The book of Job is surely the most shocking book of the Bible.
Job is a righteous man — there is “no one like him on earth; pure, straight, God-fearing, and does no evil” (Job 1:8). He is wealthy, accomplished, respected, and the father of ten children.
God decides to test Job. And it’s not a stubbing-one’s-toe type of test. In one fell swoop, his children die and his wealth is completely obliterated.
“Naked I left my mother’s womb and naked shall I return. God gave and God took back. May the name of God be blessed” (Job 1:21). This is Job’s answer. If ever there was a noble and dignified response to suffering, this is surely it. It seems as though Job’s faith is unshakable.
Now God ups the stakes and covers Job’s entire body with horribly painful blisters. Once again, his response is incredible. His wife asks why he is still blessing God when God has put him through all this, and he says to her, “We have accepted the good from God, shall we not also accept the bad from Him?” (Job 2:10)
His three friends come to visit him and are stunned by what they see has happened. They are left speechless. They sit with Job for seven days without a single word passing between them.
At the end of the seven days, for no apparent reason, Job snaps. A more drastic turnaround could not be imagined. He rants and he raves. He complains and he curses. He says, “Why did I not die in my mother’s womb?” and “Never did I feel secure, never quiet, never at peace and now torment?” (ibid. 3:10 and 3:25). Later on, he says, “Even if I were to call and He [God] were to answer me, I don’t believe He would listen to my voice. For He has shattered me in a tempest for no good reason” (ibid., 9:16-17). “I am disgusted with my life” (ibid. 9:21). “My days are so few — leave me alone, distance Yourself from me so that I can find some respite. Before I depart, never to return, to a land of gloom and of death’s shadow, a land darkened by the darkness of death’s shadow and chaos – its brightest spots grim darkness” (ibid. 10:20-22). “His anger slashed me — He hates me” (ibid. 16:9)
I could go on; Job certainly does. Within moments, he has turned from a righteous and holy man, accepting of God’s challenges, to an embittered existentialist philosopher.
His friends try to comfort him. And these are no ordinary friends. All are prophets, men of spiritual greatness. Each tries to tell him of God’s goodness and ultimate justice. And to each, Job’s arguments back are scathing, sarcastic, and bitter. It’s hard to believe that we are listening to the same man.
The oral tradition itself seems to struggle with the book of Job. On the question of when he lived, there are no less than 15 different opinions — more than on any other topic in the Talmud. I once asked my teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, how he understands the message of the book. He said that in his opinion, Job is certainly a good man. He is a righteous man, a man who trusts in God. But the bottom line is that suffering is not easy. It’s not easy to lose all your property and not be bothered, to lose all your children and keep smiling. It’s not easy to go through terrible pain and continue to bless God. Facing pain is not easy for even the greatest of human beings. Anyone can crack under pressure — as did Job.
To me, this is an incredibly encouraging message. Only God is perfect. We are mere human beings. And when we go through pain — as we all do — it can be overwhelming. We may respond with frustration, bitterness, and even anger and resentment towards God.
And that’s okay.
God understands. As much as He does get frustrated, so to speak, with Job (and after 35 chapters of ranting and raving, we are all pretty frustrated with Job), at the same time, God still comes to him in the end and His soliloquies are the longest in the Bible, spoken by God directly. God takes the time to comfort Job’s troubled heart and in the end turns him around. Job rants and raves, and God takes it from him and then comforts him.
I don’t know how to emphasize this point enough. I’m going to write a lot about how to deal with pain, how to have a healthy attitude towards suffering. But throughout it all, this will be my underlying message. We’re human. We can hear the most wonderful and uplifting ideas about what pain means and how to grow from it, but pain will still be pain, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it. If a man such as Job is allowed to lose it for a little while, then so is any one of us.
I’m not suggesting that we do! It’s certainly better to remain strong and steadfast in the face of challenge. However, I’m saying that we’re God’s children and if suffering makes us angry at Him, He understands that it’s not easy…
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The question is one that Elana and I struggled with over the difficult years of her illness. Eventually, we found an answer that satisfied us both. And its simplicity always amazed me. It needs no drum rolls or introduction. The answer is simply this:
Bad things do not happen to good people.
And bad things don’t happen to bad people either. Bad things simply don’t “happen.” I’m not playing with words. I’m merely using, as I’ll explain, the most meaningful definitions available.
The question of why bad things happen is not a new one — it’s as old as Judaism itself and is raised in many, many places.
“It is not in our hands — neither the suffering of the righteous nor the comfort of the wicked,” says Rabbi Yannai in Ethics of the Fathers, 4:15.
How can we possibly understand, in the context of a loving Father in Heaven, people dying young, parents losing children, disease, starvation, wars, gas chambers, and crematoria? It just doesn’t seem to work.
But as difficult as it is emotionally, as I have said, I believe it to be quite simple intellectually. And I believe this is exactly what Rabbi Yannai meant when he said, “It is not in our hands.” It’s like a hot coal. You can see a hot coal from afar; you can understand what it is and why it is; but that does not mean you can pick it up. You can never hope to hold it in your bare hands and feel comfortable with it, only to observe it from a distance.
The same is true when it comes to suffering. If we are able to distance our emotions from the issue, we will be able to deal with it and understand it relatively easily. Like the hot coal, from afar, it can be observed and understood.
But we can never touch.
We feel suffering deeply — be it our own or that of others. We cannot merely stand back and give answers. As much as we might understand it intellectually, we will nevertheless never feel happy with any answer that we give ourselves. Answers will always seem callous in the face of human pain. We cannot merely “explain” to someone why their child died. The pain is tangible and the explanation is theoretical. The person is suffering, experiencing real pain, and we are merely parroting words. Answers don’t solve the problem. They don’t take away the horror. They don’t soothe; they irritate. We can understand them, but never find complete comfort in them.
However, just because we might not feel comfortable with answers does not mean that they are wrong. When Elana found the lump, it was cancer. We did not like the fact that it was cancer, but that did not change the reality.
The answer to suffering is the same. It is not a pleasant answer, but a person who wants truth above pleasantries will see that it is correct.
I ask you, the reader, to put aside emotion as best you can and to try to listen with your head and not your heart. To the extent to which you are able to do so is the extent to which you will find meaningful answers in the following chapters.
As a start to this — and most questions in life — we need first to define our terms. And, most significantly, in dealing with why bad happens in this world, we need to begin with a definition of “bad.”
I believe that much of our difficulty in dealing with bad things happening comes from a definition of bad that is entirely inconsistent with Judaism.
I would imagine that for most people, the working definition of “bad” is “pain.” Bad and pain are basically synonymous. Be it the pain someone goes through while dying from a horrible disease, the pain of someone like Elana, knowing she will never dance at her children’s weddings, or the pain of children starving in Africa or the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s the pain involved in these situations that makes them “bad.” If no one in the Holocaust went through any pain — if they were gently put to sleep without any knowledge of what was happening — it would still be a horrible thing, but it would not bother us in the way that it does. Take a few moments to consider this, because it’s important to understand exactly what it is that bothers us before moving on.
If pain is to be in any way linked with our definition of bad — be it emotional, physical, or spiritual pain — then the question of why bad things happen to people is fairly well unanswerable. Because pain happens to every human being, righteous or evil, throughout most of their lives. And if pain in and of itself is bad, then God has clearly made a world that is just filled with “bad.”
Let’s re-examine our assumptions for a moment. Is all pain necessarily bad? Defining pain as “bad” is actually a modern phenomenon. Let me give a few very obvious illustrations as to why we cannot view all pain as automatically being bad…
A Broken Leg
Let’s imagine that someone is walking down the street, minding his own business — maybe even on the way to do a good deed! — and a car, driven by someone who is drunk, mounts the curb and runs him over. His leg is broken in four places and he requires an immediate operation, with six weeks recovery in the hospital afterwards.
Good or bad?
Obviously it’s bad, you say. And why did such a “bad” thing happen to a person who was on his way to do a good deed?
Yet, if we jump so quickly to this conclusion, we are again making the mistake of oversimplification.
Let’s say the operation goes well and our patient is recuperating in a hospital ward. The next day, he meets a young lady in the same ward. She is also going to be in the hospital for a few weeks. They start talking. They don’t get on so well at first, but as time goes by they begin to like each other. After all, if you talk to someone for hours each day, you will eventually find something you like about them. Their attraction grows over time. They find that they have many shared interests. They are from similar backgrounds and have the same life goals. Once out of the hospital, they start going out. After a short while, they become engaged. Eventually, they marry and live happily ever after.
Now, let’s ask this man, 50 years later, as he sits with his great-grandchildren on his lap at his golden wedding anniversary, whether it was a good or bad thing that the car ran him over on that fateful day. Looking back, he would in no way consider it a bad thing. Painful, yes, but it was pain that brought an incredible amount of goodness in its wake. If you were to offer him the opportunity to go back in time and not be hit by that car, he would not dream of taking it.
This is an example of short term pain that brings long term results. The pain of his broken leg disappeared after a few weeks. The goodness of his marriage to the woman he met in the hospital was eternal.
Pain is not always “bad.”
And when I talk about pain, I don’t just mean physical pain. I’m just using it as the simplest illustration. The exact same points could be made and similar examples brought for emotional pain such as fear, terror, sadness, loss, and abuse.
In my situation, as a very simple example, the pain I went through – the loss, the sadness, the fear, the loneliness — in losing Elana has made me infinitely more capable of reaching out and comforting others who experience loss.
I hope that by now it’s obvious that “pain” is not useful as a definition for “bad.” Perhaps some pain really is bad (though we as yet have no examples of that type of pain), but certainly not all pain is bad. And so we are going to have to refine our definition.
At this point, we might be tempted to redefine bad as “pain that brings no positive results.” But then it would be impossible for us to ever decide whether something was good or bad. For who is to say what good might come in ten years or twenty, or perhaps not even in this world, but in the next one? Such a definition of “bad” would be of no use to us whatsoever. Until we were fully aware of the ramifications of any event – in both this world and the next -we could not make a judgment that it was “bad” (or “good” for that matter). To define “bad” in this way would be tantamount to having no definition of “bad” whatsoever.
Because of this, the best we can say is: Pain, in and of itself, is fairly neutral. It’s not pleasant, it’s not comfortable, it’s not nice, but it’s also neither bad nor good.
Why God might make something painful or create the entire concept of pain in the first place are issues that I will deal with at a later stage, but pain has no meaningful role in trying to define “bad.”
The Jewish Definition
We Jews have a very different definition of bad — and based on this definition, nothing bad ever really “happens” in this world.
“Good” is something that enables you to become more Godly. And conversely, “bad” is something that makes you a less Godly person. Torah is good. Mitzvot are good. God Himself is good. Moving away from God — the source and root of all goodness – is bad.
Put a different way, good is that which leads us towards self-perfection, that which enables us to become the great human beings we are capable of becoming, that which helps us to find the closeness to God that is available to us. Bad is that which takes us away from God, that which hinders us from achieving our potential.
These are the Jewish definitions and the ones I will generally use for the rest of this book. It’s worth taking just a few minutes to consider the implications of these definitions before reading any further.
Let’s take a look at pain in the context of these definitions.
As a rule, does pain and difficulty in life make it easier or harder to rise spiritually? If we are honest, we would have to say that challenge helps us towards greatness. Greatness is not usually found among those who spend their days lying on beaches and sailing around the world in million-dollar yachts. Greatness is much more often found among those who face adversity head on and overcome it. Those who achieve their true potential are those who struggle through difficult situations and build their character in the process. The Talmud tells us, “Be careful of the children of the poor, for from them Torah comes” (Nedarim 81a).
Far from being a hindrance, hardship is actually something that assists us in this world. If “good” is something that can help us come closer to God, then hardship is certainly “good.”
Let’s revisit the man with the broken leg — even without knowing that he ended up meeting his future wife due to it. Let’s look at it as a plain and simple broken leg; seemingly nothing more gained other than pain and temporary disability. Is that good or bad?
The Jewish answer is still, of course, neither. But now there is something to add.
It could be good, or it could be bad. It all depends on what this man does with it. A broken leg can make him angry and upset and take him away from God. Or it can push him to evaluate where he can mend his ways and bring himself closer to God.
The choice is entirely his.
The broken leg is certainly a challenge — but if our friend rises to the challenge and overcomes it, he will lift himself to a more Godly realm. It is not good or bad. It is, however, a significant opportunity for good — should he choose for it to be so. And if he does, then he will look back 50 years later and say that yes, it was wonderful that he met his wife through his broken leg, but even more wonderfully, the broken leg enabled him to employ his free will to lift himself to new levels of personal greatness.
There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that happens to us in this world that is good or bad. It is all completely neutral. But everything that happens does have the potential to lift us to a greater level of goodness – or drag us further away from God. Everything has the potential to be good and everything has the potential to be bad. “Bad” things don’t happen to good people. But neither do “good” things. Things happen that are either more or less painful. But they are not inherently good or bad. We human beings are the sole arbiters as to whether that which occurs in our lives will ultimately be good or bad. The choice is entirely within our hands.
Elana and I made a decision when she first became ill. We didn’t have a choice as to whether or not she would have cancer. But we did have a choice as to how we would respond to that cancer. We knew that we could allow ourselves to despair, that we could hide ourselves away from the world and accept our “fate.” Or we could decide to be happy with the goodness that we had. We could make sure we enjoyed our time with each other and our children and enjoyed our lives in general. We knew that we could grow closer to God at this time or we could move further away — and that choice was entirely within our hands.
The Mishnah tells us that Abraham was tested with ten tests — to show how much God loved him (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:3). At first glance this seems strange. Here’s how you show you love someone? Firstly, you have him thrown into a furnace. Then, you tell him to pack his bags and move to a foreign country. When he obeys, you bring a famine to this country. And then, when he travels to find food, you have the ruler of the next place abduct his wife. He gets her back and returns to his ordained place of residence, only to find that his nephew has been kidnapped by four powerful kings. He manages to release him and is then commanded to kill his only son. Upon his return, having overcome the greatest challenge of his life, he finds that his wife has died and he is forced to pay an exorbitant sum for an inferior burial plot in a land that God has supposedly promised him as an inheritance. And all of this shows God’s love for Abraham?!
Yes! This is precisely God’s love. Because through these challenges, Abraham was able to come closer to God. He fulfilled his potential and became the great human being we know of, founder of the nation that has taught monotheism to most of the world. The pain was short-lived. The results were eternal. Abraham sits in his place in eternity, not in spite of his pain, but because of it. His pain is gone. His greatness remains forever.
And so, I ask you to ask yourself, and to be brutally honest — what are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To avoid pain? To live out 70 or 80 years of life with the least challenge possible? If this is your aim, then many “bad” things will happen along the way — because this is a world of pain and pain is antithetical to all that you are living for. If, however, you believe, as I do, that we are here to lift ourselves into Godliness, to grow and to ultimately attain self-perfection, then all that happens to us is a golden opportunity – and the more challenging it is, the greater that opportunity. The Mishnah tells us that “according to the pain is the reward” (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:23). It doesn’t say “effort,” it says “pain.” The level of pain defines the level of potential for Godliness. Of course, we don’t go looking for pain, but when it comes, we embrace it as an opportunity to strive towards perfection…
At the height of Elana’s illness, and at the times of my deepest pain afterwards, this is what I kept reminding myself. I put signs up all around my house saying, “We are in this world to use our free will to get closer to God — nothing else.” We all have different scenarios in which we are placed – some more painful, some less. But it is all directed towards the same end. Specific circumstances merely give us a context in which to use our free will to lift ourselves towards Godliness. Borrowing from Shakespeare, I would think of every human being as acting in a giant play — a play that lasts 70 or so years — and a play in which there will be great drama and tragedy. Each has a different script, a different challenge. The acts and scenes may be different, but the underlying plot is the same for all six billion of us. We are charged with the mission of using our free will and lifting ourselves closer to God. Circumstances may be fluid, but challenge is a constant — the purpose behind all events in life.
My friends, take it from me, pain passes. All pain passes. If not in this world, then certainly in the next. A cut finger might take a few minutes, a headache an hour, a stomachache a day, a sprained ankle a week, a broken leg a month, and a broken heart may even take a lifetime. But no pain will carry through to the World of Truth. It is the decisions we make, the way we choose to face that challenge and overcome that pain, which will remain with us for eternity. These decisions, and these decisions alone, are the purpose of our years in this world.
This article is an excerpt from Shaul’s book, Finding Light in the Darkness. You can order the book here.