> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Brainstorming with Baars

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

As long as man has been trying to figure out how to rub two sticks together to make a BBQ, they have been pondering this question. Yet all the answers, whether you believe in God or not, fit into one of these three categories:

1)  the pagan answer
2)  the atheist answer
3)  the Jewish answer

In truth, the pagans have the most obvious answer. (Don't worry, I'm not a pagan.)

For the pagan, the reason bad things happen to people is simply because they are bad. Just like a human being, one of the gods punishes those he or she disapproves of. And even though you and I might think the poor sufferer is wonderful, the pagan would conclude that their god didn't agree. There must be things we don't know about the person and therefore the poor soul gets visited with retribution because they ticked one of the gods off.

Theologically, this idea permeates most of the religions of the world (except Judaism) and the only reason it isn't more widely discussed is because it is not very comforting. It's hard to imagine hearing a eulogy about poor uncle Albert, "You know, we all thought you were a great guy, but I guess when the piano fell on your head at age 35 it was a clear sign..."

Unfortunately, most people think there are only two possible answers, the pagan and the atheist views. As such, they would completely abandon the pagan view if not for the fact that the atheist view is much worse.

The atheist says that there is no reason. It's all just random. Uncle Albert happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just his bad luck!

At first this might seem appealing, but you would be sorely mistaken.

Imagine a father coming home and tearing up his nine year old's homework that he had been working on for over a week, for no reason at all. People who believe that they are the victim of random violence suffer horrendously.

It's just not the same thing if the father rips up the homework because he believes the son could work harder. Even though both are harsh, those two acts, and the psychological impact, are completely different.

Assuming the father is correct in his motive and assessment, the son has a very good chance of being emotionally healthy because in this latter case the son is dealing with a father that cares.

When you think your parent, boss, God, or even life, treats you randomly, feelings of despair soon become overwhelming. What's the point of going on if random acts can cut it all short? That isn't the same as a person who feels that there is a justice to what happens, even if you don't like the justice. At the very least, it is a system by which life makes sense. Under those conditions we can manage.

I will grant you, neither answer is satisfying, but at least the pagan is better off. The atheist would have us live in a world devoid of any meaning. Failure and success are random. To believe that God does not run this world and that results have nothing to do with our efforts is to believe in a godless world which ultimately leads to despair. What makes people fight against all odds is the underlying belief that good will triumph.

Another way of looking at this is to see that all pain can be divided into two categories - meaningful and meaningless. We can survive anything if we feel it is meaningful because there is a reason we are going through this. It is not only worth it, but the pain is related to the reward, the more pain the better end result. The best example is childbirth. How do women go through it? Because there is a very meaningful result.

However, if our suffering is meaningless, then we will stop trying. If that is what life really is, people would give up. And when people do believe this, they do give up. We can't go through anything if it is meaningless. That is why, relative to the atheist, the pagan's view of life gives a sense of structure and reason to living.

Judaism however, offers something completely different that is not shared with anyone. No other religion, philosophy or world philosopher has ever imagined the answer Moses tells his brother Aharon upon the death of Aharon's two sons.

Bad things happen to good people precisely because they are good people. In fact, it is a sign of how good they were that such a bad thing happened to them.

If you have blood flowing through your veins then it's virtually impossible for you to not find that answer distinctly disturbing, and you would not be alone - for Aharon himself found it challenging.

Let us delve a little further. In sum, these are the only possible answers:

1)  Bad things happen because you are bad.
2)  There is no reason for it happening, it's just bad luck.
3)  Bad things happen because you are good.

There are no other possible answers, and as much as we would all like a fourth door, it doesn't exist.

Incredibly, the Torah states that when Moses told this to Aharon, Aharon did not reply (Leviticus 10:3).

If we ponder this, we will realize that the Torah would be a massive document if it told us every time someone didn't say anything. Why does the Torah explicitly mention here that Aharon didn't respond to Moses?

Rashi, the famous commentator from the Middle Ages, explains that Aharon wanted to reply and didn't, and for restraining himself he was rewarded.

The question to ask is what would Aharon have said?

I should mention here that in Jewish tradition it isn't our place to foist upon mourners what we think are the reasons for their tragedy. Our responsibility is to mourn with them in silence unless they request something deeper. It's of the utmost importance to not impose your philosophy on people who are not capable of hearing anything more. Mourning is often a time of confusion and they need their space to find peace, and we must respect that.

However, Moses and Aharon knew each other very well, Moses obviously knew what his brother wanted to hear.

So again, what could Aharon have said?

He surely could not have argued like a pagan, that his sons were not really good people.

Similarly, he couldn't have answered like the atheist, that they died for no reason.

Neither of these reactions are better than what Moses offered. Isn't the Jewish answer the best possible answer?

Most certainly. Aharon knew that Moses' answer was the best and correct explanation. But the Jewish concept leaves one big begging question that you don't have with the pagan or athiest. If bad things happen to good people, and it's therefore good for them, then... why is it good for them??????

Why was this good for Aharon's two sons?

That is the question Aharon could and didn't ask.


To use an analogy, now and again Warren Buffet (the financial seer of Omaha) gives his jacket to be raffled off for charity. It's not that people are clamoring for the latest in clothing style, as that's not what Warren is known for. Rather, he puts in his pocket a stock that he thinks is worth buying.

Assuming you bid and won and assuming you got to see his advice and meet Mr. Buffet, would it be appropriate to say to him, "Why that company?"

If your knowledge of financial affairs is not on par with Mr. Buffet, and therefore it is worth your while to buy the raffle ticket, the answer is clearly inappropriate. If you didn't want his advice, don't buy the ticket. He's the financial genius, not you.

That's why Aharon didn't ask. Moses told him that what happened to them was because they were good, very good. In fact, Rashi explains that Moses said, "Now I understand that they (your two sons) are greater than you and I."

What happened to them was good for them. And if Moses says it, that's good enough for Aharon, and for this he was rewarded.

Nevertheless, you and I (as opposed to Aharon), are probably asking the question, why was it good for them?

A person has two basic capacities: physical and spiritual. Physical capacities include how long someone might live as well as other bodily functions like exercise or diet, all according to the design of your body. The body is a very sophisticated machine and we have certain expectations of what we are physically capable of.

The other capacity is the soul, or what you might call our spiritual or natural talent. Everyone has the capacity to shine when they live with their inner soul's capacity.

The question is, which one is a greater tragedy when it's not fulfilled? The body or the soul? Which would you rather have, to live half your physical years but achieve twice as much true meaning and happiness in life, or live a longer life in terms of age, but only achieve half as much true meaning and happiness?

In other words, is it better to minimize or lose some physical capacity to achieve a fuller spiritual life, or the other way round?

Some people give their kidney to live a more spiritual life, alternatively, some people cheat their friends to live a more physical existence.

Of course, we all want both. We all want to live a full life in years AND achieve as much true meaning as possible. But sometimes that isn't the choice. Sometimes to achieve as much as we are capable of, our physical years need to be cut short. In a similar and less extreme way, Helen Keller had to suffer physically so she could achieve the greatness within her. Nelson Mandela would not be who he is without being in prison for so long, and countless other stories of people who found their greatness within and became beacons of light, not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

God saw these people had deep wells of spiritual character that were yearning to find expression, and that without going through what they did, they would never have become what they could.

These souls live to give the people around them a better and more meaningful existence. King David, Samson, The Chofetz Chaim, but also Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa, did not pursue a path because they wanted an easier life or a more comfortable chair. They understood in the most meaningful real way, they become greater the more they can push themselves for others.

To people like this, even death, if it would bring mankind higher, is worth it. This is not as distant or strange as it sounds. Ask your mother or father what they would be willing to do if you needed it. This is not a sacrifice, it's really an opportunity. A mother doesn't see what she did for her children as her loss, but really it's her absolute gain, it's how she became.

In conclusion, the point of life is not to get through it. The winner is not the person who racked up the most years. The real value and quality of life is what we do with our time on this good earth.

Alternatively, the tragedy of existence is people who squander the most valuable thing we have, life itself.

In the same way, a genius or an outstanding musician who idles away his or her talent is a tremendous waste. The fact they lived long does not in anyway assuage the tragedy that they didn't achieve what they should have.

Once we are clear on this, we are left with only one question, did a person shine as brightly as they could?

More than that we cannot ask of them, and more than that opportunity, we cannot ask of God.

Moses told Aharon they did. After that there is nothing more to ask.

* * *


Question 1:  Do you think you would be happier if you suffered less?

Question 2:  Do you think you would be as successful as you are now, if you had half the anguish, strife and difficulty?

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