What is the Jewish approach to dealing with tragedy and suffering?
There is a dual-response. On a philosophical level, the Gemorah teaches that we don’t delve into the reasons why things happen. Because these are the secrets of Hashem. The Gemorah relates that when Moshe Rabbeinu was on Mt Sinai, he had an opportunity to ask Hashem any question that was bothering him, and the question he chose to ask is ‘Why do some righteous people suffer and some wicked people prosper?’
The question on all of our minds…so it really is age old!
And what was G-d’s answer? Part of it was “Lo yir’ani ha-adam ve-chai” – “no man can see me and live”. This means that to understand the secrets of how Hashem runs the universe and the affairs of all human kind is asking for a level of knowledge and insight that is impossible for a human being who is a mere mortal, flesh and blood. In a sense, to see that you would have to be G-d Himself, because to see that would be to see the ‘face of G-d’.
“Is there anything we can understand?”
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, one of our great philosophers known as the Ramchal, explains that Hashem interacts with this world in the context of different paradigms. Sometimes it is within the framework of reward and punishment. But very often, it is in the framework of a master plan that is designed for each and every neshoma, soul, individually. Each one of us comes into this world with many purposes, and with many tasks and missions designed uniquely for us by G-d. These missions also interact with other people and their missions, to form a holistic masterplan. And that master plan not only affects the individual, but affects the destiny of all people from the time of Adam and Eve all the way until the final redemption.
But what is that master plan and how can we understand it?
It is a complex puzzle with billions upon billions of different parts, which Hashem is masterminding all the time. And this is just a few brief sentences on what is a very deep and complex subject that we could never do justice to in so few words. But what it does indicate is that as mere mortals, we only see a tiny fraction of a blurred picture.
And what is the other side of this dual approach’?
We don’t delve into the secrets of Hashem, but having said that the Gemorah is very clear: in times of distress, pain and suffering, we have a duty to return to Hashem and to repent, to do teshuva, change our ways and improve. This is in no way an explanation for why these events are occurring, because that is beyond our comprehension. But it is imposing a practical duty on us, which says that we need to respond to every situation in life as a test. To use that situation to grow and develop and through it, to become a better person.
To be proactive?
Yes. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that one can respond to times of distress and suffering by being a passive victim. Or one can respond proactively. And the Gemorah is encouraging us to grow from it and become better people through that proactive approach, that process of teshuva. And that applies to us as individuals and as a community.
Isn’t that often misconstrued as the very reason it is happening –people say, “this is happening to me because I need to grow in this or that area?”
The Halachah is very practical, real life wisdom for how to live our lives. And in it there is a clear distinction between trying to penetrate the secrets of Hashem (which even Moshe could not do, so how can we?), versus a practical response. But yes, you are right that people do often confuse the two, but it is wrong to do so. We need to keep the two completely separate.
But is there no truth to this confusion at all?
In fact, the Ramchal says that every situation in life is a test. Poverty is a test, but so is wealth. Illness is a test, but so is health. Bad times are a test, but so are good times. Each element in our life is an opportunity to grow, develop, and respond in the correct way.
So that the potential despondency and the suffering of the bad times doesn’t pull us away from Hashem, but neither does the potential complacency and arrogance of the good times.
What else can we do in bad times to find strength?
Tefillah, davening – the connection to Hashem. In Tehillim, the book of Psalms, we see there that the author, King David, pours out his heart and soul to G-d. King David himself went through much suffering in his life –for example, his own son tried to stage a coup against him – and the turbulence and pain he went through is reflected in the Tehillim. A close bond with Hashem can be our source of strength in life.
So we daven to maintain a bond with Hashem?
Yes, but also because prayer is very powerful. Hashem created the world in such a way that when we daven, our prayers reach him. He is listening and He is close, and through His will, things can be changed – through prayer.
Is that why we have communal Tehillim recitations?
Over the last two years, there were a number of high profile, tragic events that took place within the community just before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva of these years, we held communal prayer and teshuvah gatherings (and our intention is to establish this as an annual event in our communal calendar), to gather as a community, unified. To pray together for a good and sweet year for the community as a whole, and also to undertake to do some thing on a communal level, together.
What can we undertake to do on a communal level, together?
Last year we took on for everyone to endeavour to commit to a lashon-harah-free hour everyday, between 6-7pm. This year, after consultation with local and overseas rabbonim, we took on the idea of focusing on the blessings that we are required to say before eating and benefiting from this world.
What does this entail?
We are talking about six blessings here – the blessing for bread, wine, grain products, fruit, vegetables, and the general blessing over everything else.
Why did we choose this to take on? What are these blessings about?
Gratitude to Hashem, appreciating the blessings and enjoyments of this world. It is really about saying please and thank you and about taking nothing for granted. It is also about an amazing opportunity to connect with Hashem many times during the day. And it is a practical, easy way to make a good improvement. It leads to huge benefits for relatively little effort.
So who are you hoping will take this on?
There are two categories of people – those who say the blessings already, and those who don’t. For the first group, I would encourage them to put the effort in to say the blessings with meaning and concentration. And for the second group, to learn the blessings and start saying them. It doesn’t require much effort, and yet it can have a profound positive effect on everyone. In next month’s edition, there will, please G-d, be special blessing cards inserted in the magazine, together with more information about this communal project. This can be a great positive force in our community, and what I am hoping is that each year we will be growing together as a community. And the force of doing something together is so powerful. Working together is one of the greatest strengths of the South African Jewish community, and as a community, this is something that is manageable and, please G-d, sustainable.
Q&A: Tragedy, Suffering and Pain – October 2010 – "Jewish Life" magazine
What is the Jewish approach to dealing with tragedy and suffering?