As the world struggles to understand the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and the 27 lives lost (including 20 beautiful, little, precious children), it is impossible to resist asking a series of questions: How did this happen? Where was God?
Was God punishing us for something? Are we somehow to blame for this loss? As Jews, we have pondered these questions for millennia. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? And, conversely, why do good things seem to come to those who are wicked, immoral, or unethical?
The Bible presents a very mixed view about the presence of good and evil in our world. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, sets forth a clear reward and punishment system, as it contains the words, “The righteous can look forward to joy, but the hope of the wicked is doomed.” Job, the most maligned, tortured man of the entire Bible, is confronted with the question of good and evil, and God says to him, in an attempt to put an end to his questions: “Would you discover the mystery of God? Would you discover the limit of the Almighty?”
The rabbis of the Mishnah identify that there seems to be much about the ways of good and evil that they do not understand, and they admit it without hesitation in Pirkei Avot: “e cHeHeIt is not in our power to understand the prosperity of the wicked, nor the sufferings of the righteous.”
If these theories were all we had to work with – if this was all our tradition taught – I know that I would feel confused and powerless. I would wonder – how will I ever know if I am being righteous enough? I could strive for ritual perfection, but what if I make some tiny, unconscious mistake?
The Kabbalists of the Middle Ages taught that the world was created when a vessel containing all of God’s Divine light suddenly shattered, thereby sending Divine sparks out into the universe. These sparks entered every single thing, creature, and person. The Kabbalists also taught that this initial brokenness is the cause of evil, illness, and loss in the world. But we can do something to heal the broken vessel which contained God’s Divine light. When we do mitzvot, good deeds, and take care of each other, we bring sparks back together, reuniting parts of the Divine Light, and healing some of this brokenness. This repairing – which they called Tikkun Olam – slowly helps eradicate evil in our world and heal the universe.
Personally, I’m most drawn to the idea known as “limited theism.” 20th century rabbi, Milton Steinberg, suggested this theology. While thinking about the bad things that happen to so many good people, Steinberg decided that God is all-good but not all-powerful Tragedies do not happen because God caused them, but because some elements of the world (certain people, bacteria, the planet) have not yet evolved to a higher spiritual plane. It might be scary for some of us to think that God’s powers are limited, but it would seem to explain so much about the world. It would explain why one good person survives a plane crash, but another good person doesn’t. It’s not that God chooses one person over the other. In Steinberg’s “limited theism” theory, God simply cannot control this situation.
These various Jewish thinkers’ theories are examples of how the traditional views of Good and Evil have shifted throughout Jewish history. And, yet, how many of us are stuck with the belief from 2,000 years ago, that bad things happen and that we are somehow to blame? How many of us are stuck with the belief that evil presented to us is a test of some kind, one that we wouldn’t be given if God didn’t think we could handle it.
Often clergy, well-meaning friends, and loved ones don’t know how to comfort someone coping with a recent loss because of our inner conflicts concerning why there is evil in the world. I’m sorry, but I refuse to teach the idea that God somehow causes these terrible things to happen. I refuse to believe that I was involved in a life-altering and debilitating car accident eight years ago because God needed to punish me for something I had done. Likewise, I refuse to believe that God let me survive it and eventually fully heal because I did something right. There are too many stories that are the opposite – bad people who survive terrible ordeals, or good people with their whole lives ahead of them who are struck down in acts of violence, in accidents, or by illness.
I desperately want to share the message that God does not purposely cause bad things to happen. Maybe evil happens for some reason other than the will of God. In times of trouble, we often turn to the words of Psalm 121, the familiar song, “Esa Einai,” which translates to: “I lift mine eyes to the hills; from where does my help come? My help comes from the Eternal, maker of Heaven and earth.” The writer does not say, “My pain comes from the Eternal,” or “my tragedy comes rom the Eternal.” He says “my help comes from the Eternal.” We very much want there to be order in our world, and for things to make sense. If we always do this, then that will always happen. Randomness is scary, so we’ll often try to blame the victim in order to explain why the evil happened.
I think that, in the end, we ask the wrong question. The question should not be, “Why did God allow this happen?” but rather, “God, I hope you see our suffering and our pain. Can You help us?” We can turn to God to be strengthened and comforted. We don’t need to turn to God to be judged or forgiven, to be rewarded or punished. We can turn to God to help us get through and cope with our loss or crisis. Once we feel that God is with us, comforting us in our time of trouble, we can ask an even more important question: “Now that this has happened, what do I do?”
What do we do? What do we do when children are murdered? What do we do when the innocent become ill? When someone’s cancer worsens?
We must take care of each other. We must reach our arms out to others in our community, we should hold them, cry with them, allow them to be angry, sad, confused, and distraught. God may not be able to control all the bad things that happen, but God is found in our strength to live through challenges together that we never imagined we could survive on our own. God is found in our ability to comfort a friend through a loss, and in our courage, endurance, and ability to find meaning even in the greatest adversities. God gives each of us the bravery to guide someone through a situation that we may have experienced in the past as well as the strength to share the wisdom we gained with others. We must remember that there is sweetness to be found in friendship, in love, and in care. Together, we create light in the midst of the darkness, hope in the midst of despair, and a smile in the midst of tears.