When a friend lost her brother in high school, I went to pay a shiva call. She jumped up, literally grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into another room. “I’ve been waiting for you. You’re the only person I can talk to about this who will understand,” she told me. It was a dubious honor and one I would have gladly passed up.
Why do such tragedies happen? What did I do to “deserve” watching my father die? What did my mother do to “deserve” becoming a young widow? Or my little sister, burying her father before she could celebrate her Bat Mitzvah with him?
The short answer is that I didn’t do anything to deserve such a tragedy, and neither did my mother or sister because the word “deserve” doesn’t even belong in the equation. As I will explain, many things happen to people in their lifetimes that have nothing to do with deserving or not deserving.
But first, a few other points.
The Question Says a Lot
If the question of suffering bothers us, our discomfort reveals a great deal about how we envision God. Either consciously or subconsciously, we recognize that:
- God is kind and just.
- He runs the world.
- Everything He does has meaning.
- We were created for pleasure.
A) God is kind and just. Why should suffering be an issue in the first place? Perhaps there is suffering in the world because God is angry or has a bad disposition? Or has not been properly appeased? The only reason why we are bothered by suffering is because we believe in a kind and just God. If we didn’t, we would have no expectations and there would be no question about suffering. Asking “why?” reveals that we are questioning the justice in it and that we cannot accept injustice. In a Jew’s universe, there cannot be a God who is mean or cruel.
If we didn’t believe in God, we wouldn’t ask the question about suffering.
B) God runs the world. The question of suffering reveals that you acknowledge that God is actively running the world. If we didn’t believe in God, we wouldn’t ask the question; there would be no one to whom to pose the question. And if we believed in a God who created the world and then left it or has limited abilities, we also wouldn’t ask the question because either God is not involved or He can’t do anything about it. In either case, questioning God about suffering would be akin to holding a weatherman personally responsible for the weather. If we question the existence of suffering, it is only because we understand that there is a God to whom we can direct the question – one who is ultimately responsible for what occurs.
C) Everything He does has meaning. When we ask “why?” it implies that we are looking for an answer that provides an underlying reason. When we suffer personally, this aspect of the question takes on even greater significance. Asking “Why me?” confirms that a person believes that there must be a reason for what they are enduring. They understand that what is happening is not random but rather directed.
D) We were created for pleasure. When we question suffering, we are clearly stating, “This shouldn’t be.” The question confirms that we understand that life is good and that God created us to give us pleasure, and suffering seems to runs contrary to that understanding. We rarely ask "Why me?" when things are going well. It’s almost as if we expect life to be good.
So the question of suffering reveals that we believe in a kind and just God who runs the world, that we believe what happens to us has meaning and life is meant to be good and pleasurable. With this awareness, bad things happening seem like a contradiction and we ask, “How could a loving God let this happen?”
There are four essential points that we must understand in order to grasp any meaning behind suffering. Without these four, it can never make sense. They are:
- Everything is a gift.
- There is no such thing as “fair.”
- If life has meaning, then the pain also has meaning.
- There is an afterlife.
1) Everything is a gift.
If we look at our lives and the myriad gifts we possess, we quickly see that we don’t deserve any of them. Why does a person deserve the gift of sight or hearing? Why does any person deserve the gift of a properly functioning digestive, nervous or reproductive system, or legs or teeth or children or food or brains or a house to live in or any number of the literally thousands of things that we take for granted?
We know deep down that we have not earned any of the gifts we possess; everything we have is a gift. Nevertheless, we go through life expecting everything to work out the way we want it to or, at least, not badly. And when there are setbacks or tragedies, suddenly we want to know, “Why me?”
But once we understand that we do not deserve anything and realize that we are constantly receiving gifts of love, we can view suffering in a different context.
Unfortunately I have a real life example that sheds light on this. My cousin Ann once had three healthy children. One day, 30 years ago, her 2-year-old was in the backyard, playing with her siblings and some other children, when she wandered off. Nobody noticed how long she was missing and when they eventually found her, she was face down in a neighbor’s in-ground birdbath which was full of water. Her brain had been deprived of oxygen long enough to leave her severely retarded. She eventually died at the age of 22, still wearing diapers.
Years later, a relative of mine approached me about this. “Tell me what Ann did to deserve that!” she demanded. “Ann is such a good person.”
I answered, “If you can tell me what Ann did to deserve two healthy children, I will tell you what she did to deserve this.”
This answer did not mean that I wasn’t brokenhearted about what had happened. Of course I was. But I wanted to show my relative that there is no answer because there is no question. We don’t deserve the good and we don’t “deserve” the bad. Everything is a gift – our eyes, our ears, our children, our food but also illnesses, deaths, disasters and tragedies.
But we still need to understand how.
2. Life is not fair.
How often have we heard the expression “life is not fair” or “there is no justice in this world”? This is 100 percent true. Life is completely unfair. Where is the fairness in some being born rich and some being born poor, some beautiful and some plain, some seeing and some blind, some hearing and some deaf, some healthy and some sickly, some fertile and some barren, some intelligent and some simple, some mentally fit and some mentally ill, some charismatic and some painfully shy?
It's true: life is not fair.
In fact the concept of “fair” is so foreign to Jewish thought that in the Hebrew language, there is no word for “fair.” Modern Hebrew has adopted the word directly from English. If you want to complain in Hebrew you say, “Zeh lo fair.”
To quote a cliché, life is a journey; there is no objective finish line to which we are all racing. We all die at different times and in different ways but it’s not the end that matters, it’s what we do while we are here, with what we are given. Just walk through a cemetery: Everyone there has the same net worth, is in the same state of health, owns the same amount of real estate and is as good-looking as the next.
We are each created with our own unique path in life. God desires the same end result for all of us, but our itineraries are personalized, each person’s being different from the other. Therefore, God has equipped each of us with the custom-designed tools that we will need for our own individual journeys. It doesn’t matter what your neighbor has because what he has is good for him but not for you, and vice versa.
Everything you need, you have. Everything you will need, you will receive. Knowing that God has created each of us with our personal path to tread and with all the tools and skills that we need eliminates any basis to complain about the inequities of life.
Knowing this also obviates the need to be concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. People often create their own unhappiness by focusing on what they don’t have. A person who appreciates what he has will not become unhappy when his neighbor pulls up in a new Mercedes.
3) If life has meaning, then the pain also has meaning.
If life itself has God-given meaning, then so must every aspect of it, including the pain and the setbacks. Therefore, the pain of life is a part of the gift of life. A person whose life is focused on personal growth and eternal existence will understand that pain is part of the package and this knowledge enables a person to bear it. On the other hand, believing that there is no purpose to pain can be more painful than the pain itself. Meaning allows a person to endure suffering and become stronger. Meaninglessness prevents a person from even enjoying comforts.
How often has something seemed tragic while it was happening but later on, in hindsight, was actually a blessing? How often do we read about tragedies that have produced amazing results or about people accomplishing wonderful things after their outlooks on life are completely changed?
4) There is an afterlife.
Many Jews think the concept of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, are purely Christian concepts. This is a mistake. Although the Jewish understanding of Heaven and Hell is fundamentally different than the Christian or Muslim view, belief in the afterlife is in fact one of the unequivocal foundations of Judaism.
The existence of an afterlife gives this life meaning.
The existence of an afterlife gives this life meaning. Since this world is full of inequities and injustice, we are left with two choices: Either there is another place where true justice is meted out, where both the righteous and the evil receive their just rewards, or the world in which we live is just cruel and arbitrary, and people are either winners or losers.
Believing the latter would mean that murder victims just had bad luck (wrong place, wrong time) and tyrants really do get away with mass murder. The little old lady who gets swindled out of her life’s saving is just a poor sucker and her swindler will never face true justice if he’s never caught.
Only an afterlife, where a final accounting is made, gives the trials and travails of this lifetime any ultimate purpose.
The Talmud gives us the guidelines for evaluating our suffering. If we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation, regardless of the degree, we are to go through three steps:
1. First, we must scrutinize our actions. Perhaps we are being chastised, for our own good, to improve ourselves or abandon negative traits or behaviors. Again, this is not punishment but rather the prodding of our loving coach who wants us to win.
2. Second, if we do a self-evaluation and it does not seem to us that this is the cause, we are to evaluate our time to see if we are wasting it instead of applying it to Torah study. This is the most sincere way to have a relationship with God and He desires us to study Torah above all else.
3. And lastly, if that too is not the cause, then the Talmud attributes the situation to suffering which is good for us – even though we cannot understand it in this lifetime.
After all is said and done, there are many times when the underlying reason for our suffering remains unknowable.
God has a real relationship with us, whether or not we acknowledge or reciprocate it, and He is always readjusting our world in response to our freewill decisions. His goal is always the same – only the manner and the methods change. He reacts to our every choice and decision and constantly reshuffles the deck in order to deal us the best cards, given our choices.
He does this to guide and help us. Everything is done with an eye on our eventual best.
Sometimes God is active and will intervene and frustrate our plans. Other times He will be passive and allow our decisions to run their course. This applies to both good and evil plans.
Sometimes the only reason for suffering is to draw us closer to Him. Sometimes our suffering is designed to act like an alarm clock by focusing us on what is truly important and preventing us from wasting our lives in a dull fog. It can be a wake-up call for an individual, a nation or the world as a whole.
Sometimes our suffering can be intended to remove negative traits. Sometimes it is intended to prevent a greater evil or bring a greater good. Sometimes its only purpose is to bring out our potential. Sometimes the whole situation has to do with the Next World and not this one. In these cases, when we can’t see the big picture, the suffering will seem unjust.
The righteous might suffer in this world because their mitzvot are the most fundamental aspects of their beings. They are spiritually oriented and it would be a waste to reward them in this temporal world, which doesn’t mean that much to them. They are not interested in fame or expensive cars or big homes.
On the other hand, evil people who do some good and therefore must be paid, might get rewarded here in this world because their good deeds are the superficial part of their lives and not of great importance to them. Therefore, they get paid in this world in ways that matter to them. They would not be able to appreciate a spiritual reward.
We can understand the rules, but we cannot begin to fathom all the calculations that go into God’s interactions with us.
God’s decisions will always include the variable of how His actions will affect everything else in the cosmic equation. God has plans for humanity as well as individuals, and this is factored into every decision. But for reasons that remain hidden, we are not entitled to know why we suffer even as we go through the pain. Perhaps knowing why a child is born with Down’s syndrome, or why a husband dies as a young man leaving a widow and orphans, or why a person develops multiple sclerosis will negatively affect our free will.
We can understand the rules, but we cannot begin to fathom all the calculations that go into God’s interactions with us, balancing our eternal needs, the needs of our society and the needs of mankind. Since there is an infinite array of factors that are beyond our limited understanding, suffering may often seem arbitrary and unfair. Yet it is neither.
We have to accept that everything is done for our good and that one day, we will understand the reasons for what happened to us in our lives on Earth.
Coming Full Circle
Our lives are like a tapestry. If one views the back – an incomprehensible, ugly mess of threads of different lengths, colors and thicknesses, seemingly thrown together haphazardly and arbitrarily – it is hard to make any sense of it all, and it is impossible to form any kind of picture. Turn the tapestry around and all of a sudden everything becomes clear. The messy back makes total sense in light of the front.
After we depart from this world and enter the World of Truth, we will all come before God with our questions. And we will finally get answers. We will clearly see the reasons for every one of life’s occurrences, from the most trivial to the most sublime. Not only will we have no further questions, but we will be grateful for what happened to us. And, regardless of how unpleasant our lives were while we passed through this world, it is still better for us to have gone through it than not to have been created at all. This is because, regardless of our suffering, we have a pleasurable eternity ahead of us.
This future encounter can be illustrated by the following story which I cannot personally verify, but nevertheless worth retelling. It happened in the men’s room in London’s Heathrow Airport on December 21, 1988. A man scheduled to fly on Pan Am 103 to New York got locked in a toilet stall and missed his flight. This was the plane that was blown up in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland, by agents of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
I can imagine him becoming increasingly unhinged as he came to realize that he might miss the flight. As time continued to tick away, I can see him screaming “Help!” at the top of his lungs. And as he sat waiting for a maintenance man knowing that his flight was boarding, I can see him kicking the door with all his might while cursing the British “who can’t even make a stupid door that works.” Imagine how pleasant he must have been when he was finally freed—only to learn that the flight was closed and he would have to wait for the next one to New York. Imagine his sense of frustration while he sat for hours, waiting for the next flight, wondering the whole time about the fate of his luggage that was checked on that flight. How would he even explain this to others?
Imagine how his mood must have changed when the TV in the waiting area broadcast a news bulletin about the terrorist bombing of the flight, killing every person onboard. Suddenly his ordeal in the men’s room takes on a totally different meaning. Not only is he no longer angry, he is actually grateful that he got stuck there. He might even have said, “Thank you, God, for jamming the door.” The same series of events is now seen entirely differently than it had been only a few moments before.
His experience did not change — only his understanding of it. The same experience seen through a different lens now produces a much different reaction and in hindsight, what seemed like a bad thing turned out to actually be a good thing.
When we eventually stand before God and see our lives replayed, this will be our reaction to everything that has happened to us, both good and bad. We will see all things for what they truly are: Acts of love that were done on our behalf. And we will be thankful for everything – everything – that we endured during our short stay here in this world.
Excerpted from The Non-Orthodox Jew's Guide to Orthodox Jews, published by Veracity Press, 2010, a book that offers an all-encompassing view of Orthodox Jews’ beliefs and actions and explains the issues that non-Orthodox Jews often find puzzling or exasperating. Readers will encounter surprisingly refreshing discussions of topics such as happiness, good and evil, personal integrity, suffering, heaven and hell, prayer, charity, economics, love and sexuality, marriage, evolution, morality, assimilation, intermarriage and Zionism.
To read more excerpts from the book or to purchase a copy, go to www.jewsguide.com