Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People

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One of the biggest and most challenging question that has plagued mankind for generations is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Said differently, why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper? As it is truly one of the most essential questions that one comes across in life, it is no surprise to find it discussed in Pirkei Avot. In Chapter 4 Mishna 19, Rabbi Yannai taught very succinctly and on point, that we can neither understand the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous. It is to this eternal question that Rabbi Yannai teaches that there is no known answer. It is simply beyond our human understanding.

Nonetheless, throughout history, the greatest thinkers and leaders have posed and struggled to answer this question. In fact the Gemara in Tractate Menachot (29b) tells the story how the great Moshe was shown a prophetic vision of the final moments of the life of Rabbi Akiva as he was being tortured to death by the Romans. Moshe then protested, “Is this Torah and this its reward?” In other words, Moshe protested to G-d demanding to understand how someone so righteous could suffer so greatly in this world. More than that the Gemara in Tractate Berachot (7a) teaches that following the sin of the golden calf, Moshe turned to G-d after petitioning to save the Jewish people and said in Shemot (33:12), “If You are indeed pleased with me, allow me to know Your ways.” The Gemara explains that Moshe was asking G-d to understand the age-old problem of reward and punishment in this world.

In fact, Tanach is filled with other examples of Jewish leaders struggling to answer this question. The prophet Jeremiah asked (Jeremiah 12:1), “Why does the path of the wicked prosper?” Similarly, the entire book of Job is devoted to understanding the notion of reward and punishment in this world. After all, despite Job’s incredible devotion to G-d, he suffered tremendously throughout his lifetime. The Ramban in his introduction to his commentary to Job writes:
“The appearance of injustice pains the heart and saddens one’s thoughts, leading to questions that have drawn multitudes throughout the ages to unmitigated heresy. People ask, why has the path of this or that person succeeded, whereas others who appeared righteous die? This question has been the impetus within the hearts of the nonbelievers of every nation and every tongue.” (Translation by Artscroll)
Sadly, even those with the greatest of faith have struggled to answer this question of reward and punishment.

In some ways, any answer to the question of reward and punishment, and in specific the suffering of the righteous, is insufficient and inadequate. In fact, some take the approach that we are better off not knowing the answer. In other words, imagine the ramifications if we knew why the innocent suffer. We might begin to rationalize tragedy and would learn to live with it while being less sensitive to the needs of others. If we were able to explain these difficult questions, then we might possibly sweep away the cries of children and tolerate the suffering of others. So long as we cannot answer this question and rationalize the pain of others, than we as Jews continue to be obligated to help those in need and to ease the pain of those suffering. In that sense, to know why, in that would be a travesty and would make it harder for us to live fulfilling and meaningful lives as Jews.

Whether this answer and approach is satisfying to us or not, as individuals, we all need to find ways to cope with this struggle. Whether it is when bad things happen to us despite our best intentions and actions, or whether we see the terrible afflictions in this world, we sometimes need an approach in how to handle this balance. As the Ramban said earlier, these difficult questions can shake a person’s faith. It is therefore incumbent on each of us to develop our own strategy or approach on how we deal and handle the sometimes-harsh realities of life.

There is an interesting dichotomy in Judaism as it comes to the notion of creed and deed. The Torah is clear in commanding what actions a Jew must take. The Torah is filled with 613 commandments dictating a Jew’s actions. When it comes to what a Jew must believe, however, the Torah itself is not quite as clear. For example, if a person observes Shabbat in its entirety for ‘the wrong reasons’ (i.e. out of deference to tradition alone), is such a person living a truly Jewish life? How does one’s beliefs play into one’s actions? Interestingly, there have been some Jewish philosophers such as Moses Mendelssohn who have taught that one may believe anything they want so long as they live according to the laws dictated by G-d in the Torah. While that is certainly an approach, generally speaking all of the classical Jewish commentaries disagree with this view. Perhaps the most famous of all to tackle this question was Maimonides. The Rambam articulated 13 Principles of Faith (found in many Siddurim following the Shacharit prayers) which each begin with the phrase “Ani Maamin Be’Emunah Shleima” ; “I believe with perfect faith.” For the Rambam and many others, in Judaism, creed, is just as important as deed.

A close examination of the Rambam’s Principles of Faith highlight some fundamental tenants of belief—There is only one G-d who has served as Creator of the universe, the prophecy of Moshe is true, the entire Torah now in our possession is the same that was given to Moshe, G-d punishes those that sin and rewards those that keep His commandments, amongst others. There is one strange Principle of Faith that seems out of place, however, relative to the others—“I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead.” The notion of “Techiyat HaMetim” ; “Resurrection of the dead” is certainly a focal point of our prayers—we mention it during every silent Amida Shemoneh Esrey. However, it seems strange to include it as a ‘Principle of Faith.’ What is so important about resurrection that it has to be part of a core theology of Jewish belief?

While it may appear as if the Rambam created his list of Principles from ‘thin air,’ in truth, they are based on the first Mishna in the 10th Chapter of Sanhedrin. The Mishna begins, “Kol Yisrael Yeish Lahem Chelek LaOlam HaBa” ; “All of Israel have a portion in the World to Come.” However, the Mishna continues, “ViElu Shein LaHem Chelek LaOlam HaBa” ; “But the following have no portion in the World to Come:” He who says that resurrection is not a Torah doctrine, who says the Torah is not from Heaven, and an Apikorus (one who denigrates Torah and Torah scholars). These three categories—rejection of Resurrection, rejection of the Divinity of Torah, and Heresy, can therefore be seen as serving as the headings of broader categories. It is from these three categories, that one can attribute each of the Rambam’s Principles of Faith. For example, Resurrection is not simply the belief that souls will return to their bodies. Rather, it includes the concept that G-d knows the good and bad deeds of humanity and that he rewards and punishes accordingly. Similarly, the Divinity of Torah directly correlates to the idea that the words of the prophets being true, that the prophecy of Moshe was true, that he was the chief of all prophets, and that this is the same Torah today as was received by Moshe never to be exchanged. Yet, the same question asked above is relevant to this Mishna in Sanhedrin as well. For what reason is Resurrection considered being as important as the Divinity of the Torah? Why would someone who rejects the notion of Techiyat HaMetim, be lumped together with someone that is an Apikoros? They don’t seem to be equal, and certainly not deserving of the same punishment of losing one’s share of the World to Come?!

Rabbi Benjamin Blech in his book “Understanding Judaism” suggests that Resurrection of the Dead serves as the most crucial theological belief for Maimonides, because he understood it not “simply as an article of faith, but rather the key to the proper solution of the most fundamental problem faced by a believer” of why do bad things happen to good people. G-d’s four-letter name derives from the combination of three Hebrew words. They are the three tenses, connoting existence: “Haya, Hoveh, Yihiyeh” ; “Was, Is, and Will Be.” Only when all three are combined can one understand the goodness of the Almighty and does His essence become understandable. Rabbi Blech writes:
“There are times when the hindsight required is but a few hours. A person who curses a flat tire on the way to the airport and is forced to miss an important flight, and who subsequently learns that his plane crashed, killing all aboard, is then in a position to acknowledge that the curse was in fact a blessing. Life does not, however, always explain itself in such rapid sequence. True, there are scattered incidents where the next morning clarifies the perils of the preceding night…But what if years pass and the tragedy is not explicable, the pain and the suffering still have no rational explanation?…It may be years before a person can recognize that losing a job becomes the key to making one’s fortune…What if pain and suffering and tragedy endured by a righteous person remain until death itself and can never be understood in retrospect as misinterpreted blessings?…Belief in afterlife is the only thing that enables us to hope for a rectification of injustices we perceive here on this earth. Only a belief in some continued existence…permits us to accept that answer that there is more.”
It is for this reason that Resurrection of the Dead plays such an important role in the Mishna as well as in the Rambam’s Principles of Faith. The only way for man to ‘make peace’ in their lifetime with suffering and tragedy is to understand that time does not end when their life on this earth is completed.

‘Time’ is said to ‘heal all wounds.’ For some of us, we can look back to moments in our lives from months, years, or even decades before and see how those difficult situations turned out for the best. Think back to the most challenging times for the Jewish people. At that time, in that specific moment, life felt incredibly unfair. How could we possible explain the suffering of our people? And yet, time, what can even be centuries long, provides us with insights and understanding to G-d’s Divine Plan.

The suffering of the righteous as we said earlier cannot always be explained. However, each of us needs an approach to manage what can be the most difficult moments of our lives. When we see ourselves along a continuum of time and history, then we can begin (albeit in the smallest possible way) to understand G-d’s plan for each and every one of us. It is precisely the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead that teaches us that we cannot compare the injustices and sufferings that we see during the course of a single lifetime to the blessings that G-d has set aside in the days when G-d will resurrect the righteous and demonstrate how darkness was in fact a prelude to light. May we each find the strength to deal with this great challenge.