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Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Years ago I was introduced to a compelling logical argument that helped me a lot later on when I would struggle with difficult Talmudic passages: If someone gives you too many answers to a question, it probably means there is no real answer.

So many answers have been offered to the question of why bad things happen to good people. Here too, the answer remains elusive. Indeed the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 4:15) teaches: “Rabbi Yannai would say, We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.” Despite various approaches to this question that were known at the time, Rabbi Yannai believed the ultimate answer was yet to be known.

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Does this mean we can never have even an inkling of understanding of human suffering? No, there are many small but meaningful and compelling answers that help along the way and offer hope and relief. And focusing on making sense of at least the tip of the iceberg of suffering can be pivotal for transforming oneself from victim to victor, from overpowered to empowered.

I will highlight some of those answers, which in many ways correspond with the Kübler-Ross model of emotional stages experienced by individuals upon the death of a loved one (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).

The first is answer is that anger and frustration are legitimate, understandable, expected – and desired. The importance of communicating one’s feelings to God can be found throughout Jewish sources, from the most basic to the most advanced. The expression of one’s frustrations should come not in a disrespectful way, not in a demeaning way, but in a way that expresses a person’s feelings.

What is essential is to make sure one is angry at God – not angry about God. When a person is angry at God, it means he has a healthy and robust relationship with the Creator, but when a person is angry about God, it suggests the Creator is no longer in his life. Anger and frustration can – should – be expressed, but as part of one’s relationship with God.

The second point that is essential to remember is that no suffering is meaningless. Whatever the reason for suffering, it is not in vain; we may not know where it is leading to or the reason for it in the first place, but it is neither meaningless nor arbitrary.

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 91:6) states that Yaakov Avinu never said anything wrong except for asking his sons “Why did you harm me?” When God heard Yaakov saying this, He responded: “I am busy bringing his son to kingship in Egypt and he says why did you harm me?”

Sometimes, more painful than the suffering itself is the inability to see any reason for the suffering. While the reasons for struggles, pain, and loss may vary, they are not meaningless.

The third thing we must always remember is that we are never alone in our suffering. When Hashem first reveals Himself to Moshe, He purposefully speaks from a thorned bush. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:7) teaches that by doing so God was saying: When my people are in trouble, I am right there with them though the hardship.

The verse in Exodus famously says, “And the children of Israel sighed…and they cried, and their cry came up unto God…and God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob; and God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them.

No pain goes unnoticed. God is there and takes consideration of every bit of our pain.

A fourth key realization is that this world, with its suffering and strife, is not the final destination. Though that may sound to some to like a cheap “out” from the profound questions related to suffering, it is powerful enough to be at the epicenter of religion. We believe in an afterlife. Suffering is not our final fate but a temporary one.

The Talmud (Arachin 16b) says that if a person puts his hand into his pocket with the intention of pulling out three coins and instead finds only two (so that he has to put his hand back into his pocket), even that “suffering” is noted above. God did not create us to suffer, so when the smallest suffering does occur, God takes that into account.

We don’t know why we suffer. We do know that Someone is looking at our suffering, listening to our cries, and factoring it all into His considerations. We are not suffering to no end. It is all accounted for and will be factored into a broader scheme of things.

The fifth idea to have in mind is that although we don’t necessarily see or understand the positive outcomes of our suffering, such outcomes should not be ruled out. Not knowing why we suffer goes both ways – we may not know what good could possibly come of it but we cannot say with any certainty that nothing good will emerge. An example that comes to mind is that of Joseph. Sold into slavery in a foreign land and then imprisoned for making a heroic moral choice, Joseph had every reason to question his suffering. But that very suffering was what brought him to the throne of Egypt.

Does this mean we should wait for a magical outcome or fairytale-like solution to difficult situations? No. But a healthy way of dealing with suffering is to immediately ask questions such as: “What opportunities do I now see of which I previously had been unaware?” “How can this help me to help others?” “How will this experience leave me stronger, smarter, or more sensitive than I was before?”

Finally, look to others for help. Yes, God is with you in your pain. Yes, prayer should be used at every possible point. But we should still look to others who care for us and will look out for us.

The Torah teaches (Vayikra 13:22) that one of the things a person with leprosy should do is vocally let people know of his affliction. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) understands this to be teaching us that a distressed individual is obligated to alert people to his distress.

Letting others know can help. It can help because they will pray. It can help because they will sympathize. It can help because they will offer social support or have relevant advice that might help us. Will everyone be as sympathetic as we would like? Not necessarily, but we will also be touched to discover those special people who come our way and can help.

So while we will never understand, at least not on this side of eternity, why bad things happen to good people, we do know what good people can do when bad things happen. And we know that good people, often utilizing the tools described above, are able to take really tough situations and turn them around.

It is our task to make sure we take the guck that sometimes is handed to us and to turn it into gold.

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Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City.

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