By Rabbi Eli Freedman
The Torah mentions the terms ‘widow’ and ‘orphan’ over fifty times. It seems strange to me that both in Hebrew and English the terms for someone who has lost a spouse or parent are so prevalent, yet there is no word for someone who has lost a child. Perhaps this is because there are no words to describe a loss so tragic.
In this week’s Torah portion, we see a glimpse of the pain that all of the families in Newtown, CT are surely facing when we look at our patriarch, Jacob. Jacob believes his favorite son Joseph is already dead and at the prospect of hearing that he may also lose his son Benjamin says, “If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in misery.” (Genesis 44:29)
There is truly something about the death of children that brings us to despair more than anything else. How, then, do we continue on, continue to have faith even in the face of such evil in this world?
It is not easy to live in a world where such evil can exist, but it is even harder to live with the idea that things happen to people for no reason, that God has lost touch with the world and that nobody is in the driver’s seat.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost a 14 year old son, wrote a book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In it, he outlines the various ways that people try to salvage their view of God and God’s orderly world. Some people, with good intentions, explain that misfortune occurs because:
1. God has a hidden purpose, and God’s purpose is in the grand design of the Universe, not in the life of the individual.
2. Suffering is a test, meant to teach us something.
3. Death leads us and our loved ones to a better place.
Kushner rejects all of these explanations. I, too, reject all of these explanations. This is not my God. These rationalizations do not offer me any solace.
All the justifications to tragedy which I just mentioned have at least one thing in common. They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to explain why God would want us to suffer. There may be another approach. I believe that God does not cause our suffering. It happens for some reason other than the will of God.
As we try to wrap our heads around this most recent tragedy, many of us are struck by the idea that some things happen for no reason, that there is randomness in the universe.
It may be helpful for some to think about the fact that the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School could have easily occurred at any other school in our country, inflicting tragedy on some other random group of families. There is no message in all of that. There is no reason for those particular people to be afflicted rather than others. These events do not reflect God’s choices. They represent chaos, those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated
It may also be helpful to think about this tragedy through the lens of freewill. Kushner writes that having freewill, “means being free to make choices instead of doing whatever our instincts would tell us to do. It means knowing that some choices are good, and others are bad, and it is our job to know the difference…. But if human beings are truly free to choose, if they can show themselves as being virtuous by freely choosing the good when the bad is equally possible, then they have to be free to choose the bad also. If we were only free to do good, we would not really be choosing. If we are bound to do good, then we are not free to choose it.” [page 79]
So, why, then, do bad things happen to good people? One reason is that our being human leaves us free to hurt each other, and God can’t stop us without taking away the freedom that makes us human. Human beings can cheat each other, rob each other, hurt each other, and God can only look down in pity and compassion at how little we have learned over the ages about how human beings should behave.
When people ask ‘Where was God in Newtown? How could God have allowed such a horrific event to occur, my response is that it was not God who caused it. It was caused by a human being choosing to be cruel to his fellow man.
Both the explanations of randomness and freewill are just some ways in our Jewish tradition of beginning to try to understand something that really cannot be rationalized.
I do not claim to have the answers, and I would be wary of anyone that does.
It is interesting to note, that Rabbi Kushner’s book is not called, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” but rather, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” because, sadly, events such as the tragedy at Sandy Hook do and will occur in our lives.
Pain is the price we pay for being alive. According to Kushner, “When we understand that, our question will change from, ‘why do we have to be in pain?’ to ‘what do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and is not just pointless empty suffering? How can we turn all the painful experiences of our lives into birth pangs or into growing pains?’ We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.” [page 64]
All we can do is to try to rise beyond the question ‘why did it happen?’ and begin to ask the question ‘what do I do now that it has happened?’
My first answer to this question is: we struggle. Jacob, our biblical archetype of a grieving parent, is also known by the name, Yisrael – one who struggles with God. I cannot begin to understand the pain that those in Newtown are coping with, but I know that they too must be struggling like Jacob, like us, with what it means to believe in God in the face of such tragedy.
My second answer is: compassion. In Judaism, we have traditional words that one says to a mourner; words meant to show the mourner that we cannot know what you are feeling but we are with you as one community and we pray that you find consolation:
HaMakom yenachem et’chem b’toch shar avay’lay Tzion vee’Yerushalayim.
May the Ever-Present One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.