Why do the innocent suffer? And why would a merciful, compassionate G-d inflict suffering on people?
In the classic sefer Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato teaches that there are many diverse reasons for what befalls us and that they are beyond the scope of our finite understanding. But we have faith that 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 I was privileged to hear many years go from the remarkable teacher Nechama Lebowitz. As a young girl she attended a religious school. Nechama related that one morning she overslept and realized 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 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 –all compassion – would 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 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. And there are many mean-spirited people who to all appearances seem to be at ease. Regardless, wherever life takes us, our commitment to Hashem – to His Torah and His mitzvos – transcends 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. Many things happen in the course of life 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 test. In Mesillas Yesharim 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. The latter outlook on life leaves us crushed and destroyed.
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, it is corrective: the Torah tells us that G-d chastises us even as a father chastises his children.
This is especially important to remember as each passing day over the next seven weeks will bring us closer to the time we come to G-d in repentance, seeking forgiveness from our Creator, who is not just our King but Avinu Malkeinu – our Father, our King.
Just about every family or individual suffers in some way. And then there are the collective trials confronting our nation, such as global escalation of anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel. What must we do to alleviate our pain?
The answer is clear. It is what enabled us to survive the many long and harsh centuries. We turn to Hashem, for in the end we have no one to rely on but Him.