Job and his comforters

‘It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked’ (Pirkei Avot 4:15).

Haredim 521 (photo credit:
Haredim 521
(photo credit:
Job is not the most popular book in the Bible, but it is one of the most profound. The occasion for my reading it again recently was the new translation and commentary by Robert Alter.
Job is a magnificent work that challenged many of the pietistic teachings regarding human suffering that were taken for granted. Job, a non-Israelite monotheist who is the epitome of the pious man, suffers tragedy after tragedy. Nevertheless he refuses to curse God, but he also refuses to admit that his suffering is justified. His so-called friends and comforters insist that he deserved what has happened to him. They believe that he must have sinned, because suffering is always a sign of sin, a result of punishment God inflicts on those who are wicked (Job 2:7).
Job knows better. “I am blameless,” he contends repeatedly (4:4). “Till I breathe my last I will not renounce my virtue. To my rightness I cling, will not let go...” (27:5-6). He has been righteous and just. He has treated people well and has cared for the poor and helpless. Therefore his sufferings are not deserved and Job accuses God of inflicting undeserved punishment upon him (16:7-9).
He is the perfect example of what the sages later called “a righteous man to whom bad things happen.” In the end, God castigates the comforters, telling them that they did not speak the truth as did Job. “You have not spoken rightly of Me as did My servant Job...” (42:7).
Job was right. He was innocent.
His suffering was not the result of any sin. Job had accused God of injustice, even of cruelty, yet this too is refuted.
After hearing God’s voice and God’s description of a cosmos far beyond human understanding, Job concedes, “Therefore I told but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know... Therefore do I recant...” (42:3-6).
There may be no answer to this problem, but Job contains a repudiation of false and facile answers. We do not believe that all who suffer are wicked.
Nor do we believe that God is either cruel or uncaring and purposely inflicts evil upon the just. Indeed the world is a complicated place, far beyond human ability to comprehend. We cannot expect to find a perfect correlation between goodness and reward, between sin and punishment. It simply does not work that way.
The Book of Job does not offer an answer to the problem of undeserved human suffering, but, as Robert Gordis pointed out, “The author of Job...
has demonstrated that it is possible for men to bear the shafts of evil... if they cultivate a sense of reverence for the mystery and the miracle of life...”
I am reminded of these lessons of the Book of Job every time I hear religious leaders tell us that train accidents occur because someone desecrates Shabbat, or that people are killed because the mezuza on their house was faulty, or that – heaven forfend – soldiers fall in battle because they do not observe kashrut. The assumption behind all of these false teachings is the same as the beliefs of the comforters of Job: Suffering is God’s punishment; suffering is a sign of sin. At the very least we should all be humble enough to say, as did the third-century sage Yannai, “It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked” (Pirkei Avot 4:15).
I wish that these rabbis who seem to think that they have all the answers would simply keep quiet when tragedy strikes, rather than offering their false explanations that place blame upon innocent victims and that slander God by portraying Him as petty and vindictive. Let them rather offer true comfort to people who are visited by tragedy, the comfort that comes from human friendship and care for others, and not false accusations that can only hurt.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.