Why suffering exists

Dear Rabbi,
In my profession as a social worker focused on family therapy, I have been witness to far too many tragedies, especially involving the sicknesses and deaths of children. It has been a real test of faith for me, as I often grapple, after hours, with how could God allow some of these calamities to happen to such innocent people. Perhaps you can offer me some solace. I thank you.
Richard D.
Dear Richard,
Your question is a challenging one on many levels. There is an intellectual component to this issue, and an emotional one as well. One who has faced tragedy and suffering, whether their own or the suffering of others, often has an emotional attachment to the issue, which makes it very difficult to analyze it on a purely intellectual level. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to discuss the Holocaust with almost anyone, let alone with survivors, because of the tremendous emotions it unleashes.
Your question is one that has challenged the greatest Jewish philosophers and sages since the birth of our nation.
According to the Talmud (Berachos 7a), this was the question Moses was posing to God when he asked, “Please show me a vision of Your glory” (Exodus 33:18). He was asking God to explain to him why, many times, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer; why do bad things happen to good people? In the continuation of that conversation with God (ibid. 19-23), Moses was made to understand that as long as he was a mortal human being, he did not have the ability to see the whole picture and understand what exactly God is doing.
He could not truly comprehend which happenings are “good or bad,” nor which people are absolutely “good or bad” in the eyes of God. This is meant by God’s answer to Moses, “ … you cannot see My Presence and live.” God was telling Moses that as long as you are alive, the entire picture is not visible from your limited perspective of this world.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his book If God is Good, Why is the World so Bad? (available at amazon.com), explains this with the following example: Imagine yourself standing with your nose pressed to an impressionistic painting. In one place you see splotches of the most breathtaking royal blue, in another there is a big splotch of black, in another a splotch of white. It is not until you step a good dozen feet away that you see what the painting really depicts — it’s Van Gogh’s Irises! This is just as true when it comes to understanding God’s plan.
At times we see the colorful parts, when everything is great. At times we see the dark parts, when things are not so great or even tragic. We can never step far back enough to see the whole picture, because to step back far enough is to step into the next world.
The Talmud says there’s not one all-encompassing answer for suffering, and every situation is different. People who are for the most part righteous and nevertheless have some hidden wrongdoings on record may receive suffering in this world to wipe those sins off their records in order to enjoy complete bliss and joy in the next world. There are times that suffering is bestowed upon a person to serve as a wake-up call for improvement, and for getting closer to God when one has drifted too far and needs a real shock treatment to come back.
This is like the son away from college who won’t call home, so his father freezes his credit card and suddenly receives a call after so many months of estrangement. This can happen on an individual as well as a national level. Still others, who are completely righteous, may receive “suffering out of love,” which is a challenge by God to bring out hidden greatness of faith and endurance in a person, to increase their eternal reward. At times a unique individual, who God knows can withstand the test, may be tested in order to become a beacon of light and inspiration for many others suffering in their generation, who without his or her inspiration could not have made it through.
One example of that was the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, who lost 10 sons, and wore a tooth of the last son on a necklace to comfort others who had losses, saying “here’s the bone of my tenth son” (Talmud Berachos 5b).
The points mentioned here are merely bullet points of a much wider and deeper discussion of this penetrating issue. Every Jew, especially someone in your field, should take the time to study this subject from a Torah perspective. I recommend Making Sense of Suffering (ArtScroll) by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner ob”m, who wrote it while suffering from the illness that was to take his life. Also Why Me, God? (Aronson) by my friend Dr. Lisa Aiken, clinical psychologist and scholar of Torah, who will add the clinician’s experience to your study. I feel this will give you much meaning and growth potential in counseling others through suffering (much more than by reading works by certain rabbis claiming that God has no part in suffering, which happens, in their opinion, totally at random, taking all meaning out of suffering).
May we merit to see the Messianic times, when suffering will come to an end, speedily in our days.

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