The Hardest Questions Are Rarely New

In one of the sadder episodes of my rabbinate, I officiated recently at the funeral of a young soldier in the American army who died suddenly of natural causes. The death was, to understate the case dramatically, a horrific shock to the soldier’s family, and to all of us who knew him and his family through the years. His death was a great tragedy.

Adding to the trauma was the fact that the funeral was delayed by bureaucratic procedures, in which the military specializes. And it was delayed just enough to collide head on with the massive snowstorm of last weekend, which delayed it by yet another day.

As it happened, my weekly Thursday morning Talmud class that meets right after our morning Minyan was studying a sugya, a Talmudic passage, that was strikingly relevant. In the first chapter of Tractate B’Rahot, the subject of discussion was requests that Moses made of God that were positively answered. Actually, whether or not they were all answered becomes a subject of discussion in and of itself, but that is not directly relevant to the subject at hand.

In the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses had used all the powers of persuasion at his disposal to dissuade God, as it were, from destroying the Israelites and starting over, Moses realizes that despite his remarkable relationship with God, he really didn’t “know” God at all, such that a human being would be capable of such knowledge. “Shoe me your ways,” Moses says.

In the Biblical text, God responds by telling Moses that the kind of knowledge he seeks is unattainable to humans. We cannot behold the (metaphorical) face of God, and survive the experience. So God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, and allows him, as it were, to see His back. I have always considered that brief collection of verses to be among the most remarkable in the Torah. No human being has ever had, or will ever have, as intimate a conversation with God as Moses did, even though his request was ultimately denied.

But when the Talmud looks at the conversation, it expands on what Moses’ question is really all about. Moses doesn’t just say, “Show me your ways.” Why, he asks, are there righteous people who prosper, righteous people who suffer, wicked people who prosper, and wicked people who suffer? God answers Moses by saying that the righteous people who prosper are themselves children of righteous people, and that righteous who suffer are children of wicked people. Conversely, the wicked who prosper are children of righteous people, and those who suffer are wicked children born the wicked people.

In the context of the painful and difficult events of this past week, the discussion in the Talmud seemed particularly significant to me. It wasn’t the theology that was the issue; one could certainly argue with that. Rather, it was the fact that the discussion took place at all.

Remember, the Torah text itself merely has Moses asking God to reveal more of Himself. Moses wanted greater insight into God’s essence, and how God’s will is manifest in the world. But the rabbis of the Talmud saw fit to place into Moses’ mouth the questions that no doubt they themselves wanted answers to. Essentially, they were asking the most profound question that humans can ask: Why is there unfairness in the world? Why does it look so often as if those who deserve reward instead get punishment, and conversely, those who deserve punishment seem to be living the good life?

What is true is that questions about perceived cosmic unfairness are not a new thing to Judaism, nor are they taboo. Not only does the Talmud not shy away from them. The Bible itself doesn’t either.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that the Book of Job was included in the Biblical canon? After all, the book is a loud, extended protest by Job against his perception of unjustified suffering. What have I done, he says repeatedly to his “friends,” to deserve the horrific circumstances to which I have been subjected? They keep saying “You must have done something,” and he keeps saying, “No, I haven’t.”

The rabbis could have decided to omit Job’s lament from the Bible. They had protracted discussions about whether books like the Song of Songs belonged in. Some saw the erotic prose of the book as unseemly for sacred text; others saw it as a powerful metaphor about the love of God and Israel. Supporters of Song of Songs won out, but one must wonder: Why didn’t they leave Job out?

I would suggest that Job’s story is in the Bible for the same reason that the rabbis of the Talmud used Moses as a powerful vehicle for their theological questions. Those questions are real, compelling, and timeless. They can just as easily be in Job’s mouth, in a Talmudic rabbi’s mouth, or in the mouths of the parents and siblings of a wonderful young man and soldier who died tragically young, just last week, for no apparent reason. Cosmic unfairness, or at least the appearance of it, is not unique to any century or millennium. It is part and parcel of the human condition. Our difficult challenge is to develop a faith structure supple enough to cope with it when it manifests itself.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.