In this week’s Torah reading, at least the Eretz Yisrael version of Parshat HaShavua, which is next week’s in the Diaspora, we have a fascinating version of the world’s most famous philosophic problem: Theodicy. The term was coined by Gottfried Leibnitz in 1710, who was the smartest person in whatever room he entered. He was an advisor to kings, and, much to my chagrin, helped to invent calculus, which ended my mathematical career. But we’re concerned with Theodicy which means ‘vindicating God’, explaining how everything God does is cool, and fair.
Our parsha seems to say the very same thing. It begins, ‘If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains…, the earth shall yield its produce and the trees…their fruit…peace…make you fertile…and I will be ever present in your midst (Vayikra 23:4-12)’. Then the opposite, ‘But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments… I will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you (verses 15 & 16).’ So, that’s it. Just keep the Mitzvot, be good; everything will be fine forever.
That’s not exactly what we have observed over our long history. Yirmiyahu noticed it, ‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are all they who deal treacherously, deceitfully living at ease? (Yirmiyahu 12:1). Let’s be honest, every one of us has felt (and, probably, exclaimed) that life isn’t fair. Looking back at my life as a rabbi, educator and parent, the most common complaint I’ve been subjected to is: But it isn’t fair!
Rabbis have expounded on this problem forever. Let me quickly provide four famous rabbinic approaches to this issue.
The Ramban holds that everything is fair. However, even the ZADIK does something wrong and even the RASHA does something right. Therefore, what we see as a RASHA prospering is his worldly reward for the few good deeds; he will pay later for his sins. And the ZADIK who is seen to suffer is paying now for his few misdeeds and will be rewarded greatly later for the Mitzvot.
There are Rabbis (Rashi, Reb Saadia) who say that the apparent suffering of a ZADIK is really a benefit which will guide this righteous person onto a superior path. This group also can see the suffering of a ZADIK as benefitting the generation, as either an example or a KAPARA, atonement.
There is also a school of thought, represented by the Maharal M’Prague, claiming that we can’t notice the fairness of the system because we don’t know what was initially fated for that person. Whatever happens to the ZADIK, it was better than his destined situation, and there was a downgrade for a RASHA.
My last suggested idea is that of the Rambam. He explained at the end of Moreh Nevuchim that these promises of well-being to the righteous only work when the ZADIK is connecting to God, at other times this paragon is susceptible to the vicissitudes of chance. Chance is the default position from which we can draw no conclusions.
Phew! If any of those ideas are totally acceptable to you, then I suggest that you stop reading NOW! But if, like me, you’re not convinced, then please listen to the words of Rav Soloveitchik:
Halakhah could not accept the thematic metaphysic, which tends to gloss over the absurdity of evil, and it did not engage in the building of a magnificent façade to shut out the ugly sights of an inadequate existence… It is enough to glance at the laws of mourning in order to convince ourselves that Halakhah saw death as a dreadful fiend with whom no pact may be reached, no reconciliation is possible. In the act of mourning for a deceased relative, the whole traumatic horror in the face of an insensate and absurd experience asserts itself. Death appears in all its monstrosity and absurdity, and an encounter with it knocks out the bottom of human existence. If Halakhah concurred with the thematic in its interpretation of death as deliverance, as a victory over nihility, then why mourn and grieve for the departed? Why rend our garments, sit on the floor, and say ‘BARUCH DAYAN HA’EMET’? (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 102-103)
The Rav knew and understood suffering. Anyone who sat on the floor with him on Tisha B’Av witnessed his struggle with evil, anguish and misery. There are no easy and comfortable pathways to explaining the despair and disaster rampaging through Jewish history. Finally, the Rav suggested a method to confront the atrocity of evil in Jewish history and our lives. The Rav explained:
The fundamental question is: What obligation does suffering impose upon man?…We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose, but, rather, about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? (Fate and Destiny, Kol Dodi Dofek, p. 7-8)
Coincidently, we read chapter four of Pirkei Avot this Shabbat, and there Rebbe Yannai teaches: Neither the peace of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous is in our hands (4:19). Now, he may mean that it’s not in our power to understand, but I think, like the Rav suggested, that Rebbe Yannai wasn’t discussing philosophic speculation. I think that he meant the fate of the good, the bad and the ugly isn’t our hands. The only think in our hands is what we do.
I love the fact that the very next Mishna reads: Rebbe Matya ben Harash says: Be first to greet every person! I can’t explain to anyone what’s fair and what’s foul, but I do know what I should do next: Be a kind person. And that is ‘in my hands’. All that’s left is the faith that, ‘The Eternal, the Eternal is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth’ (Shmot 34:6). May it become manifest, soon.