Grappling with the meaning of suffering

Grappling with the meaning of suffering

This week’s double parasha concludes the book of Vayikra. The first part — Behar — presents the laws of shemittah, the sabbatical year, and yovel, the 50th year of the agricultural cycle, in which slaves were to be freed and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners.

The second part of the Torah reading — Bechukotai — contains the tokhehah, meaning warning, rebuke, or reproach. It states, simply, if you follow God’s laws, you will be blessed with prosperity, security, and victory over your enemies. However, if you do not follow God’s commandments, you will experience a long list of curses, including disease, crop failure, starvation, war, and exile.

This is hardly the only such passage in the Torah. There is a longer version of the tokhehah in parashat Ki Tavo in Devarim and a short version is recited as the second paragraph of the Shema.

These and similar texts teach two of the most fundamental principles of Judaism:

• First, human beings have free will and we are able to choose whether we will obey or defy God’s commandments; and

• Second, while we are free to choose, our choices have consequences. Because God is just, good must be rewarded and evil punished.

Still, when presented in this way, the tokhehah conflicts with our perception of reality. We all know that good people suffer and evil (or at least not good) people prosper.

That’s hardly a modern insight. Within the Tanach itself, the Book of Job asks this very question — why do bad things happen to good people? It concludes that there is undeserved suffering in the world, but some things are beyond human understanding. As Rabbi Yannai taught in Avot, “The tranquility of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous — these are beyond human

In fact, it was these questions that led the Rabbis to begin to speak of olam haba, the world to come, in which people would be appropriately rewarded or punished for their deeds in this world. 

Still, there are those who, like Job’s friends who insist that Job must be to blame for his terrible suffering, want to hold on to a literal reading of the tokhehah. Follow God’s laws and be blessed, disobey God and be punished.

Why were six million Jews tortured and murdered by the Nazis? Because too many Jews abandoned the ways of their ancestors and embraced Reform or secularism or Zionism. Of course, millions of those who died in Europe were not Reform or secular; they were observant Jews — chasidim and mitnagdim, rabbis and yeshiva students, men, women, and children who held fast to a life of Torah and mitzvot. What was their sin?

In 1970 in Israel, terrorists fired rockets at a school bus, killing nine children and four adults. It was later reported that a charedi rabbi visited the community where the children lived and discovered nine mezuzot that were not kosher, thus accounting for the nine deaths. This type of “reasoning” is not only stupid, it’s obscene.

I hold with Job and Rabbi Yannai — we cannot read our parasha literally. Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer?

This is beyond human understanding.

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