Wrestling with Suffering
Jewish philosophical approaches to one of life's fundamental questions.
While paying a shiva call to a friend who lost her mother to leukemia, I witnessed a young student launch into a detailed explanation of Judaism's philosophical approach to suffering. My friend, in the midst of experiencing profound loss, had no interest in hearing a philosophy lecture. I sat there squirming in my seat, looking for a break to change the topic. My friend nodded politely, but I knew that the student's words cut like daggers.
"Why me, God?" can be either a philosophical question or a cry of anguish. The former is a request for clarity and warrants an intellectual reply. But if the words are an expression of emotional pain, any rational explanation is not only irrelevant, it's downright insensitive. An expression of pain requires empathy, not answers; silence, not words.
This article takes a decidedly intellectual approach to the question of suffering. The following approaches are not meant to be tidy answers to one of life's most profound issues. They require the ongoing dedication to wrestle with them, striving to assimilate them into the fabric of our lives.
The question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is built upon the following three axioms about God.
God must be:
- all good
- all knowing
- all powerful
If you remove any one of these attributes, the question disappears.
If God isn't all good, He can do evil and even enjoy inflicting pain. Is there any wonder why bad things happen to good people?
If God isn't omniscient, bad things occur because He doesn't know everything that's going on in the world. If He knew about it; He would certainly put a stop to it.
If God isn't omnipotent, bad things happen because there are forces in the world beyond God's control. Diseases and natural disasters are too mighty for God. We can only call God to task for events that are in His hands.
If one believes in an omnipotent Being who is all good and all knowing, then the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" poses a real challenge.
A MINOR DISCOMFORT
Just how much pain must occur to legitimately raise the question? The Talmud gives the example of a person who reaches into his pocket with the intention of getting a certain coin and instead pulls out a smaller coin. Forced to reach into his pocket a second time, he experiences minor discomfort. The Talmud declares that this added exertion is reason enough to necessitate asking, "Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?" (Erchin 16b).
Any amount of pain or discomfort poses the same theological question, even the stubbing of a toe. Philosophically, the dull aches in life demand as much an explanation as the major crises. After all, if God is all good, all powerful and all knowing, why should my daughter get a paper cut? Furthermore, minor examples of discomfort are perhaps more conducive to delving into the issue of suffering, since they diffuse the emotional tension, making it easier to focus on acquiring intellectual clarity.
ASPECTS OF LOVE
Our first approach to wrestling with suffering requires us to take a look at a fourth aspect of God's nature: Love.
We usually think of love as tender moments of warmth and nurturing, a sense of reaching beyond ourselves through giving and sharing. This is one aspect of love called Chesed, loving-kindness.
But there is another, equally essential side to love, without which no love can be complete: discipline. Imagine a mother getting a call from the local supermarket telling her to come get her teenaged son who has been caught shoplifting. The mother believes in parenting through positive reinforcement alone -- only expressions of warmth and love are acceptable, no criticisms allowed. During the drive home, the son silently waits for his mother's reaction. She gives him a big smile and says, "You had such a busy day, you must be starving! What do you want for dinner?" The shoplifting incident is never mentioned.
Two days later the mother gets a call from the police to come down to the station. Her son has been caught mugging an elderly woman. She posts bail and gives her son a big hug. "My poor darling! This is no place for you. You must have been so frightened!" What do you think the son is going to do tomorrow? What he really yearns for is some real attention. He desperately wants his mother to draw the line somewhere, to set some boundaries and say, "No! This is wrong. You're going too far."
Acceptance and warmth without the balance of discipline are a distortion of love. The mother's unceasing smile becomes a statement that nothing he does is worthy of reaction. Discipline and judgment, the other face of love, tells a child that his actions truly matter.
"A love without reproof isn't love" (Bereishit Rabba 54:3).
The aim of discipline in good parenting is to educate, not punish. The goal is to show the child where he is making a mistake and to direct him on the proper path.
Jewish literature refers to God as "Our Father in Heaven," Avinu shebashamayim. He is a father, not a grandfather with a long white beard. There is a significant difference between a parent and a grandparent. The grandparent's relationship is built primarily on the Chesed, giving side of love -- bringing presents, spending time playing with the grandchildren, getting nachas. When discipline is called for, the parents step in. God relates to us like a parent; His love is complete, expressed through both giving and discipline. Therefore, when something bad happens, the first step should be to try to understand what our Father is teaching us.
As the Talmud states, "When misfortune comes upon a person, he should examine his actions."
We are being taught a lesson, not getting punished. Adversity can be a wake-up call from God, encouraging us to explore our actions and to see where we're going off course.
CONTEXT AFFECTS EVERYTHING
The emotional context of the relationship shapes how we interpret the actions of others. For example, Rachel has been working on completing her Masters degree over the last four years. Tonight is the graduation. She tells her husband, "Meet me there at 8:00 pm and please -- don't be late."
"Don't worry. I'll be there on time," he says.
Eight o'clock rolls around and he's not there. Rachel starts getting agitated. It's ten after eight and still no show -- now she's mad. At 8:30 she can't believe he let her down again. She feels hurt and dejected.
Let's take a look at another couple, Susan and David. They have been married for ten years and fully appreciate the love they have for each other. Susan tells David 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 want to 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." Ten after eight...she starts to worry. "Maybe something happened." At 8:30, she leaves to call the hospitals, in a state of panic.
Same situation with two very different reactions. When the relationship is one of resentment and mistrust, the action is interpreted through that negative lens. When the relationship is one of love and trust, that same action is viewed in an altogether different light.
God is not a dysfunctional parent.
When we are unaware of God's unwavering love, we will necessarily misinterpret God's message. The initial challenge is 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 unwavering love, which is infinite and boundless, greater than all the love in the world.
"As a parent chastises his son, so God chastises us" (Deut. 8:5).
Like a loving father, God is trying to teach us something.
So how do we start building a loving relationship with God?
RECLAIMING THE HISTORY OF THE RELATIONSHIP
The cornerstone of any loving relationship is trust, the confidence that the other truly cares and is there for you. A sapling of trust is cultivated through actions of giving, which deepen its roots, nurturing it to grow stronger. Eventually the trust becomes firmly embedded, forging a relationship permeated with love.
However, there is another indispensable ingredient: gratitude. If an act of love is not acknowledged, it cannot strengthen the bond in any way. For all intents and purposes it's as if that act was never done. When expressions of kindness are taken for granted, as expected as the daily newspaper at the door, they lack all power to nurture closeness and trust. Without gratitude, the "emotional bank account" of trust never accumulates. It's as if the history of the relationship is being written on a child's etch-a-sketch.
We need to appreciate the countless demonstrations of God's care in our lives, so that we can build our sense of trust. By recognizing His unceasing involvement in our lives, past and present, we can build a loving connection with God.
This is God's essential message to the Jewish people, when He introduces Himself for the first time at Mount Sinai. "...I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)
God could have said, "I am the Lord your God who created the heavens and the earth." What could be more impressive than that?
But He isn't interested in showing off His power, recounting erstwhile feats of strength to which people have no direct connection. He wants to show this fledgling nation that He is with them, committed, loving and caring. "Yes it's Me, your God, who overturned nature to liberate each and every one of you. The One who saved you and freed you from slavery."
Appreciating God's active role in our personal lives will give us that same reassurance. All too often we take for granted the innumerable blessings God has already given us, and overlook the special relationship we have with Him. We tend to forget that we are the recipients of a myriad of precious gifts, that there is a Being who granted us the gift of life, the ability to see, and the faculty to hear, that every instant of our existence is a brand new gift of life.
GETTING THE MESSAGE
Wrestling with suffering requires viewing all events as meaningful. Events in our life are not mere coincidences, random accidents that have nothing to do with a purposeful Being. If God is all knowing, all powerful and all good, nothing just happens.
"One who believes in God's oneness and understands its implications must believe that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is one, single, and unique, being subject to no impediment or restraint whatsoever, He alone dominating all....there is no other beneath Him who exercises any dominion in the world...He alone supervises all of His creatures individually, and nothing transpires in his world except through His will and agency -- not through chance, and not through nature, and not through constellation; but He governs all of the earth and all that is in it, decreeing all that is to be done..." Daas Tevunos, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
Living with this attitude enables us to see God's guiding hand in our daily life. I have a friend who was a workaholic, working every day from early in the morning till late at night. Her job was her sole source of meaning and satisfaction in life, and she was looking forward to a promotion that would bring even more responsibility and more demands on her time.
One day she was thrown from a horse and broke her leg. Needless to say, she was upset with the timing of the accident, but that proved the least of her worries. The break was very complicated and after being in a series of casts for several months, it still would not heal. By this time, her absence from work caused her to lose the coveted promotion and she was asking, "Why me, God?" In the end, she had to be hooked up, 12 hours a day, to a special machine that sent electro-magnetic impulses through her leg to stimulate bone cell growth. She had to come home early from work, every day, and, once hooked up to the machine, could do nothing but read, watch television and think.
And think she did. She began to consider the stressful life she was leading and to question where it was all headed.
There is a principle in Judaism called "measure for measure," which loosely means, "the punishment must fit the crime." To be able to figure out the meaning of the message, God will often send His message through a medium directly related to the area one needs to improve. Forced to pull out of her frenetic pace, she realized that all her running was leading nowhere. After eight months of healing, she changed the course of her life and will be eternally grateful that she broke her leg.
It's not always easy to figure out the message. And there is the possibility that God intended to teach my friend a different lesson. Perhaps He wanted to show her that she isn't always in control, or not to take a functioning body for granted. By being aware that her pain was for a reason, she was able to use the episode as a means to grow and bring God's presence into her daily life.
When we realize that events carry divine messages, we are compelled to open them up and explore their contents.
If you were to receive registered mail from the President of the United States, would you just throw it in the garbage? When we realize that events carry divine messages, we are compelled to open them up and explore their contents. By ignoring the message and attributing events to mere chance, we rob ourselves of potential growth and meaning, and waste the opportunity to further develop our closeness with God.
Incidentally, we don't have to wait for God to send us a personal wake-up call. A fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from others. Not only is there a particular message to the one suffering, but there is a message to everyone who hears about it, as well.
WHEN WE DON'T KNOW WHY
At times, we cannot clearly grasp why certain events happen, and we feel enshrouded in a cloak of darkness, unable to pierce through to see the light. What are we to do then?
Imagine a father engrossed in a book, who sees in the corner of his eye his two-year-old daughter walking towards an electrical socket holding a paper clip. The father shuts his book and yells, "Annie, stop!" Annie continues walking towards the socket.
"Annie! Stop right now!!"
Inches away from sticking the paper clip in, the father jumps off the couch and slaps it right out of her hand. Annie starts bawling, "Why do bad things happen to good people?!"
Because children have an immature perspective of the world, they are not able to see the whole picture. In Annie's mind, she was just playing with a harmless paper clip and got a smack for no good reason. The father, of course, was preventing his daughter from getting electrocuted. The slap was for her good. When Annie gets older, she'll be able look back and view the episode from a more mature position and see things in an entirely different light.
Every individual has a unique mission to fulfill. The countless events that occur in one's life converge in profound synchronicity to consummate a higher destiny, integral to God's master plan. Thus, the sum total of a person's life manifests a distinct contribution towards the perfection of the world.
"There is no deed, small or great, whose ultimate end is not universal perfection, as stated by our sages [Brachot 60b]: 'All that is done by Heaven is for the good.' For in the time to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make known His ways...showing how even the chastisements and tribulations were precursors of good and actual preparation for blessing. For the Holy One, Blessed be He, desires only the perfection of His creation." -- Daas Tevunos, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
Our life's events come together like the woven threads of a beautiful tapestry. God is the master weaver who unites a myriad strands into a work of art of mind-boggling complexity. Every strand is necessary, precisely entwined in the ideal position.
When half done, we could question the tapestry's jarring splotches of black and ugly strands of gray. There are times we can see only the backside of the tapestry that looks frighteningly chaotic and confusing. Only once completed can we appreciate its full beauty.
Some experiences may seem bad at that moment, only because we lack the perspective of the big picture. It's like leaving in the middle of an action movie, going home and thinking the hero is about to be killed. With some films, the very last frame can redefine our whole understanding of what happened.
In actuality, all events, the "good" and the "bad," come from the same single source -- One God who is all good.
"'And you shall know this day and return it to your heart that the Lord is God, in the heavens above and on the earth below -- there is none else.' [Deuteronomy 4:39] God Himself testifies and proclaims that the net sum of all His great workings in the world is the revelation of this absolute oneness." -- Daas Tevunos, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
FROM ONE SOURCE
The Talmud (Pesachim, 50:a) brings the quote, "...on that day God will be One and His Name will be One" (Zechariah 14:9), and asks, "Is God not One today?"
The Talmud answers that in this world we may know, intellectually, that everything God does is for the good, but we may not be able to feel and perceive how these seemingly negative events are in fact truly good. There can be confusion that makes evil seem to be in contradiction to God's trait of unceasing kindness.
But in the World to Come, the Talmud continues, when the destiny of the world has unfolded and each individual's has been completed, we will obtain a full perspective. We will be able to look back and feel how all things, even the major upheavals, were for the good. Every twist and turn, personally and globally, will have been an ultimate expression of God's perfect nature.
We will recognize evil for what it truly is -- a temporary illusion destined to disappear like a puff of smoke.
"...and all evil will evaporate like smoke when You remove evil's dominion from the earth" (Machzor, Rosh Hashana Prayers).
While this approach does not eliminate the suffering, it can help us accept the pain, knowing it is ultimately for the good. When someone we love and trust does something we don't understand, we have the maturity to suspend judgment and are confident that there must be a good explanation for this behavior.
So much of our suffering is self-inflicted. Just read the headlines of any paper. We are masters at afflicting others and ourselves with immense pain -- psychological and physical -- and have no one to blame but ourselves.
Perhaps we question God for giving us the total freedom to wreak such havoc. Why grant us the option to hurt and kill? Wouldn't the world have been a better place if evil had been curtailed, limiting the scope of our free will?
Sheltering us from the potential consequences of our choices would diminish purpose and meaning in life.
Limiting the extent of free will would have made the world a safer place, but sheltering us from the potential consequences of our choices would diminish purpose and meaning in life. It is our ability to choose that makes us different than robots. Free will gives us independence and personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions, lending meaning to all our choices. If our choices were limited, our independence would be reduced, compromising the ultimate meaning of our existence.
This would be in contradiction to God's perfect nature. Since God is perfect, His creation must be given the opportunity to attain maximum meaning and good. Anything less would be an act of glaring imperfection.
"And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good." (Genesis, 1:31).
"'and behold, it was good' -- this refers to the Yetzer Hatov, the Good Inclination; 'and behold, it was very good' - this refers to the Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination" (Breishit Raba, 9:7).
Complete freedom requires complete access to good and evil. In other words, evil enables free will to exist, thus even evil serves the ultimate cause of good.
When we strive to live with the consciousness that all events serve a higher purpose and are precisely what we need at that moment, we can slowly learn to recognize the true good that lies beneath every situation. Wrestling with suffering enables us to use every experience as a tool for elevation, seeing it as a vital, personal lesson and as an opportunity to strengthen our trust in God's unending goodness. Knowing there is a constructive purpose and meaning to the difficult times we face, may not erase the pain but it can make it easier to bear.