Bezalel Naor

The Job moment

Theodicy is a philosophical problem that disturbs all religious people. In layman’s terms: Why do bad things happen to good people?

The Mishnah (Avot 4:15) records in the name of Rabbi Yannai: “We have no explanation, neither for the serenity of the wicked, nor for the suffering of the righteous.”

According to a tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 7a), Moses requested of God that He explain His ways. “Why is there a righteous person who has it bad, and there is a wicked person who has it good?” Opinions differ whether Moses’ request was granted or not.

And then there is the Book of Job, an entire work devoted to the problem of the righteous suffering. Job, a just man, is stripped of all his most precious possessions, including his dearly beloved family. Job’s companions offer various explanations why God has visited these hardships upon him. In the final analysis, the catastrophes of the Creator remain a mystery beyond mortal man’s comprehension. And while at book’s end, the protagonist, Job, winds up with twice as many livestock as he started with, and produces a new family to replace the old, the reader may very well remain unconvinced (as did many Holocaust survivors) that there truly is no compensation for the horrors endured.

I have no answers to this perennial problem. I can only offer that there are moments in our history, collective and individual, which I would call “Job moments.” Shemini ‘Atseret/Simhat Torah 5784, or, in the non-Jewish reckoning, October 7, 2023 is such a “Job moment.”

Let me share with you a chain of events concatenated by Job moments.

* * *

Flashback to my birthplace, Bangor, Maine. It is the 1950s, a few days prior to Passover. I accompany my mother to do her Pesah shopping. We enter a tiny barebones grocery store that I never stepped foot in before. I remember asking my mother why we have come here when we can shop at the modern brightly-lit supermarket. I don’t recall her response.

Standing in the middle of this outpost is a short frail man wearing a casquette on his head. His cheeks are gaunt, his eyes ashen. Though yet a child, I sensed that this man was from another universe altogether.

This was my first encounter with Hershel Gedal (shortened from Gedalowitz), a native of Sighet (made famous by Elie Wiesel’s novels) who had survived (if one may use that word) Hitler’s inferno.

From the proprietor of the Passover store, Hershel graduated to being the sexton of a synagogue. A source of income was the sale of lulavim and etrogim before the Sukkot festival.

Over the years, I got a glimpse of Hershel’s life in Sighet before the War. When I would come home from yeshivah, we would strike up conversations as we sat next to one another on a synagogue bench.

Hershel told me of the wondrous state-of-the-art mikvahs (ritual baths) of Sighet.

On another occasion, he recounted the visit of a saintly rabbi, a tsaddik, who has since been forgotten. In Hershel’s eyes, the man had been an angel, a “mal’akh.” At a loss for words, he concluded in Hebrew: “Mah nomar? Mah nedaber?” (“What can we say?”)

He reminisced about his saintly grandfather, who maintained a farm outside of town. The Sigheter Rav would sometimes stay in his grandfather’s home, and upon his return to Sighet, share with his Hasidim how touched he was by the heartfelt Tikkun Hatsot (midnight vigil) of this Jewish farmer whose floor glistened with tears.

Hershel had a surviving brother, David. According to Hershel, his brother had been a Talmudic prodigy who knew the “sugya” by heart. After the war, David Gedalowitz settled in Paris and Gallicized his name from David G. to “Guy David.” His entrepreneurial talents brought him fabulous wealth. (David Gedalowitz is memorialized in Elie Wiesel’s autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea.) When Hershel suffered a heart attack, his brother David hurried to his hospital bed all the way from Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, where he was involved in shipping oil.

Of all Hershel’s anecdotes, one would perplex me for years to come. He told me that as a youngster in heder, they had a rebbe who taught them the Book of Job with the commentary of Ramban.

At the time, I didn’t say anything, but long after Hershel’s passing I would continue to mull over this. The Book of Job is undoubtedly the most difficult book of the Bible. Aside from its complex literary development, on a simply linguistic level, many of the Hebrew words that appear in the book are what is known as “yehida’iyot” (hapax legomena), which is to say that they appear nowhere else in the Bible. Even the most astute commentator can only guess their meaning.

Now couple that with the commentary of Ramban (or Nahmanides, as he is referred to in English). This is a kabbalistic commentary that delves into the theory of reincarnation.

How educationally unsound to load this heavy baggage on youngsters. The thought occurred to me that only a madman would expose his juvenile pupils to such texts. And then, one day, driving in the car (which is when I do some of my best thinking), I experienced an epiphany.

The melamed who did this, was a ba‘al ru’ah ha-kodesh, one possessed by the holy spirit. Evidently, he had a precognition that one day these boys in the heder, whose education had been entrusted to him, would enter the gates of Gehinnom. If you foresaw that your beloved charges would enter what Wiesel termed “the kingdom of night,” which teaching would you provide them with? The rebbe arrived at the Book of Job accompanied by Ramban’s commentary.

* * *

Years pass. I am now a rabbi. I receive a call from a dear friend who resides in a small community in Western Massachusetts. He puts his wife on the phone. Before doing so, he explains to me that his beloved has completed her chemotherapy and is now terminal.

The situation is extremely awkward, to say the least. What does one say to a human who has little time left to live?

Thankfully, I was spared having to talk much. Chana did the talking for me. She informed me that she had finished her study of the Book of Job and proceeded to give me an impromptu lesson concerning this curious book. Chana shared with me how strange are the names of Job’s daughters at the end of the book: Yemimah, Ketsi‘ah and Keren-Happukh.

I thanked Chana for teaching me something of Job, a book I frankly did my best to avoid, as I found it unbearably tragic.

“But I will tell you one thing about the Book of Job that you may find of interest.”

“What is that?”

I told Chana of Hershel, a spectral survivor of the Holocaust, and how back in the heder in Sighet, the rebbe had taught the young boys Job with Ramban’s commentary, and how baffling I found the whole story.

“And, Chana, one day, driving in the car, it dawned on me. I finally understood the wisdom of this teacher. He was preparing Hershel and the other children for the damnation of Auschwitz.”

“That’s very romantic.”

Chana had studied at a Jewish seminary where her professors trained her in critical method and the proper way in which to parse texts. Over the years, whenever I would share with her a Hasidic “vort,” she would shoot back a sharp reply, deconstructing what was intended as a deep spiritual insight by holding it up to the harsh light of reason.

And, true to form, that was our phone conversation that day.

Bezalel, ever the starry-eyed mystic, and Chana, ever the ultra-rationalist.

* * *

I was sitting in the doctor’s office when I received a text message informing me of Chana’s passing. The tidings left me thunderstruck. I knew that Chana was terminal but thought that it would be a matter of months, not weeks.

Half-crazed, I decided that now was not the time to drive home. Instead, I drove to the local Hebrew bookseller, thinking that in the seforim store, with its numerous new publications, I’d be distracted enough to calm my nerves.

As I walked into the store, there stared me in the eyes, almost blinding me with the glare reflected off its gold-stamped lettering—The Book of Job with the Commentary of Ramban, based on manuscript.[1]

Needless to say, the volume now sits atop my shtender (lectern).

* * *

In his Introduction to the Book of Job (dated 1867), Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (Wisser) quotes a midrash that in Egypt, Moses (alleged to be the author of the Book of Job) would comfort the Hebrew slaves by reading to them passages from the book.

The renowned scholar Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun of Vilna (1817-1886) was able to trace this so-called midrash to Origen (circa 185-circa 253), one of the Church fathers who conversed with rabbis in Caesarea, a mixed city where exchanges between Christians and Jews were not uncommon.[2] Origen’s remark entered the orbit of Jewish consciousness through Me’or ‘Eynayim (Mantua, 1573), a controversial work by the Italian Renaissance man, Rabbi Azariah dei Rossi, or, as he is known in Hebrew, Azariah min ha-Adumim (circa 1511-1578). In the third section entitled, Imrei Binah (chap. 4 [f.36v.]), Dei Rossi cites Origen, who claimed to have found written in an early scroll that in Egypt, Moses would take the Book of Job around to the elders of Israel to provide them with some hope.

Dei Rossi related Origen’s remarks to the chronology of Seder ‘Olam (chap. 3), whereby Job was born just as the Children of Israel entered Egypt and died just as they departed Egypt. Seder ‘Olam is one of the earliest rabbinic works. Tradition assigns its authorship to the tanna, Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta (circa 160 CE).[3]

Strashun wonders aloud why Dei Rossi, a meticulous scholar, did not also adduce the beraita (recorded in y. Sotah 5:6 and b. Bava Batra 14b-15a) that Moses authored the Book of Job.

Because of the controversial nature of Me’or ‘Enayim (which is still anathema in some Hasidic circles), Rabbi Gedaliah ibn Yahya (circa 1515-1587), the author of the popular chronicle, Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah (Venice, 1587), saw fit to craftily write: “I saw in an old kuntres that Moses our Teacher would show the Book of Job and preach it to the elders of Israel …” (f.13r.).

Finally, Strashun juxtaposes the transmission of Origen to the words of the (authentic) Midrash Exodus Rabbah (parashah 5[18]) that in Egypt, our ancestors possessed “megillot” in which they would delight (mishta‘she‘in) on Sabbaths, finding therein the promise of redemption. (Mishta‘she‘in is a play on the word yish‘u in Exodus 5:9: “ve-’al yish‘u be-divrei shaker”; “and let them not regard words of falsehood.”)

With all due apologies to Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun, one finds the verb “delight” most inappropriate when describing the reading of Job’s tragedy.

In his commentary to the Midrash, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn of Horadna and Vilna (d. 1862) offered that the “scrolls” that so delighted the oppressed Children of Israel, contained the chapters which would later be found in the Book of Genesis: Adam, Noah, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which abound with hope-inspiring prophecies.

[1] Published by Feldheim in Israel in 2018, the editor, Rabbi Judah Leib Friedman, made use of “British Library Ms. Add. 26,894/II, the manuscript upon which this critical edition of ‘Ramban on Iyov’ is based.”

[2] Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun, Mivhar Ketavim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1969), pp. 230-231.

[3] It is interesting that in y. Sotah 5:6 and Genesis Rabbah, parashah 57(4), it is none other than Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta who correlates the birth and death of Job to Israel’s descent to, and ascent from, Egypt. (In Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 15a, this is an anonymous statement.) Chaim Milikowsky finds attractive the thought that the author of the Midrash drew this correlation directly from Seder ‘Olam, which tradition ascribed to Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta (see b. Yevamot 82b and Niddah 46b). Ch. Milikowsky, Seder ‘Olam (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2013), vol. 2 (Commentary), chap. 3, appendix 2 (p. 77).

About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021); and The Souls of the World of Chaos (Kodesh, 2023).
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