Project Genesis

Reward and Punishment

Why "Bad" Things Happen

Suffering of the Innocent

Question: [A Doctor living in Jerusalem who had close contact with those who suffered from the recent bombing at the Jerusalem bus station sent the following comment and question:] ... I imagined the pain the father must have felt. A pain that will never go away. I prayed for her recovery with more intensity than usual because I could see myself in his place. It still bothers me. How can one emotionally reconcile a benevolent, omnipotent G-d with such a horrible event?

Answer: Thank you for sharing your pain and your question, which each of us must confront if we are ever meant to grow in our belief and our faith.

The particular challenge of the suffering of children brings out the question that each of us has about our own challenges and suffering, as well. The question is just sharpened when it comes to children. It goes something like, ‘I’m having a hard time believing that anything that I have done or need/am called to do warrants the pain or difficulty that I am presently experiencing, but I’m hesitant to ask the question. However, here is an innocent child suffering and here the question of the ages bursts forth; why and how can innocent people suffer with an omnipotent and benevolent Master of the Universe?’

Because the question has these two layers (struggle over our own challenges and pointed pain over the suffering of a clearly innocent child), we need to approach it with an extra measure of sophistication as addressing one layer may leave the other still exposed and the question re-emerges in all its frustrating fury.

It is important to note that aside from the five books of the Torah, there is only one other book that was written by our teacher Moshe (Moses), and that is the book of Iyov (Job) which addresses the question of the suffering of the righteous. It is a long and difficult book which employs a powerful theme. The main character of the book is Job who is perfectly righteous and yet suffers unimaginable pain and suffering. Job’s three friends arrive and tens of chapters of dialogue ensue between them as the friends attempt to explain his suffering while each of their explanations is rebuffed by Job. As a didactic device, the book teaches us every answer that could possibly be given for human suffering. They would satisfy every human alive except for the perfect Job, who may or may not have ever actually existed. The answers range far and wide and even include the notion of returning souls (suffering for misdeeds in past lives). We have a treatise of the reasons for suffering written by the hand of Moshe because the matter is so close to our hearts and so demands an explanation. In the end of the day, Job is confronted by G-d to whom he addresses his challenge directly. I once heard from Rabbi Dr Shnayer (Sid Z.) Leiman that the resolution of the book of Job is the clarity that Job receives by hearing directly from G-d. It is not the comfort of a new family, renewed health and wealth that marks the resolution of the book, but the clarity that comes with an encounter with the Divine. If Moshe wrote such a book, then clearly the question has merit and deserves to be addressed.

In fact, it would appear that the wisest thing for me to do would be to refer you to study the book of Job with its commentaries, especially the Ramban (Nachmanides), and to politely defer the question. However, I am not comfortable doing that. I believe that there is another facet to the question which is contemporary and needs to be highlighted. That is that the challenge of suffering is intensified in light of the modern capacity to alleviate suffering both through the gifts of medical and technological breakthroughs as well as through the wealth that is so helpful in smoothing over life’s challenges. There is a particular affront to our sensibility when we seemingly can do so much to alleviate suffering and it almost feels as though the only obstacles in our way are malevolent enemies and, tragically, G-d Himself. The challenge of suffering has shifted from one of a philosophical and personal quest to an existential challenge to our brilliant successes as helpers. We vent our justifiable rage at our enemies but a part of us rails at the One Who is behind the maddening terror. Where is He, and where has He been is accentuated by the enormity of the suffering and by the extent to which it seems to mock our steadfast efforts to relieve and alleviate suffering. If we are doing such a good job, where is He?

Permit me, then, to step in and speak to you where prudence would dictate humble silence. There is a fascinating Midrash in the beginning of  the Torah Portion of Va’eira that speaks of Moshe confronting G-d about the suffering of the Jews which Moshe had hoped would have been relieved upon his arrival. He speaks harshly to G-d and questions his mission if the People are still suffering (and indeed even more so) since his arrival. The Midrash relates that G-d challenges Moshe in return. While I encourage you to see the text (Midrash Rabba Shmos, 6:1-3) I would like to highlight two points that emerge from the text.

The first point that strikes me from the Midrash is the fact that Moshe is known as humble, wise, and deeply compassionate towards the plight of the Jewish People. In the intensity of his compassion for their plight, he loses a measure of balance and recognition that G-d is far more compassionate than himself and questions/challenges G-d for not acting in what seems, to Moshe, to be a compassionate manner. There is something about compassion that throws us off. We need it desperately as otherwise we would be as our enemies, but it can derail us in our faith in our Father whose vision of what is best for us, both as a People and as individuals, is far more encompassing than ours. When looking down with compassion on this poor broken child we need to hold on to more than the side rails of the bed; we need to grip our recognition that there can be a perspective larger than ours which we would fully subscribe to if we only had the whole picture. If it happened to Moshe himself, it can happen to the best of us and we need to be aware of it and make allowance for the downside of compassion. Interestingly, the Midrash reports that G-d recognizes that Moshe’s challenge is drawn from his great compassion for the suffering Jews and ‘absorbs’ so to speak, the brunt of the strict justice that would be deserving for such effrontery.

However, another striking feature of the Midrash is that G-d absorbs another measure of the strict justice that would be due to Moshe by acknowledging that it was He, G-d , who centralized Moshe in the story. In the parable offered by the Midrash, there was a king who wished to arrange a deal with a duke and chose a commoner as the go-between. The commoner began to speak in a manner not befitting conversation with the king. The king absorbed the affront by saying, ‘it was I who put you in this position that led to your speaking to me this way.’ It seems that whenever we are centralized we are at risk of not being able to empathically share pain; we feel such an urgency to alleviate the pain that we begin to challenge G-d for causing it.

The advances of medicine, science and wealth have, to a certain degree, centralized all of us by proxy. We who were once relegated to the impotent role of empathy and consequent prayer are now commissioned to step past empathy and prayer to saving, solving and fixing. We are the fix it generation and as such we feel centralized. When Moshe was a young prince looking longingly on the suffering of his brethren he was endlessly compassionate. “Woe for you,” he said, “Were that I could die for you! (Midrash Rabba Shmos 1:27 and Midrash Tanchuma Shmos 9)” The same one who could give his eyes, heart and shoulder in sharing, caring and encouraging the suffering Jews turns to G-d in anger when his mission to save the Jews hits the predicted rocks. The Midrash unlocks the mystery for us. It is the same person with authority. It is the caring soul being centralized. It is each compassionate gentle sharing Jew when given a whiff of the power to save.G-d   has to call us back, through the Midrash, to reaffirm the basics. G-d has our very best interests at heart, He is without any limitations to bring about the Good that He wishes for us and our belief in His goodness must allow us to humbly share the pain of the suffering parent. We must be grateful for the priviledge to alleviate so much suffering but we must recognize the challenge that capacity involves.

So, there is a modern twist to the story of suffering – compassionate people who also feel a certain potency to solve, save and fix. The lessons of the ages have special relevance in each generation. May we merit to see the salvation of our People and may we, in the meantime, find the depth of strength and character to share the suffering of each of our brothers and sisters. Given that the challenges to humble empathy are so great our sharing today will surely bring forth an outpouring of compassion from Above.

With heartfelt blessings,

1 Follow-up »

  1. So, from what I read of your answer, to the best of my ability, it would seem that to KNOW why/how suffering exists, especially in young children, is unanswerable…and humans who have faith in Hashem simply have to accept that there is no answer. Except for the fact of the Kabala’s knowledge of returning souls, for me, that is the only peace of mind I have get. I can only say – one’s soul is purifying itself thru the suffering…It is the only way it seems that I can really understand the words a Loving Gd…and even then it is incredibly difficult. Comments are appreciated if you feel so inclined. Thank you for all you do.

    I appreciate your comment as it gave me a chance to go back to the very important topic of Divine Justice and see if my thinking on the subject has changed in the course of the years since I wrote that original post.

    I appreciate your acknowledgment that our human capacity for knowing the in’s and out’s of Divine Justice is limited and that an element of faith is required. I also appreciate the fact that the notion of returning souls gives you some degree of comfort, allowing you to maintain your belief in a Loving Creator in the face of the suffering of the innocent. I was even going to leave it at that; thanking you for your comments and moving on. However, I have a sense that we can press forward on this subject a bit and I would be remiss not to highlight the ways in which we can move forward here.

    By way of introduction, it is clear that all and any knowledge is useful to the extent that we can use that knowledge to further our nobility, our humanity. The random accumulation of information can be left to the good folks at Wikipedia. Take, for example, the news. When it comes to news, we are limited as to how much news we can actually absorb. The limitation can be stated as follows: We can accumulate as much knowledge about events going on in our world as we can digest, meaning that we can still expand our compassion and our prayers and, at times, our actions. When it comes to the random accumulation of news which we cannot actually translate into growth we can leave that to the good folks at CNN. When a person accumulates knowledge that he can do nothing with then it is akin to a person who eats calories that his lifestyle does not demand. His body cannot make good and proper use of the extra calories and he simply accumulates fat.

    When it comes to gaining knowledge about Divine Justice there is also a formula for us: We are meant to gain as much knowledge about Divine Justice as we can digest, meaning that we can still move forward without becoming paralyzed with fear. A person who is exposed to too much awareness of Divine Justice at a point in his life when he is not yet ready to absorb that knowledge he will become overwhelmed and will either reject the absolute nature of Divine Love or he will become obsessive about his fears.

    The human goal, from a Torah perspective, is not to live without fear; rather, the goal is to have as much fear as will help us maintain our focus on the goals that are important and to see past the trivial and the distractions in our lives. Those who overdo their focus on Justice become anxious and dysfunctional while those who spend too little time thinking about Divine Justice become complacent and lethargic in their spiritual striving. The point of knowing about a danger is so that one can and does take precautions in accordance with the knowledge. It is a delicate balance which is made that much more challenging because a person is continually changing and thus his capacity for absorbing knowledge changes as well and must be reassessed as he goes along.

    The comfort that one takes from the understanding that suffering or dying children may be returning souls who may have some atonement or account to settle and thereby are sent back into this world to settle those accounts may be sufficient to set some minds at ease. However, such a thought may also set one’s mind at too much ease. The point of this piece of information about Divine Justice is not meant to help us rest easy at night. Resting easy is for another world; this world is for the restless striving that approaches, but does not cross the line into, anxiety.

    The wisest of men teaches us (Mishlei 28:14) that it is praiseworthy to be continually afraid. Fear keeps us on our toes, ever striving, ever struggling with our limitations. Perhaps we have not done enough. Perhaps more is expected of us. The fact that very few people today know how to use fear to direct and motivate themselves does not erase its utility; rather, it puts up a warning flag so that those who venture into the world of fear should be on guard, ever watchful for signs of immature anxiety.

    The fact is that there are many players in the suffering or passing of a child, and each of the players bears testimony that Divine Justice is very, very serious business indeed. Each person is expected to expend every ounce of his energy serving his Creator in the most refined way possible. The notion of full-time 24/7 maximized service of our Creator is very foreign to our labor-saving, retirement-oriented society. While that makes the job quite a bit harder, it does not alter the fact that we are accountable for even the slightest nuances of misdemeanor in deed, thought and action. And as a person becomes more refined the standard by which he is measured moves up with him.

    If someone says that this is all too serious and anxiety-provoking then I would respond that the person is correct. However, he has correctly assessed where he is at on the spiritual ladder, but he has not made a statement about the truth of Divine Justice. Divine Justice remains just as serious as it was before he brushed it off with his assertion that it is too serious. A healthy encounter with Divine Justice is something that a person needs to grow into; it doesn’t just happen. And the suffering of the righteous and those who are apparently innocent is meant to nudge us forward in our understanding and alert us to be ever more vigilant in our service. When it sends us elsewhere then a crucial message is lost. When we redirect our attention to how unfair life is we fail to learn just how serious the game of life is.

    And so when we take comfort in the notion that the suffering of the innocent is owing to a returning soul who has accounts to settle we may be taking more comfort than the situation demands. Such a concept reduces the message of Divine Justice to a system of fairness that we can all digest. That is not to say that the concept is not true; it clearly is taught by the sages who spoke with absolute authority. However, we must not thereby put the subject of Divine Justice to rest.

    With best wishes and thanks for your comment, Ephraim

    Comment by ATR — July 7, 2014 @ 1:50 am

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