Yoel Oz
Co-Founder of the Abrahamic Movement

Yom Hashoah, COVID-19, and Why/When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day and COVID-19 seems like as good a day as any to talk about Tzaddik VaRa Lo, when/why bad things happen to good, or even innocent (like children), people.

What Judaism introduced into the world was the notion that there was only One God, and that He is Good. Tragedy wasn’t a philosophical problem for polytheists or dualists. It was the angry god or the evil god that brought suffering upon the innocent. Furthermore, tragedy was proof of the whims of the gods and the meaninglessness of existence.

It was Avraham at Sdom who first raised this question, that the Judge of all the Earth must act with Justice. חלילה לך! , it would be a desecration of ‘You’! The words are unspeakably intemperate of a human being to utter before God. And yet this same person silently acquiesces when commanded to sacrifice the miracle son given to him, without a peep.

What is the meaning of this? We recently studied in the Talmud in Tractate Brachot the Aggadot of Moshe pleading before God on behalf of the Children of Israel after the sin of the golden calf. Moshe makes all kinds of arguments. But the strongest is when he does exactly what Avraham does and calls on Hashem to sanctify His Own Name, and in this time, act with Mercy. Moshe is then taught verses of God’s 13 attributes that we are supposed to say when begging God for compassion.

Iyov/Job is called “my servant” by God to his “friends” who emotionally tormented him during his suffering, while Iyov himself cursed the day he was born. But then to Iyov himself God appears מן הסערה, Out of the Whirlwind, the same phrase used when Eliyahu ascended alive to Heaven. God blasts at Iyov, “Who are you!!!” “Were you there when I created the Universe from Nothingness?!” God is saying it is not for you, mortal man, to understand or challenge Me. In the end, we are all defeated by God.

But the holy Rebbes, most famously Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, would constantly be Israel and Man’s best defense attorney to God on the Day of Judgment. You created us this way, Hashem. How did you expect of us to act?

But the suffering in this world of the innocent is not something we can justify. We can only cry and know that Hashem is crying with us (I know to Muslim ears this sounds blasphemous, but the Creator of Emotion is the Greatest Emotional Character imaginable). He is our Parent. He cries with us.

There are some who say that the problem of theodicy is the proof of the fact that there must be an afterlife. שכר ועונש בהאי עלמא ליכא. There is no reward and punishment in this world. There must be something more.

I believe it. These physical bodies we are brought into this world in are fragile objects. A nothing of DNA, that’s what this virus is, can kill tens of thousands of people. It is sparing the young so they can continue to make believe in their minds that they are still immortal. It’s a fantasy. We are stardust that sings the songs of our Creator, that tries as finite matter to grasp infinity.

When a child of your own flesh asks you, “why does Hashem make us die?”, what do you answer? What she doesn’t know yet how to ask is “why does Hashem make us live?”. We take that for granted.

So maybe these physical bodies that are the garments of our souls of Infinity and Light are not all that there is. I’ve read enough descriptions of NDE’s, near death experiences, that make me wonder about that overpowering White Light that beckons the soul. Why we are born, when we are born, where we are born, to whom we are born, none of these did we choose. But we believe, even in the face of contrary evidence, that we are here for a reason. There is meaning in this life.

What I don’t understand is the meaning of this death and horrifying suffering. Somehow I have to hold on with faith to this notion that God is Good, that his loving-kindness is everlasting. הן יקטלני, לו איחל. Even as He kills me, still I yearn for Him (Job 13:15).

One day, Hashem will wipe away the tears. There’s nothing more honest than the cry of the soul. Crying is a good thing. It doesn’t show weakness. Quite the opposite. It is our strength in our brokenness that defines us.

What we can do now though is לזכור, to remember. To speak of those who are gone, that their souls be bound up in the bounds of life, that they did not die in vain, that they did not live in vain. ה’ ימלוך לעולם ועד. Hashem will Reign Forever, and it is through Him that we achieve everlasting life.

About the Author
Yoel Oz is the co-founder of the Abrahamic Movement. He served as an Orthodox rabbi and educator in the Washington, DC metro area for five years. He studied at Cornell and Yeshiva Universities and Yeshivat Hamivtar and Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan. He currently resides with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
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