Except for one person. From the middle of the crowd, and with a trembling voice that betrayed a deep sense of hurt and anger, a middle-aged man stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the rabbi and asked:
"Rabbi! Where was God in 1942?!"Everyone knew exactly what the man meant by his question, and instantly the mood in the room changed drastically. Fortunately though, the rabbi was skilled in dealing with such situations, and he diplomatically and empathetically defused the crisis.
At that point, to my surprise, people from the audience also stood up, but this time to address the man and his question. Even more surprising was how each person who stood up to speak, many of whom also had lost relatives in the Holocaust, had a unique way of fitting the Holocaust into a framework that still permitted a belief in God. For these people, in spite of the Holocaust, the countless pogroms before it, and severe personal suffering, God still remained to be a caring and loving God.
From a traditional point of view, one might accuse the man who questioned the rabbi that day, and the countless others like him who have asked the same question, of being weak in faith. Yet, even angels questioned the suffering of the righteous:
(From this point onward, whenever the term ‘righteous’ is used, it means people who lived spiritually perfect lives as defined by the Torah. The term ‘innocent’ refers to people who were not in a position to err, or could not be held accountable for mistakes they made, such as children. For all intents and purposes in this book, the righteous and the innocent can be considered one and the same, except for specific quotations that could only refer to those who are held responsible for their actions.)
When Rabbi Akiva (The great Torah-scholar who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). He was arrested by the Romans for teaching Torah and was sentenced to death, as described by the above midrash.) was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, ("Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." This phrase is recited at least twice daily by observant Jews.) and while the [Romans] combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven... The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Such is the Torah, and such is its reward?" (Excerpted from Talmud Brochos, 61b.)"Such suffering is the reward for a life devoted to Your Torah?" the angels asked God. "Where’s the justice in that?"
And long before the time of Rabbi Akiva, Abraham questioned God over the intended destruction of Sodom:
And Abraham approached and said, "Will You destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Genesis 18:23.)Even Moses, who spoke to God ‘face to face’(Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:8.) was perplexed by seemingly unwarranted suffering: (In fact, there is a very strong reason to suggest that Moses himself wrote the story of Job, the well-known Biblical story of a righteous individual who suffered for no apparent reason to Job and his friends.)
Moses said before Him [God], "Lord of the Universe, why is it that some righteous prosper and others are in adversity..." (Talmud Brochos 7a.)But, Abraham’s and Moses’ intellectual framework did not fall apart upon seeing the suffering of the righteous. There may have been a gap between what they understood about God, and the way He sometimes ran His world, or allowed it to run. However, the difficulty drove them to better understand God. What Moses really said was:
Given that You can control the actions of man, and that You are a benevolent God with a master plan for all of history, how do such seemingly unjust results fit into that master plan?The angels also understood that God does not allow the righteous to suffer, or allow destruction to occur without some all-important, over-riding reason. And this too was the belief of the people at the lecture that day, when the man articulated a question that we all ask at times in our own way. Like Moses and the angels, and the countless Jews who survived unimaginable suffering with their faith intact, suffering for these people inspired them to better understand the ways of God.
This book does not intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of suffering. It is designed only to collect together some of the many traditional Jewish sources that address the issue of suffering in general, and suffering of the righteous in particular. Its purpose is to reveal some of the issues involved that are not always apparent to those who suffer, or to those who suffer along with those suffering.
The reason for this approach is because suffering is an emotionally painful, controversial, and personal issue. To effectively deal with the issue, and yet not offend or hurt people who have suffered, is far beyond my personal experience, and my present ability as an educator and writer. Even that which I have written is bound to anger and hurt some, though not intentionally.
Furthermore, many Jews have become disconnected from traditional sources of Jewish wisdom, and thus do not look to Judaism for comfort when they suffer, assuming traditional Judaism has little or nothing intelligent to say about the issue. Yet, the knowledge to deal with suffering in a emotionally healthy, and intellectually creative manner, lies within traditional Jewish thought, and for many, this book can be a first exposure to such thinking.
This book can only be the beginning of a process, one that I believe will eventually lead to the conclusion that suffering, even suffering we can’t seem to justify, does not contradict the notion of a loving and caring God.
Hodu l’Hashem ki tov
Shevat 27, 5753