In one of my early days studying in Yeshiva, I was introduced to a compelling logical argument that would help me a lot later on when struggling with difficult Talmudic passages; if someone gives you too many answers to one question, that means there probably is no real answer to the question.
So many answers have been given to the question why bad things happen to good people; here too it seems reasonable to believe that The answer, remains elusive. Despite the question being asked, re-asked, and will-be-asked and endless amount of times, a final answer has yet to have emerged. Indeed the Mishna in Pirkey Avot (4:15)teaches:“ Rabbi Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.” Despite various approaches to this question that were known at the time, Rabbi Yannai believes that The ultimate answer, is yet to be known.
Does this mean there is no answer whatsoever to why people suffer? Not at all. It means that The answer is not known; there are still many small, meaningful, and compelling answers that help along the way. These answers offer hope and relief, and shine like a beacon of light amidst the thick darkness of suffering.
Focusing on making of sense of at least the tip of the iceberg of suffering, can pivotal in the process of transforming oneself from a victim into a victor, from feeling overpowered to feeling empowered.
The six different answers, I would like to highlight, correspond in many ways with the Kübler-Ross model of emotional stages experienced by survivors of an intimate’s death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). These religious realizations, are not the ultimate answer for human suffering, but can be a source of hope and deliverance, from personal tragedy.
The first is, that anger and frustration are legitimate, understandable, expected—and desired. The importance of expressing one’s feelings to God can be found throughout Jewish sources, from the most basic sources to the most complex and advanced sources; the expression of one’s frustrations should not come in a disrespectful way, not in a demeaning way, but in a way that expresses a person’s feelings.
What is essential, is to make sure that they are angry at God– not angry about God. When a person is angry at God, it means that they have a healthy and robust relationship with God; when a person is angry about God, it means that God is no longer in their life. Anger and frustration can–and should— be expressed, but they should be expressed as part of a relationship with God; not as compromising that relationship.
The second point that is essential to remember: no suffering is meaningless. Whatever the reason or outcome of suffering might be, it is not in vain; we may not know where it is leading to-or what might be the reason for it- but it is not meaningless and arbitrary. We never know what good outcome suffering might have or what good we are unaware of that is already being achieved. The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 91:6) states that Yaakov Avinu had never said something wrong except for telling his sons “why did you harm me?”(43:6). The Midrash continues saying that when God heard Yaakov saying this, He responded: “I am busy bringing his son to kingship in Egypt and he says why did you harm me?!” Sometimes more painful than suffering itself is the purposelessness of the suffering; the inability to see any reason for the suffering. While the reasons for struggles, pain, and loss may vary, they all share one common denominator: none of them are meaningless
The third thing that must always be remembered is: you are never alone in your suffering. When Hashem speaks to Moshe from the burning bush, He purposefully speaks from a thorned bush. The Midrash (Shmot Rabbah 2:7) teaches that by doing so God was saying: when my people are in trouble, I too in there with them though the hardship. The verse in Exudos famously says “and the children of Israel sighed…and they cried, and their cry came up unto God…and God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob; And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them”. No pain goes unnoticed. God is their, and takes consideration of every bit of our pain.
A forth realization that is essential, is that suffering is not the final destination. It may sound to some like a cheap “out” from the powerful questions related to suffering, it is still something powerful enough to be at the epicenter of religion: this world is not our final destination. We all believe in an afterlife and what that means to suffering is that suffering is not our final fate. It is a temporary one. It is one that has great meaning-even when seeming void of any meaning. The Talmud )Arachin 16b)says that if a person puts their hand into their pocket with the intention of pulling out tree coins, and instead finds only two (so that now they have to bother putting back their hand in their pocket) this suffering too is accounted for. God did not create us to suffer and so if the smallest suffering does take place, God takes that into account. We don’t know why we suffer. We do know that Someone is looking at our suffering, listening to our cries, and puts it all into His considerations. We are not suffering towards no end. It is all accounted for and will be factored into a broader schema of things.
The fifth idea to have in mind is, that although we don’t necessarily see now the positive outcomes of our suffering, those should not be ruled out. Not knowing why we suffer goes both ways; we don’t know what good there is to suffering, but we also don’t know that no good will come of it. The most obvious example that comes to mind is that of Joseph. Sold into slavery in a foreign land and under horrific circumstances, then imprisoned for making a heroic moral choices, Joseph had every reason to question his suffering. At the same time, this very suffering is the one that brought him to the throne of Egypt. Good things can happen. Does this mean we should wait for a magic outcome or fairylike solution to difficult situations? No. But a healthy way of dealing with suffering is to immediately ask questions such as “what opportunities-of which I had not been previously aware of- might I now be aware of?” “What good might be the outcome of this? How can this help me help others? How will this experience leave me stronger, smarter, or more sensitive than I was before? And other questions that shift the focus from negativity to positivity (to the possible extent) and find new ways to look at very difficult situations.
And finally, look to others for help. Yes God is with you in your pain. Yes prayer should be used at every possible point, but we should still look to others who care for us and will look out for us. The Torah teaches (Vayikra 13:22) is that one of the things a person with leprosy should do, is to call out loud and let people know that the carrier got leprosy. The Midrash(Yalkut Shimoni Vayikra 13:522) understands this to be teaching us that there is an obligation for a distressed individual, to let people know about their distress. Letting others know can help. It can help because they will pray. It can help because they can sympathize, it can help because they can offer social support, or because they might have relevant advice that might help us. The bottom line is, it can help. Will everyone be as sympathetic as we would like them to be? Not necessarily, but we will also be touched in moved to discover those special people who come along the way and help.
So do we know why bad things happen to good people? Not at all. The ultimate answer to this question cannot be known. What we do know is what good people can do when bad things happen. We do know that good people are able to take really tough situations and turn them around. We know that there are several small tools that can help us turn bad situations around. It is our task to make sure we take the guck that is sometimes handed to us, and to turn it into gold.
Published in the YU Lamdan, March 25th, 2016