A few years ago, I was chairing a meeting of rabbis in Johannesburg, and our distinguished guest speaker was the late, lamented Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. He began by inquiring what was the single most frequently asked question of rabbis? Some replied, “Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Others volunteered, “Where was G-d in Auschwitz?” There was a further flurry of miscellaneous suggestions.
Rabbi Sacks smiled and said, “No. The single most frequently asked question of rabbis is: ‘Rabbi, do you remember me?’ ”
That speaks volumes of the human need for recognition and acknowledgment. But also high on the list of questions posed to rabbis—more a challenge than a question—has got to be, “Rabbi, why me?!”
My cholesterol is sky-high; my boss is unhappy with my performance; my wife is threatening to leave; and now the lousy car broke down. Why does everything happen to me? Am I really such a terrible person, rabbi?
Sound familiar? As a rabbi, I have heard it asked many times over the years. Implicit in this is the assumption that any suffering that befalls us must be some form of Divine retribution; a punishment from G-d. If I’m such a good person, then why do I deserve to be punished? And, if on top of that, we also believe that G-d is good, then this is too mind-boggling for a mere mortal like me to work out.
What if I told you that punishment is only one of an infinite number of possible scenarios to explain these predicaments? There are many other possible explanations for human suffering. In fact, it might not be a punishment at all.
You’ve heard of Rabbi Akiva? He was one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, certainly not a sinner. Do you know how he died? We read about it in the Yom Kippur service. He was one of the Ten Martyrs executed by the Romans after their destruction of the Second Temple. And it wasn’t on the electric chair or by lethal injection. They tortured him to death, tearing his flesh apart with iron combs! Was Rabbi Akiva being punished for his sins? G-d forbid!
And what about the Six Million Martyrs of the Holocaust? And the million-plus innocent children among them?! Sinners? G-d forbid, six million times!
Clearly then, misfortune is not necessarily a punishment for our mistakes.
The bottom line? Life is not that simple. Rarely is it black and white. More often than not, it is gray and not at all easy to understand why things happen. Having a deeper, metaphysical approach can help us appreciate that there is always more than meets the eye in this world. Jewish mysticism, in particular, gives us a glimpse of the inside story which can give us a better picture of life and its meaning.
In the portion of Bechukotai read this week (Leviticus 26-27), we come across a section known as “the Rebuke.” It is an ominous warning of the troubles that will befall Israel should we stray from the G-dly path. The mystics teach that even those frightening curses are really hidden blessings that cannot be perceived at face value.
Say you’re walking down the street with your young child, and he suddenly runs into the street straight onto oncoming traffic. You barely manage to yank him back to safety seconds from disaster. You breathe a sigh of relief, but you also give him a not-so-gentle potch on his backside—or, if you are more progressive—a stern warning, so he never repeats that dangerous mistake.
The child may cry at the parental rebuke, but was it a punishment? Do you despise your child? Of course not. This was not an act of rejection but an act of love. That rebuke may well turn out to be a lifesaver. Naturally, the child is not mature enough to appreciate that and sees it as rejection, so he feels unloved and cries.
Sometimes, it will be necessary for the most loving parents to chastise their children. But it should never be punitive punishment. That potch may be a deeper act of love than any kiss or cuddle could ever be.
And so it is with our Father in Heaven. Sometimes, we may feel angry. Why is there so much pain and suffering? Why me? And yet, we know that he really and truly does love us. We are His children. As the child doesn’t understand or appreciate his rebuke, neither do we understand G-d’s. We adults cannot fathom the Divine reprimands we receive from time to time. Nevertheless, we accept in good faith that somehow there is a reason—and even a good reason—behind all our problems. To us, it may remain a mystery, but to G-d, there is always a cosmic, vast eternal plan, whether we understand it or not.
In our times of trouble and days of distress, let us remember that our Father in Heaven still loves us, and is surely no less caring than we are with our own children.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.