Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuha, a famous scholar who became a non-believer as a result of two incidents that he experienced.
Rabbi Elisha was walking one day and he saw a father and son near a tree which contained a bird’s nest. The Torah has many laws about not hurting animals needlessly. One of these laws is that if you’re about to take an egg from the nest, you must first chase the mother bird away so she doesn’t suffer the pain of seeing her egg being taken away. So the father tells the son, “Here’s your chance to fulfill this mitzvah. Climb up the tree, shoo away the mother bird, and take the egg.” The child climbed up, fell down and died. Rabbi Elisha thought that “if God could allow this to happen, then I don’t want to have anything to do with Him.” That’s one version of why he became a non-believer.
The other version is that during the Roman persecutions after the destruction of the Second Temple, many of the great Sages were tortured to death in the most horrible ways imaginable. On Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, we recall these 10 famous martyrs. One of them was Rabbi Elisha’s teacher, Rabbi Chutzpas. Rabbi Elisha watched his beloved teacher’s tongue being ripped out by the Romans and tortured to death, after which they did not permit his body to be buried. Rabbi Elisha thought that “if God can allow this to happen, then I don’t want to have anything to do with Him.”
Rabbi Elisha was one of the greatest Sages in Jewish history, on an extremely high spiritual level. So we don’t understand his particular challenge. But as it applies to us, we can learn the following: Even though you may have dealt intellectually with the issue of “why bad things happen to good people,” when faced with actual suffering, you can still lose it.
By the way, suffering is the only issue that the Talmud talks about which leads to someone losing their belief in God. This indicates that it is the single most difficult issue in our relationship to God.
People approach the topic of suffering from two separate perspectives. One is the “intellectual agenda:” A person is bothered by this issue and wants to intellectually understand it. The other is the “emotional agenda:” A person may right now be suffering (or know someone who is suffering), and it is bothersome emotionally. It’s important to understand that these two agendas don’t always coincide. Someone with an intellectual agenda wants answers, whereas someone with an emotional agenda is looking for relief. An approach for one won’t work for the another.
As a rabbi, I have witnessed the most horrendous situations imaginable. I have experienced someone 20 years old who lost both of her parents in a car crash. Can you imagine a girl so close to her parents and in one day they’re gone. I’ve lived through a husband coming home to find that his wife has collapsed, and in two days she’s dead. There was nothing wrong with her before. And on and on and on.
Now when someone is in the midst of suffering, that’s not the time to offer answers. It’s a time to listen and empathize and say things that can provide comfort. I did not try to give any of these people the answers we will be discussing because when a situation is so emotionally wrenching it’s not the time for answers. Rather it’s a time to show compassion and empathy and be with the person as best you can. So let me just state in advance that we will only deal with the “intellectual agenda.” If there’s anyone going through a painful time and is looking for a sense of relief, I am skeptical whether these intellectual answers will offer any kind of relief.
IS GOD GOOD?
We have to clarify what question we’re actually asking. When we say “Why do bad things happen to good people,” this can mean one of two things. If you listen to the question carefully, it’s assuming God’s existence. People say: I know there’s a God, but I want to understand: Is this God good? And if he is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?
Alternatively, the question “Why do bad things happened to good people,” may really be asking “I’m not sure that God exists.” That’s a completely different question. The question of God’s existence has nothing to do with the issue of suffering. It has to do with creation, revelation at Sinai, world history, etc. So we should be clear that the question we are dealing with here is not “Does God exist?” It’s “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
THE GENERAL AND THE SPECIFIC
In order for us to be able to “judge God,” we have to be able to look at what are God’s “ground rules” for existence. Using this premise, it becomes very difficult to judge God. Why? Because we are stuck in a finite perspective of time and space, and we can therefore never be sure which rules God is employing at any given moment.
In discussing this issue, we’re not going to give an answer as to why particular things happen in a particular situation. Only a prophet can do that and it’s been a long time since God spoke to me! What we can do is look at general approaches that Judaism offers, to at least get a general sense of what the possibilities are for why things happen.
Here’s an analogy: A physicist can tell you why a leaf will fall in a particular place - it has to do with the aerodynamics of the leaf, the force of gravity, and the direction and velocity of the wind. But if you ask that physicist where a certain leaf is going to fall, he is not going to be able to tell you, because he can’t precisely quantify the different forces that make a leaf fall in a particular place. He can give you the general principles, but he can’t give you a precise analysis of a specific situation.
It’s the same idea here. We won’t be able to say why specific things are happening in a specific situation, but we will be able to speak about general principles that can lead us to understand the workings of a good God.
CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCES
One crucial idea to get us started:
The Torah tells us: “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him” (Genesis 1:27). What does it mean that man was created in God’s image? Human beings are finite and corporal. So how are we created in God’s image?
Obviously the “image of God” is dealing with the non-physical part of us - the soul. Where do we get our drive for morality and meaning, our drive to make a difference? That drive is from the soul which is in the “image of God.”
But there’s more to it than that. Just as God has independent choice, so too does each human being have independent moral choice. The image of God means that we have the ability to choose.
Why is choice the essential issue of what makes us special? Because if you think about it, life only becomes meaningful because of our ability to choose. For example, the difference in being “programmed to love” and the choice to love, is precisely what makes love significant. Similarly, if I don’t have the choice to do good, but am programmed to do good, then there’s nothing meaningful about it. Whereas if I have the ability to do good or evil, then good becomes significant.
But it goes deeper still. For choice to be authentic, there have to be consequences. If every time I get in trouble, dad comes to bail me out, that’s not really choice. Choice means consequences. Think about it. All of history - whether in our personal lives or from a global perspective - is based on the decisions that human beings have made - and the consequences that flow from that.
So now we can understand that “image of God” means that God created beings who have the ability to make decisions, and those decisions will create consequences that will make this being a co-partner in the development of the world. This has many ramifications as far as “why bad things happen to good people” and certainly you can start seeing it already.
Now I think we’re ready to examine eight ground rules which Judaism spells out for how God interacts with the world.
GROUND RULE #1
THE POSSIBILITY OF EVIL
For free choice to operate, it’s obvious that evil has to have the possibility of existing. If every time someone chooses to do evil, God is going to interfere, then there’s no moral choice. If every time the gun is pointed, the turret points backwards, after a few times you get the message. If you eat pork and get struck by lightning, then you’re not “morally choosing,” you just see it doesn’t work. It simply becomes pragmatic not to do evil.
If the lives of the righteous were obviously perfect, that too would destroy the possibility of choice. Pragmatically, we’d figure it pays more to be righteous because look at the millions of bucks that come my way! That’s not choice. That’s not becoming God-like.
A world where a human being can create himself into a Moses, also carries the possibility of a person creating himself into a Hitler.
Sometimes God does make a miracle, but it is always in a way that is not obvious, that enables us to retain free choice.
After the Exodus from Egypt when the Red Sea split, it was obvious to everyone that God had performed a miracle. Yet the Torah tells us “that a strong east wind blew all night” (Exodus 14:21). Why was there a strong wind blowing? Because God had to leave open at least the possibility for someone to say, “No, there was no miracle. It was a fluke of nature and the wind split the sea.”
In the recent Gulf War, 39 Scud Missiles rained down on Israel and only one person was killed. What would it take for that to happen? Guaranteed you would have told me it would take a miracle, but it happened and we still have doubt.
GROUND RULE #2
In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abraham, “Know that your descendents are going to be enslaved in a land they don’t know,” which of course ends up being Egypt. So the Jewish philosophers ask: “If God wanted the Jewish people to be enslaved in Egypt, why did he punish the Egyptians?” Tough question!
Nachmanides explains: “All God said is that they would be enslaved. He said nothing about torture and murder. God only said that he wanted a certain something to happen, but the Egyptians took it beyond that.”
Now the question is, “Do the Jewish people deserve intervention or not?” Different story.
In Deuteronomy, Moses says that the fate of people depends on our relationship to God. The more we move closer to Him, the more He moves closer to us. The more we move away from him, the more He does the same. The language used is “God hides His face.” And when that happens, this leaves us open to the free will decisions of human beings. At times God does not intervene.
We have to appreciate that in the Holocaust, it was not God who built the crematoriums, it was the Nazis. It is not God who is massacring Moslems in Bosnia, it is the Serbs. Which of course raises the question: Why isn’t God interfering? But do you see the difference between “God doing this” and “why is God not interfering?”
King David said, “God, I’d rather have direct punishment from you than to fall into the hands of a human being.” Because that’s dangerous stuff. Will you merit to have God intervene?
GROUND RULE #3
The question of “why do bad things happen to good people” has a lot to do with how we look at existence. The way we usually perceive things is like this: A “good life” means that I make a comfortable living, I enjoy good health, and then I die peacefully at age 80. That’s a good life. Anything else is “bad.”
In a limited sense, that’s true. But if we have a soul and there is such a thing as eternity, then that changes the picture entirely. Eighty years in the face of eternity is not such a big deal.
From Judaism’s perspective, our eternal soul is as real as our thumb. This is the world of doing, and the “world to come” is where we experience the eternal reality of whatever we’ve become. Do you think after being responsible for the torture and deaths of millions of people, that Hitler could really “end it all” by just swallowing some poison? No. Ultimate justice is found in another dimension.
But the concept goes much deeper. From an eternal view, if the ultimate pleasure we’re going after is transcendence - the eternal relationship with the Almighty Himself, then who would be luckier: Someone who lives an easy life with little connection to God, or someone who is born handicapped, and despite the challenges, develops a connection with God. Who would be “luckier” in terms of eternal existence? All I’m trying to point out is that the rules of life start to look different from the point of view of eternity, as opposed to just the 70 or 80 years we have on earth.
GROUND RULE #4
THE BIG PICTURE
I heard a cute story I’d like to share. There once was a farmer who owned a horse. And one day the horse ran away. All the people in the town came to console him because of the loss. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the horse returned to the farm accompanied by 20 other horses. (Apparently he had found some wild horses and made friends!) All the townspeople came to congratulate him: “Now you have a stable full of horses!” “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a good thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the farmer’s son was out riding one of the new horses. The horse got wild and threw him off, breaking the son’s leg. So all the people in town came to console the farmer because of the accident. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the government declared war and instituted a draft of all able-bodied young men. They came to the town and carted off hundreds of young men, except for the farmer’s son who had a broken leg. “Now I know,” said the farmer, “that it was a good thing my horse ran away.”
The point of this story is obvious. Life is a series of events, and until we’ve reached the end of the series, it’s hard to know exactly why things are happening. That’s one reason the Torah commands us to give respect to every elderly person - because through the course of life experience, they have seen the jigsaw puzzle pieces fall into place.
The Torah itself makes this point very clearly. Jacob is raising the next generation of the Jewish people, bringing to the world the message of Ethical Monotheism. And the key character in that picture is his son Joseph, who is kidnapped by his own brothers and sent down to Egypt. Imagine you would come to Jacob at that point in time and ask him about a good God. What’s he going to answer?
In Egypt, Joseph became Prime Minister, and when a grave famine hits the entire world, Joseph is a unique position to rescue his family.
When we look at the whole story in retrospect, everything that happened to Joseph was for the good. It set into motion a chain of events where he ended up saving and building the Jewish people.
It is interesting that one of the weekly Torah portions, “Miketz,” ends on a bad note, and is then resolved at the beginning of the following week. Why didn’t the Torah simply extend “Miketz” a few verses and have it end good? Because the Torah wants to communicate the lesson that we don’t always see the whole picture. Sometimes you have to wait to see how “things turn out good in end.”
GROUND RULE #5
OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH
Sometimes what we perceive as punishment is really an opportunity for growth. In the story of the “Binding of Isaac,” the Torah says that “God tested Abraham.” The question is: Doesn’t God know what Abraham is capable of? So who’s the test for? It can’t be for God. It must be for Abraham.
What does it mean to be tested? You have potential. Now the question is can you actualize your potential? We grow when we have to extend ourselves. The Hebrew word for test - “Nisa,” is the same as one of the Hebrew words for flag - “Nes.” What’s the connection? You hoist a flag; so too through being tested, we become hoisted to higher and higher levels. Was this test a “punishment” for Abraham? Of course not. It was an opportunity for growth. The Abraham before the test is not the same Abraham after the test.
Imagine a track coach training an athlete in the 110-meter high hurdles. The coach would start with the hurdles low, and then raise them steadily as the athlete progressed. Raising the hurdles is not a punishment; rather it shows the coach’s increasing confidence in the athlete’s ability.
As a rabbi, I hear this over and over again: “When this event happened in my life, it seemed so negative; now I understand why it was there and how I grew from it.
Three years ago, a very dynamic woman I know almost died. Her heart stopped on the table. She tells me it was the best thing that ever happened to her. “I was in overdrive, running and doing. That event got me to think: What’s it all about?” And what this woman has accomplished in the last few years in personal growth is unbelievable. She’s convinced that her suffering was integral to the growth process.
In Judaism, we look at life as “I’m here for growth, so how does this situation help me to change and grow?” When God is telling you to sacrifice your only son, can there be any greater punishment? Yet it changed the whole future of the Jewish people. “Tests” can change your future, too.
GROUND RULE #6
BORN TO SUFFER
The Talmud (Yoma 35) tells the famous story of the sage Hillel. At the time, the head of the yeshiva wanted to make sure that the people who came to study Torah wanted it for the right reasons, and not for self-aggrandizement. So in order to test people’s motivation, he charged money to enter the yeshiva.
Hillel was as poor and impoverished as they come. In the winter, he wanted so much to study that he climbed up to the roof by the skylight, and then became so enraptured with his studies that he didn’t realize he’d become frozen in. The next morning it was dark in the study hall. So they looked up and saw a person’s body. They brought him down and thawed him out.
The Talmud states: “Hillel obligates the poor.” That means that Hillel takes away the excuse that we didn’t accomplish what we were supposed to in life due to lack of money. Hillel serves as a beacon that even in poverty, one can still become the greatest of the great (which Hillel was).
Was Hillel punished or was this his reason for being here? The Talmud tells us this was his reason for being here. You don’t know why a particular situation might be happening. We each have our own package. Each one of us is put here for a particular purpose. Sometimes “suffering” may actually be the reason we were put here. Maybe this is, so to speak, our glory, our unique contribution.
GROUND RULE #7
INDIVIDUAL & COMMUNITY
We are living in a very complex world and in a complex world, God doesn’t only deal with individuals, he also deals with nations.
When God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham complained. He asked God, “If I can find 50 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra, will you spare the cities?” God said, “No problem, I won’t destroy it.” Abraham bargained with God until he got down to 10 righteous people and God said, “Okay, if you can find 10 righteous people I won’t destroy it.”
Why did Abraham stop at 10? Why didn’t he go down to one?
Because Abraham knew if there’s a group of people who are righteous, then society might turn around - you can’t destroy them. Ten is still a group, under 10 is just individuals. A few righteous individuals is not enough to save Sodom and Gomorra.
Another question: Now that God decided to destroy it, do these righteous individuals merit to be spared themselves? The answer is that while these individuals were not the catalyst for the disaster, but now that the disaster is going to happen, you need a tremendous amount of merit to be saved from it in a miraculous way. God deals both on a national realm and on an individual realm. And that complicates our understanding of the equation.
GROUND RULE #8
THE BENEFITS OF PUNISHMENT
Unfortunately, the way a lot of Jews relate to punishment has been very heavily influenced by Christianity, which is that God is always ready to get me with “fire and brimstone.” No offense, but the Jewish idea is much different. God is our merciful Father. He’s an infinite being that has no needs. Punishment cannot mean that He’s “getting something.” And this is the key to understanding the concept of chastisement.
When you think about it, all relationships are based on reward and punishment. When I bring my wife flowers, she smiles. If it’s her birthday and I don’t bring her flowers, I get punished, either by a burnt dinner, cold shoulder, etc. Relationships that are based on love always play themselves out in terms of reward and punishment. When I do what’s right, I receive positive reinforcement, when I do what’s wrong I receive “punishment.”
What happens if my wife would always react the same regardless of whether or not I bring her flowers? That’s the worst possible thing in a relationship - indifference.
Judaism says that punishment exists because God is reacting to the fact that I’ve done something wrong and He wants me to change. Hopefully I’ll hear the message and learn from that. God is not out for revenge. He’s doing this for my own good. If He wouldn’t react to my negative behavior that would be the worst punishment of all - because that would mean indifference. This is why King David says in Psalms (23:4): “Your rod and your staff comfort me.” Even though I may get “hit” once in a while, I know it is ultimately for my own good.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Remember our original premise? That it is very difficult for us to “judge” God because we are stuck in time and space. And because our view is so limited, we are therefore limited in terms of knowing which ground rules God is employing. When “bad” things happen, there are so many possibilities of why it’s happening. “Is this a challenge in life that was given to me so I could become an example to inspire others? Or is this to get me to fix a wrong I’ve done? Or is this due to historical/national forces that are affecting me as an individual? Or is what’s happening to me now through a choice that I’ve made? Or that I’m on my own because I’ve distanced myself?”
The fact that there are so many possibilities makes it easier to come to terms with the question, to be more comfortable realizing that if I had God’s infinite view I would understand.
In Exodus 33:13, Moses asks God, “Make Your ways known to me.” The commentators explain that there are “50 Gates of Wisdom,” and Moses had reached the 49th Gate. This means that only one aspect of existence was still unknown to him. And which was that? The issue of “why bad things happen to good people.” So what was God’s answer? “I’m sorry, but this is the one thing that no human can ever comprehend.” (see Exodus 33:20)
I’ve seen so much suffering, and it seems to me that the key is “attitude.” How people deal with it depends on what attitude they have. I have seen people whose attitude was of anger or hurt to such an extent that they never got beyond a particular event - which then became the defining moment of their lives. In a certain sense, life stopped at that particular moment.
On the other hand, I have seen people who have gone through the most horrendous things, but their attitude was a positive one of believing that there is an ultimate good, of asking how I can learn and grow from this. It was incredible to see their sense of dignity, and the inspiration they gave to others. How they moved on with their lives. The contrast is so unbelievable between these two attitudes. Living with the concept of a good God is so much more uplifting and gives a person the ability to remain joyful and hopeful and have the strength to go on and fight.
I want to share a story that I heard from a friend who experienced the following incident. If you’ve ever ridden a bus in Israel, you know how people enter the bus from the front door and pay the driver, and people exiting the bus do so from the back door. Sometimes the crowd is so great that people will also enter from the back door, and then pass their money up front to pay the driver. Well, this one time the driver decided he wasn’t going to allow that. So he announced that whoever had entered from the back door, must now get off the bus and walk around to the front. Everybody complied grumpily, except for one very old man who could barely walk in the first place. Well, the driver stuck to his guns and announced that the bus would not move until this old man came on through the front door. So slowly slowly, one small step at a time, the old man got off the bus and walked around. And all the while, the people on the bus were shouting at the driver for not only his insensitivity to the old man, but for wasting everyone else’s time!
Finally, the old man managed to make it up through the front door and pay the driver. And then he turned toward the bus full of angry people and told them: “Please, don’t be upset. We should be grateful that my legs still work and I still have the strength to walk. Thank God!!”
I want to conclude with the following poem I once read:
I asked for strength and
God gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom and
God gave me problems to solve.
I asked for prosperity and
God gave me brawn and brain to work.
I asked for courage and
God gave me dangers to overcome.
I asked for love and
God gave me troubled people to help…
My prayers were answered.
*This class was written by Rabbi Ahron Hoch, and edited by Rabbi Shraga Simmons.
*Based on lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
The Midrash observes that when a man is born there is much rejoicing, when he dies all weep. Yet, logically, it should be the reverse. When a person is born there should be no rejoicing over him because his record of good deeds is clouded in mystery and there is reason to be apprehensive. But when he dies there is cause for rejoicing if he departs with a good name and leaves the world in peace.
It is as if there were two ships. The one leaving the harbor attract shouts of joy, and the ship entering the harbor attract a minimal amount of attention.
The reverse should be the case. There is no cause to rejoice over the departing ship because no one knows what seas and storms it may encounter. Indeed it is a time for concern. The returning vessel that has reached the harbor safely deserves the shouts of joy.
Similarly, when a person dies all should rejoice and offer thanks that he departed from the world with a good name and in peace.
The Talmud (Brachot 60a):
Rabbi Akiva was once traveling. With him, he had a donkey, a rooster, and a torch. He came to a city and sought lodging, but they would not let him stay for the night. Rabbi Akiva did not complain. He merely remarked, “All that God does is for the good.”
Having no other choice, he camped in a field. During the night, a lion came and killed his donkey. Later, a cat came and ate his rooster. Finally, a wind came and extinguished his torch. Again, he said, “All that God does is for the good.”
In the morning, Rabbi Akiva walked back to the city where he had sought to spend the night. He found the city sacked and all its inhabitants killed. If he would have spent the night there, he would have been among the dead. If the Romans would have heard his donkey bray, or his rooster crow, or if they would have seen his torch, they would have found him and killed him. Realizing all this, he exclaimed, “Have I not said that all God does if for the good.”
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?