Title: Why G-d Why? How to Believe in Heaven When it Hurts Like Hell
By Rabbi Gershon Schusterman
Chazal in Bava Batra suggest that Moshe Rabbeinu authored Psalm 92 and the book of Iyov, among several other works. What do these two tanach works have in common? Both start off with the righteous seeming to suffer, and evil seeming to prosper…until they don’t. Both of these works attributed to Moshe Rabbeinu hone in on the idea that everybody gets their just desserts. In his classic Emet L’Yaakov, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, theorizes that Moshe in Egypt was busy writing works and giving speeches that answered questions of theodicy, why good people suffer. After all, under the travails of Egyptian oppression, the Jewish people were indeed suffering. And they must have needed to know why.
The suffering may have morphed, but the need to answer that question persists. Rabbi Gershon Schusterman tackles this difficult question in his appropriately (and brilliantly) titled debut, Why G-d Why? How to Believe in Heaven When it Hurts Like Hell.
Consider the feeling of loss you must have experienced at least once in your life. Death in the family, a divorce, a lost friend, hearing awful news, seeing a child suffer, or learning of a massive natural disaster. The pain is immense. Like a living thing, it gnaws at your heart. Along with that emotion, like a bad joke with two incomprehensible punchlines, another emotion enters the mind: doubt. Did I deserve this? Does anyone deserve it? What happens to all of the plans I had? Am I being tested? As if these feelings were not enough, through it all, life refuses to pause. Drivers will still honk at you, assignments will still be due, acquaintances will still inanely ask how you are doing.
And you’ll likely ask yourself that question: how am I doing? This is followed by: why am I doing? And if you are a spiritually sensitive person, you will inevitably ask: why is G-d, the all-good, all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful father in Heaven allowing this pain to happen to me? Such are the daunting question to which Why G-d Why attempts a response. Rabbi Schusterman’s first book, and 30 years in the making, it seeks to answer the classic question of tzaddik v’ra lo in the prism of his own dear wife’s sudden passing many years ago.
As he freely admits, this question is more difficult for us rabbis, because we recite the expected formula of faith to our community members rather regularly, and here you can repeat after me: Hashem has His plan.
But…what is that plan? Why would there be a plan for me to hurt? And as I try to get over the pain, every now and then something will come along to open that wound all over again. In the end, all events in your life are meant to form and improve you. We are meant to change our way of thinking because “if you continue to think as you thought and do as you did, you’ll have what you had. If you want to have something different and better, we’ll have to think and do differently.” The event is not yours to control, but your reaction is. “Although you may not be the master of your fate, you are the captain of your ship.” As the author describes a condolence card he received from his deceased wife’s brother, “so many of these pithy phrases articulated my feelings that I couldn’t put words to. Viewed from the rut I was in, the optimistic, hopeful vision seemed like an unattainable dream.” In a dark emotional place like that, the author advises people going through loss to seek counseling because the depression stage “seldom lifts on its own without doing lasting damage.”
Before one can question G-d’s wisdom in times of tragedy, one must first demonstrate that there is a G-d. The author attempts to do this in a chapter titled “Is There Really a G-d?” With several cogent, logical arguments, he convincingly argues for the existence of a higher power that cares about each of us. He even has a plan for everyone. Rabbi Schusterman writes, “We Jews believe in a G-d who is One – who is responsible for everything in the world, including good and evil. We may not – we cannot – understand G-d fully […] He exists, He cares, and He is beyond our ability to completely understand.” Furthermore, our questioning is “really asking how we can possibly understand and accept that G-d allowed this to happen. The question itself is inoperative, because we can’t ever “understand” the “mind” of G-d.”
Why G-d Why was written for thinking intellectual Jews, and as a response to Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, in which that author asserts that G-d is (R”L) not in control of some things. In Rabbi Schusterman’s words, Kushner paints a world where “G-d doesn’t run the world. We are therefore hapless victims of chance, nihilism, or evildoers. A neutered G-d is there to comfort us when the gods of chance turn against us. Human suffering cannot be meaningless and purposeless, as Kushner suggests. Shouldn’t it be eminently obvious that if life itself has meaning, then suffering must also have meaning? “Suffering may be thrust upon us against our will, but we choose how to face it.” Quoting Doctor Viktor Frankl, Rabbi Schusterman writes that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedom – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Towards the end of the book, the author reluctantly wrestles with the theme of theodicy as regards the Holocaust. After quoting and refuting several theories, and noting that agreeing to those theories act to justify the horrors of the Shoah, the author quotes the last Lubavitcher Rebbe as saying, “there is absolutely no rational explanation for the Holocaust except that it was a Divine decree; why it happened is beyond human comprehension.”
There is logic behind our not knowing why a tragedy occurred. The author contends that, had we known a satisfactory reason, we would be “reconciled with bad things happening to good people. Since we have only the question and not the answer, therefore, we work tirelessly so that bad things do not continue to happen to good people. We conduct medical research to prevent or cure disease. We become trained as first responders so we can race to scenes of crimes, accidents, or disasters to render aid. We speak out, write, and march against injustice. Sometimes faith lies in the question and the need to make a difference, not in the answer”. This is not a cop-out. “Sometimes, it’s altogether better not to know the reason for suffering. […] We have a surprising benefit from our incomprehension: We become outraged and energized to do everything in our power to prevent further evil from ever happening again. Perhaps this is exactly what G-d wants.” Indeed, “suffering may be thrust upon us against our will, but we choose how to face it.” Our pain can be seen as a means to a great end: since “when you feel miserable, you become sensitized to other people’s pain,” so it is possible our pain makes us more sensitive people. This makes the whole world a more sensitive place, spiritually and emotionally. Although the question is more significant than an answer, the author does, indeed, suggest some half-dozen approaches to tragedy.
The book is masterfully written and logically arranged. Each chapter is about 20 pages, making this an easy, engaging, and thoughtful read. Furthermore, each chapter ends conveniently with a summary and footnotes. When certain sages are quoted, the author provides brief biographical notes. Every page is rife with wisdom, and will give readers reason to pause for meditation, consideration, and absorption. Let’s hope that, as long as there is suffering in this world, books like Why G-d Why will be available to ease our pain and inspire our growth.