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Are There Any Good Answers?

Posted on 05/24/2013 @ 10:55 AM

This past week, the people of Moore, Oklahoma and several nearby smaller communities, had the experience of chaos rip through their lives. After the 50 terrifying minutes in which a category 5 tornado destroyed hospitals, businesses, homes, and schools, leaving 24 dead—10 of them children and one as young as 4 months—and 200 injured, it was hard not to wonder who to blame for leaving hundreds of innocent people homeless, hurt, and terrorized. How do we begin to understand such destruction, such pain, and what happens when we find answers which just don't suffice?

Throughout the history of Jewish thought, the question 'why do bad things happen to good people?' has resurfaced over and over. Some of our Biblical ancestors professed a profound connection between the performance of mitzvot and the blessing, or disfavor, of God. Obedience ensures blessing, and disobedience, destruction. When Job asked God why he was meant to meaninglessly suffer, God replied: Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!...Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass? Job's author fights against an earlier idea that human action has any influence on God whatsoever, while demanding that humans be more humble about their understanding of how the world works. This popular answer, while effective, quashes Job's and our freedom to question and grapple with life's ultimate questions.

Our Sages from the Mishna and the Talmud, attempted to make sense of why good and evil befall people:

If a person sees that painful suffering visits them, let them examine their conduct...if they examine and find nothing, let them attribute it to the neglect of the study of Torah...

In a bold move, the Rabbis simultaneously simplify and complicated the issue even further. When chaotic forces rise against order and harmony, the Jewish people should hold on even tighter to their values of ongoing self-assessment (teshuva) and heroic spiritual activism (the study of Torah). Making our lives meaningful while trying to understand a complex and contradictory world does not mean having to figure out our purpose each time tragedy befalls us. Rather, it requires us not lose sight of the world we want to live in, even with the uncertainty of the future and the mystery of needless suffering.

After a tragedy such as this, may God's eyes be our eyes, to see clearly and fully who needs our support. May God's hands be our hands, open wide to those in need of shelter and warmth. And may our words be God's words, to comfort the mourning, to raise up the fallen, and bring blessing to those in need of healing.

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Western Hub

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