Over the past few months the Jewish community in the New York metropolitan area has suffered great trauma and intense tragedy.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, families in places like the Five Towns, Bayswater, Far Rockaway, Seagate, and Belle Harbor sustained tremendous physical loss. In most cases, these families’ homes, possessions and cherished memories were completely destroyed.
And then twenty children and six adults from our tri-state community were brutally murdered by a mad gunman.
As people of faith, how are we to deal with such challenges, be they natural occurrences or tragedies choreographed by deranged personalities?
The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat (30b) mentions that prior to the canonization of Tanach by the Anshei Knneset haGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), there was a movement among rabbinic leaders to remove certain books from the collection, namely Mishle (Proverbs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs).
The Talmud notes that rabbinic authorities felt the “contents of [Kohelet and Mishlei respectively] contradicted themselves” (Shabbat 30a). Shir haShirim, on the other hand, portrays esoteric, even controversial, imagery meant to represent a romantic relationship between God and the Jewish people.
It is interesting to note that rabbinic authorities never contemplated removing the most challenging book in Tanach, Iyov (Job), from the canonized text. This sefer presents multiple answers to the most perplexing question of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people?
It is the question Moshe asks of God directly (Exodus 33:18): “hareine nah et kevodecha” (“show me Your glory”). God responds that it is impossible for any human being to confront this issue head on or to receive a response to this question, including individuals as sharp and spiritually sound as Moshe. And yet the Book of Iyov boldly addresses this very quandary.
Moreover, when the Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra (14b-15a) discusses the authors of each of the books of Tanach, it does so with great clarity and very little ambiguity: “Yehoshua wrote his book and the last eight verses in the Torah; Shmuel wrote his book, Judges and Ruth, etc.” However, when discussing the author of Iyov (and details surrounding when Iyov himself lived), the Talmud seems perplexed.
One opinion claims Iyov lived in the times of Moshe. Others say he was a contemporary of the patriarchs Yitzchak, Yaakov or Yosef. Yet another authority suggests that Iyov never existed at all.
The ambiguity surrounding Iyov’s life is not meant to show a lack of clarity. It is meant to stress the fact that Iyov and the contents of his book are relevant to every generation. Whether in the times of the patriarchs, the period of the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt and sojourn in the desert, or the era of the diaspora, the question of why bad things happen to good people is a challenge every generation must face.
Perhaps Iyov did not exist in any particular generation – perhaps an element of Iyov exists in each and every one of us.
While the rabbinic authorities argued over whether other complicated books of Tanach should be included in the final canonization, the inclusion of Iyov was never the subject of such debate. Theodicy is something we all struggle with and should continue to struggle with throughout our lives. We all ask how it is possible that innocent people – good, pure and generous people – could suffer so greatly as a result of natural disasters or heinous manmade tragedies.
Still, the observant Jew must realize that while we will always struggle with these questions, it is our responsibility to move past the “why” and focus on how we respond when bad things happen to good people.
Will we imitate God and act mercifully and generously toward our fellow Jews and all humankind, as instructed by the Talmud (Gittin 61a)? Or will we fall prey to our baser emotions and act and react without thought or compassion?
It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word “aychah” – which is used in Tanach to ask, “How could this tragedy have happen?” – first appears in the Torah as “ayekah,” when God asks Adam and Chava, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
The dual nature of this word highlights the responsibility of religious Jews to recognize that our questions should not center around why bad things happen to good people. Rather, we must ask, “How do we respond when these bad things happen?”