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When bad things happen to good people: Parshat Bechukotai

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, brings up the profound and long standing philosophical question of theodicy, of justice and why bad things happen to good people: “If you walk in my ways, and guard my commandments, and do them, I will bring the rain in its time…” The parsha then continues to tell us the terrible things that will happen if we do not keep the mitzvot. Here the Torah is clear on reward and punishment—that it is retributive, communal, and it happens in this physical world. But the Torah also lays out other models for when bad things happen to good people; for example, Abraham and Job are seemingly tortured, not as a means of punishing them, but of testing them.

The Talmud in a few places attempts to give explanations to resolve the paradox between the seeming lack of justice and mercy in our world and an infinitely just and merciful God. One explanation the Talmud gives is “sechar mitzvot b’hi alma leka,” the reward of mitzvot is not in this world, but the next world. If a child is commanded by their parent to climb a tree, shoo away the mother bird and bring back the young—two commandments for which the Torah promises long life—but then the child falls from the tree and dies, where, asks the Talmud, “Is the long life of this person?” The Talmud answers that it is not in this world where they will collect their reward but in the next world.

Another answer the Talmud (Brachot 5a) gives is that of, “Afflictions of love.” “If one’s pains appear unjustified, one can assume these are ‘afflictions of love.’” As it says in Proverbs, “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes… Rava said that Rav Seḥora said that Rav Huna said: Anyone whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, desires, He oppresses with suffering, as it is stated (Isaiah 53): ‘The one in whom the Lord delights, He oppresses with disease.’” The Talmud then qualifies that this concept of, “pains of love,” only applies to someone who accepts these punishments with love. The Talmud adds that another measure for these types of afflictions is that they are only afflictions of love if they do not stop one from studying Torah or praying.

The Talmud relates a story on the topic about the death of Rabbi Akiva at the hands of the Romans. “When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema. As they were combing his flesh with iron combs (skinning him alive), he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: ‘Our teacher, even now? As you suffer, you recite Shema?’ He said to them: ‘All my days I have been troubled by the verse: “With all your soul,” meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded to me, shall I not fulfill it?’ He prolonged his uttering of the word: “Echad,” or ”One,” until his soul left his body…The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Is this the Torah and such its reward?’”

In another story in the Talmud, Moshe sees Rabbi Akiva being killed and asks the same questions as the angels, “Is this the Torah and this its reward?” to which God responds, “Be silent, for so is my thought before me (such is my incomprehensible decree).”

Though it may be tempting to take the beginning of our Torah portion at face value, it should remind us, not that life is simple and there is a clear Divine calculus for suffering, but of the thoughtfulness of the Jewish people, with much diversity of perspective regarding the ideas that are important and life-altering, and that the real questions in life, those which matter most, are perplexing and multifaceted.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog Morethodoxy.org, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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