When bad things happen to good people


I recently lost my baby sister at the tender age of 48. She died suddenly without notice or any semblance of what was about to happen. I do not think she knew. She was a mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunt and grandmother. True, she left behind a legacy of a great, well-grounded family who are upstanding people with moral convictions and filled with empathy. She also left, no fault of her own, a mess. There are many people grieving her passing, especially her husband and children.


To add salt to the wound, my sister’s husband needs cardiac surgery to replace one of the valves in his heart. This surgery is the real deal. They need to open the chest cavity. While they have thankfully perfected this technique over the years, it still comes with significant risk. This poor man. Can you imagine his thoughts going into the room? He has no spouse at home as a backup. He is the mother, father, breadwinner and child psychologist.


You have to ask yourself why such a big smack in the face followed by yet another lights out punch to an innocent man and pure family. Indeed why? As a Rabbi, I get this question many times in one form or another. Questions like why do the righteous suffer? How can G-d allow the Holocaust to happen? I must confess that I do not have the answers to these questions. I also believe that no one else does either.


Take, for example, the book with the same title as this article written by Harold Kushner who lost his son at a young age. The book makes the argument for theistic finitism. He proposes in his book that there is a finite G-d who is benevolent, but not all-powerful to prevent evil. He basically opines that G-d does his best but is limited.


I firmly disagree with his position and I also think his book is not helpful to say the least. It paints G-d as a nebbish, a joker, inept, incompetent, weak and maladroit (G-d forbid). I realize that there are many people who agree with his premise, but as a Jew and a leader of many in my community, I reject this response completely and emphatically. Why would you believe in a G-d that is a fool?

I once heard a story about a great contemporary Rabbi whom I know personally, Rabbi Manis Friedman. He was approached by a Jewish atheist who attempted to articulate why he does not believe in G-d. After listening to this man for some time, Rabbi Friedman responded, “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”  In essence, if you are going to emasculate G-d and say that he is incompetent, then why have a G-d at all.


My understanding and analysis of these types of questions bring me some comfort, although I do not have exact answers.


For a human being who has a finite mind, trying to understand the infinite mind and the ways of G-d is an attempt of folly. I could never understand G-d and neither can anyone else. Let’s be honest, we have barely begun to understand the human brain, which is physical matter, so how on earth can we expect to comprehend something that is much loftier than metaphysics and even spirituality!

My conclusion is this. Just as I am content in knowing that rocket science, computer coding and the New York bail reform act is above my intellectual pay grade, I am also content in understanding that I cannot understand G-d. This takes humility. I know that I am a cog in the wheel, and a very important cog (VIG), and I am okay with not being the engine.


In addition to the above, there are great people, thinkers, sages and Rabbis who have grappled with this question, and yet, it has not shattered their faith at all. In fact, just the opposite. Take the great Austrian Neurologist, Victor Frankl who found G-d in Auschwitz.


Victor Frankl himself told the following story. I heard the late Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, relay this:

Victor was expecting his shower, like many to be death. But he was one of the lucky ones. It was just a shower. Afterward, they gave him clothes, clothes of people who had been killed. And he put on these clothes, and he found something in one of the pockets. He took it out, and saw that it was a scrap of paper. It had been torn from a Siddur, from a prayer book.

And it contained these words, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. “Ve’ahavtu et Hashem Elokecha…,” And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And Frankl said, “Those words transfixed me. They were saying to me, ‘Now, you must live every single thing you ever taught and practiced. You must live that here, now, in Auschwitz.’”


There was of course the great Chassidic Rebbes who lost everything. They lost their spouses, children, communities, friends, handwritten manuscripts. The story of Khaliver Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Taub, who recently passed away, is another example of faith under fire. In 1944, Dr. Josef Mengele did unspeakable chemical experiments on Taub when he was just a young man, leaving him scarred and unable to have children or even grow a beard. One would think that after laying on Mengele’s table, he would be ruined for life. Not so. After the Holocaust, he led thousands out of the misery and stressed joy in life and honoring G-d.


This excerpt is taken from Wikipedia:

Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (January 10, 1905 – June 18, 1994) was an Orthodox rabbi and the founding Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenburg Hasidic dynasty. Halberstam became one of the youngest Rebbes in Europe, leading thousands of followers in the town of Klausenburg, Romania, before World War II. His wife, eleven children and most of his followers were murdered by the Nazis while he was incarcerated in several concentration camps. After the war, he moved to the United States and later to Israel, rebuilt Jewish communal life in the displaced person camps of Western Europe, re-established his dynasty in the United States and Israel, founded a Haredi neighborhood in Israel and a Sanz community in the United States, established a hospital in Israel run according to Jewish law, and rebuilt his own family with a second marriage and the birth of seven more children.

Who am I to question next to these giants? As I said, it takes humility.


I personally do not blame G-d for the Holocaust, as I place the blame squarely on man. I blame Hitler, I blame the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, French, Americans, the grand (not so grand) Mufti Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, President Roosevelt and on and on.

G-d demands of us many times not to murder and not to shed blood and we humans do not listen beginning with Cain and Abel.

In this aspect Kushner is right. Since G-d gave us free will, He allowed us to kill and makes Himself powerless by design. G-d gives us enough slack to choose to be Godly or choose to be lower than an animal.


I do not understand my sister’s death. I don’t understand the suffering. I am upset that this occurred but my distress and dismay does not shatter one iota of belief. G-d is much greater than me, and I trust in him, like the great Rabbis of old.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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