In my last column, I published a tragic letter from a young woman who, after a painful bout with terminal illness, departed from this world. She attributed her plight to her abandonment of the Torah way of life, specifically to the laws of tznius. Her letter evoked much response. One of the writers wrote that she had a similar experience, but Baruch Hashem, with a positive ending. She too, had been rebellious, she too, had turned a deaf ear to the pleas of her family, but she never had to struggle with illness. Her sister however (an embodiment of everything that a yeshiva girl should be), was in a very serious car accident and had to undergo several surgical procedures and rehab, which plagued her with feelings of guilt and made her feel somehow responsible.
Fortunately, as I said, her story had a happy ending. She ultimately altered her lifestyle and her sister recovered . Today, Baruch Hashem, her sister is married while she herself is now a kallah, soon to go under the chuppah. This entire incident however, left her with a troubling question. “Why would G-d punish my innocent sister because of me? How can anyone justify that?” she asked.
The following is my reply:
My dear friend:
It would be presumptuous for anyone to tell you exactly “why.” Indeed, why do the innocent suffer? And why would a Merciful, Compassionate G-d inflict such suffering on your sister, or on the first letter writer, who sadly, never made it?
In the classic sefer, Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato teaches that there are many diverse reasons for what befalls us that are beyond the scope of our finite understanding. One thing is for sure however… Divine Providence guides our lives and there is a higher plan for everything that happens even if we do not comprehend it.
Having said that, allow me to share with you a story, which I was privileged to hear many years go from the teacher par excellence, Nechama Lebowitz. As a young girl she attended a religious school. Nechama related that one morning, she overslept and realized that she wouldn’t be able to daven if she were to arrive to class on time. As she ran off to school and crossed the street, she didn’t notice a horse and buggy galloping at full speed in her direction.
Little Nechama was knocked to the ground unconscious, and when she awoke, she found her family physician hovering over her while her mother was saying Tehillim and crying. But what frightened Nechama the most was the presence of her father in the room. It was a family rule that her father was never to be disturbed at business unless there was a dire crisis.
Lying on her bed, she was convinced that she was breathing her last and would soon face her Maker. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she asked to speak to her father privately. When everyone left the room, she whispered “Father, I know why Hashem is punishing me! I got up late this morning and I didn’t daven!”
At this point in the narrative Nechama Lebowitz paused and told us that, as long as she lived, she would never forget her father’s response to her cry. In a very stern voice, he said, “How dare you! How dare you believe that Hashem, who is all Rachamim – Compassion, should send a horse and buggy to run over a little girl because she didn’t daven one morning! How dare you desecrate Hashem’s Holy Name in such a trivial manner? Never ever reduce Hashem to such a level. Never forget this lesson, my daughter!”
There are many good and righteous people who undergo trials that are often difficult and painful. Then there are many mean-spirited people who, to all appearances seem to be at ease. Regardless where life takes us, our commitment to Hashem, to His Torah and His mitzvos, transcend all other considerations.
In poverty as in wealth, in sickness as in health, in war as in peace, we remain Jews, loyal to His Torah. In the course of life, many things happen that are inexplicable and incomprehensible, but no matter what fate befalls us, our faith in Hashem, His Torah, and His mitzvos, must remain constant and uncompromising.
At the same time, however, our sages teach us not to take anything for granted, but to regard everything in life as a wake-up call – a test. In Mesillas Yesharim (The Path of the Just) it is written, “All events in life are wake-up calls – tests.” Indeed, there are no random happenings. We have a choice. We can see Hashem at the center of our lives, or we can view the world as a cruel, senseless place where things “just happen” without rhyme or reason, and such an outlook leaves us crushed and destroyed.
In your letter, you asked why. In my writings and teachings I have often said that there is no sense in asking “why” because there are no good answers to that question. Rather, we must ask “why” in Lashon HaKodesh – the holy tongue, for that is the language of G-d in which every word is definitive.
In Hebrew, there are two expressions for “why” – madua and lamah. Madua means Mah dei’ah – What do I learn from this? And Lamah means “L’Mah? – To what end?” How do I grow and become better from this?
But even as we ask these questions, we would do well to remember that G-d’s discipline is never punitive, but rather, corrective. It is written in the Torah that G-d chastises us even as a father chastises his children. This is especially important to remember at this season when we turn to G-d who is not only our King, but Avinu Malkeinu – our Father, our King.
So if as a result of your sister’s accident, you changed your way of life, turned in prayer and contrition to Hashem and re-committed yourself to Torah and mitzvos, then surely you proved to be a merit for your sister’s recovery. Our sages teach that when we are challenged by trials and tribulations, we should examine our lives and see where we may have erred and where we can improve and elevate ourselves. So, in short, while no one can tell you why your sister suffered, if, as a result of that suffering, you changed your life and rededicated yourself to Torah, then that was an enormous zechus for her recovery.
In our generation there is almost no family or individual that is not suffering in some way – be it financial, marital or personal. And then there are the collective trials confronting our nation – global escalation of anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel. What must we do to alleviate our pain? The answer is simple. It is that which enabled us to survive the centuries, and it is exactly what you did on behalf of your sister – turn to Hashem, for in the end we have no one to rely on but Him.
As we enter the year, 5770, let us place our trust in Hashem and beseech Him to help us walk through the darkness. May He have mercy on all of us; May He heal our pain, take our hand and help us walk through the darkness.
My best wishes to all our readers for a G’mar Chasimah Tovah – a Blessed New Year.