On Sunday evening, July 31, Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, well-known speaker and rav at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim, shared a beautiful virtual shiur on behalf of Let’s Get Real with Coach Menachem. He spoke about the age-old question of “tzadik v’ra lo” or “Why do righteous people suffer?”
He began by acknowledging that this is a most difficult question. “How do we understand that good people suffer in this world, and why do evil people prosper?” Moshe asked Hashem this question when he asked Hashem to show him His glory.
Hashem’s response was: “You will see me from the back, not the front. You will never understand it.” It may be when Mashiach comes that we will understand it. One book in the Tanach that deals with this issue is the Book of Iyov (Job). Rabbi Breitowitz shared that there are various opinions regarding who Iyov was.
There is one opinion that Moshe wrote the book of Iyov and Iyov never actually existed, but because Moshe didn’t receive a direct answer to this question, he tried to work it out in this book. Rabbi Breitowitz taught that it doesn’t matter who Iyov was because it is the story of every man. It’s a human story. There is no direct reference to Yiddishkeit in this book; rather, it is a story about the human condition. In the Book of Iyov, there is a righteous man who fears G-d and takes care of people. The prosecutor says he is righteous, because he receives a reward. Let’s take things away to see if he is good. All of a sudden, he loses his wealth, his children, and his health. He keeps his wife and his friends. Rabbi Breitowitz explained: because losing his wife would be like death, and without friends a person cannot have life.
Iyov is patient and he says the famous line: “Hashem gives, and Hashem takes. May the name of G-d be blessed.” The three friends sit with him for seven days and seven nights. They don’t say anything. This is the source for not speaking to a mourner before he speaks. Iyov grows more upset and on the last of the seven days, he explodes and demands answers.
Then there is a dialogue with each friend sharing a position. One says G-d is good, so He wouldn’t inflict pain unless a person deserves it, so you must not be as righteous as you think you are. The other friends say this idea in different ways, and they ramp it up. Iyov constantly says he wants to hear this from G-d.
G-d shows up and shows him the wonders of the world. He says to Iyov, “Were you here when I created this magnificent world?” Rabbi Breitowitz pointed out that this is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the natural world that appears in Tanach. Hashem describes a world full of power and might and beauty.
After this, Iyov says one word: “Nechamti,” which means I am comforted. It can also mean I regret what I said. G-d tells Iyov that his friends are wrong in blaming him. Hashem is not answering the question. So, why is Iyov happy with the answer? Rabbi Breitowitz offered some ideas about this.
The first idea is that G-d is overwhelming with His might and power. Hashem then is saying: “Don’t ask the question. I can do worse.” This is not the Jewish view of a benevolent G-d.
The second idea is that we exist in our world not just as discrete individuals but sometimes things happen to a person as an individual that are necessary for the entire pattern of the universe. The universe is complex and interrelated. We are part of something that spans centuries. It is a mistake not to realize that there is a ripple effect.
The third idea and, Rabbi Breitowitz prefaced, the most powerful one, is that G-d is not answering at all. He is saying you have questions just as Moshe had questions, and Moshe didn’t receive answers. The point is that Hashem is saying that He exists. Hashem is telling him that He knows Iyov is suffering, and it doesn’t make sense, but I, Hashem, am with you. I exist. Hashem is telling him that He knows he is suffering, and it doesn’t make sense, but He is with him. When a person feels the presence of Hashem, he can bear even things that don’t make sense and that seem unfair.
Moshe asked Hashem for a reason, and Hashem said I am not telling you, and Moshe explains that if he feels Hashem’s presence he will have comfort, strength, and courage, but not in the sense of specific answers. Rabbi Breitowitz shared: “Those who believe do not need answers. They can go in the light in uncertainty.” So Iyov never received an answer to his questions but instead he felt the presence of Hashem. “When a person feels the presence of Hashem, then he can bear even that which doesn’t make sense or which seems unfair.”
He taught that one of the great messages of Iyov is that we can’t always receive specific answers. The point is that Hashem is with us and He exists. It can be overwhelming. People who are good go through so much. What can we offer to someone who is suffering? We can offer what Hashem offered, which is empathy, support, and chizuk. The best we can do is to emulate Hashem’s ways.
The Chazon Ish said, “Gam zo l’tovah.” Life will be hard, but Hashem is doing it for a purpose. There is an ultimate good. “Life is not about what is pleasant. It is about what is meaningful.” Gam zo l’tovah means that Hashem will give me what will make me the greatest, best person I can be.
Rav Soloveitchik taught theodicy should be approached halachically, not through theology. Halachah asks how I respond to this situation. That is a meaningful question. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl taught in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that often our confrontation with the greatest depths of evil can make us into the person we never would have been.
Rabbi Breitowitz taught: “In every challenge we have the potential to fail. We can’t look down on anyone who was broken by his or her suffering, but I do believe there is a way to grow from our challenges.” He added, “I don’t sit in judgment.” You have to respect the right of the person to grieve. This is why we have the laws of mourning. The Torah understands the human need to experience sadness and grieving. A lot of our discontent is from comparing ourselves to others. Instead, we need to focus on all of our blessings. When faced with a difficulty, we should ask ourselves what does this circumstance challenge me to become? What can I do to become a greater person from this challenge?
He shared some inspiring examples, like the Mandell family who took a horrific tragedy, losing their 12-year-old son in a brutal murder, and created the Koby Mandell Foundation that has helped thousands of people who experienced terrorism. He also cited the famous actor Christopher Reeves, who experienced a terrible horseback riding accident and was paralyzed, but he used his challenge to help others with spinal injuries. He said he would never wish his accident on anyone, but he likes the person he became more than who he was before the accident. He learned from the accident to have empathy, compassion, and care for others.
By Susie Garber