Why does G-d allow bad things to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are two of the most fundamental questions addressed by religion. Many people put their faith in a final judgment, reincarnation, or an after life to balance things out.
I don’t. I believe that Torah is about this life.
So why do bad things happen to good people? The TaNaKh provides several hints, some more explicit than others, but when it comes to this question, I’m afraid my perspective is significantly influenced by the philosophical perspective of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza argued that good and bad are descriptions of human perception–not of objective realities, but names for human emotional reactions to events. He also argued that the Divine must encompass both everything humans label good and everything we label bad if He is both infinite and omnipotent. Therefore, when humans perceive something as bad, or even evil, we aren’t taking a broad enough view. Something else is going on that we don’t see, aren’t privy to, or haven’t accounted for.
Now, proceeding from that philosophical position, the TaNaKh gives us a few answers to the question:
- The basis for the Spinoza position is found in B’resheit. In the story of Yosef, when his brothers encounter him as the vizier of Egypt, they plead for his forgiveness for having sold him into slavery in younger years. Yosef responds that everything he has endured–being sold by his brothers, imprisonment on the false accusation of Potiphar’s wife, being forgotten by the forgiven royal cupbearer–aligned to put him at the right place at the right time to become Pharoah’s vizier and to prepare the land for famine. True, Yosef suffered terribly, but all that suffering served to position him for a larger plan that he couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
- We are never promised freedom from difficulty. The Covenant is a contract between HaShem and the Nation of Israel. HaShem promises to bless the Israelites, as a nation, with prosperity so long as they follow His rules. He likewise guarantees a long list of curses if the Israelites, as a nation, violate the terms of the agreement. But here’s the thing: HaShem never promises that fidelity to the contract will result in the absence of difficulty or that faithlessness to it will result in the absolute absence of prosperity. Moreover, the agreement itself was made with the nation, not with individuals.
- Sometimes the human understanding of “goodness” simply doesn’t measure up. One of the perennial complaints of the Prophets is that the “good” people don’t call out “bad” behaviors. Torah doesn’t give anyone a free pass. We are forbidden from perverting justice or ignoring other people’s problems, but the people who are more or less righteous in their personal lives in the prophetic period have a nasty habit of focusing on their own lives and flying under the radar rather than speaking up about wrongdoing. The result is a nation in which the “wicked” can operate unchecked, while the “righteous” comfort themselves with their own personal deportment. How can that be rewarded as compliance with the Covenant?
- One man’s reward is often another’s punishment. In Yonah, HaShem rewarded the repentance of Nineveh with prosperity. That prosperity included the Assyrians becoming HaShem’s instrument of judgment against an unrepentant Israel. Chaldea (Babylon) was likewise HaShem’s instrument, and Persia afterward punished Chaldea. The Israelites were HaShem’s instrument of judgment against the Canaanites, too, and Devarim tells us that the role wasn’t even earned by Israelite righteousness, but by Canaanite iniquity.
- Free will. HaShem does not prevent man from hurting man. That was the case with Cain and Havel (Abel), and it is the case today. The temptation to harm each other or behave dishonestly is part of the human experience. It is part of the reality that HaShem created for us. HaShem’s warning to Cain about temptation at B’resheit 4:6 could almost be seen as a thesis statement for the canon that follows. Humanity was appointed as Creation’s stewards, and in that regard, the events on Earth have largely been placed in our hands. The test of man is largely how we respond to the bad things other people choose to do.
- HaShem tests us. As described, for instance, in the book of Iyov (Job), HaShem sometimes sends hardship and temptation to test how we will react. It is in adversity and hardship that the motivations of either the individual or the community are exposed and our resolve is tried.
Regardless of specific reasons bad things happen, the reality is that bad things do happen. It is the nature of dynamic systems to be unpredictable. The story of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) is the story of man acquiring the ability to engage in active relationships with both his environment and his Creator. The creation of man isn’t complete until he achieves this ability. The willingness to confront, struggle, argue, and bargain with HaShem is what led to Israel being His chosen people and to David being the king that He later chose to rule them. A world without conflict, adversity, or tragedy would be a world in which humanity is incapable of struggling with itself or G-d, and that capacity is precisely the quality that makes humans that unique element of Creation that G-d wants us to be.
Contributed by Rachel Kight
The Traditional Karaite View
While this blog presents a rationalist, Spinozan view of Judaism, a common view among Jews, these are not necessarily the views of the traditional Karaite community. The Ten Articles of Karaite Faith set forth by the 12th Century Karaite Sage (Hakham) Yehudah Hadassi and explained in the book Aderet Eliyahu (Mantle of Elijah) by the 15th Century Karaite Sage (Hakham) Elijah Bashyazi best articulate the traditional view of the end times, afterlife, and resurrection.
Karaite teacher Eli Shmuel has posted two YouTube videos on the articles of faith click here to learn more: Part 1, Part 2. See also the article on A Blue Thread by Shawn Lichaa. You can find information about the 13 Articles of Rabbinical Faith by Maimonides (the RaMBaM) here, which may have been based upon the preceding Karaite Articles.
(1) All physical existence—that is to say, the celestial spheres and all that they contain—has been created.
(2) All beings have a creator who has not created himself. This is the corollary of the first article of belief. As it was demonstrated that beings were created, they must have had a creator. All movement presupposes a motor either physical or spiritual. As the heavens are moved by a physical motor, this motor in its turn must have another motor; and so forth until the Prime Mover, God, is reached.
(3) That God has no likeness and is absolutely one. The fact that the existence of God only is necessary proves that He has no likeness. He must also be one; for if there were two beings whose existence was necessary, one of them must have been the cause of the other. In that case there would be only one whose existence was necessary. On the other hand, in supposing each of them to be his own cause, one must have a distinguishing quality which the other does not possess; for if both were identical in all things they would form one; and a being to whom qualities can be attributed is necessarily composed, and must therefore have a creator. As for the attributes of God found in the Bible they must be taken negatively.
(4) God sent Moses. Bashyazi examines prophecy from the philosophical point of view; and, demonstrating it to be true, he claims that there is no hindrance to a belief in Moses’ mission.
(5) That He gave through Moses His Torah, which is perfect.
(6) That the believer should know the language and the interpretation of the Law. All the existing translations of the Law have in many passages altered the sense; therefore, the believer must learn the Hebrew language in order to be able to read the Law in the original.
(7) That God inspired the other prophets.
(8) That God will raise up the dead on the Day of Judgment. Bashyazi did not undertake to prove article 8 philosophically, accepting the tradition as satisfactory. Moreover, it is made plausible by the fact that God made Adam of clay.
(9) That God rewards and punishes every one according to his merits or demerits. This article of belief being in close connection with Providence and Omniscience, Bashyazi refutes the opinion of certain philosophers who assert that God’s knowledge bears only upon the universalities and not upon individual things.
(10) That God did not reject the exiled [Jews], and that although they are suffering, they should hope every day for their deliverance by the Messiah, the son of David.