When tragedy strikes, where is God?

And Moses said: “Please God, show me your system of justice.” — What does Jewish tradition and scholars say about God's role in human tragedy?

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (photo credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)
DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe?
(photo credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

Three tragic events came together this past Thursday.

On September 30, our family commemorated the 19th yahrtzeit of our eldest son, Sgt. Ari Yehoshua Weiss, who fell in battle against Hamas terrorists in Nablus in 2002; Moran Ben-Eli and her three children Dekel, age 15, Liam, 11 and Annael, 5 were laid to rest after being killed in a horrific collision with a school bus in the upper Galilee; and Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, one of Orthodoxy’s leading lights for more than half a century and a beloved teacher of mine, was buried in New York.

This was a day for crying and contemplation, and a day for once again posing that most probing, most essential eternal theological question: Simply put, does God exist, and if so, how does he interface with the universe? Is there a vigilant, involved, all-knowing Creator “minding the store,” or are we at the mercy of capricious fate and fortune – be it good or bad – which operates independently of a higher power? For anyone who has, or is suffering, for anyone who has lost something precious – particularly if that loss seems to be cruel, unjust or undeserved – this is more than just mental gymnastics; it cuts right to the heart of our belief system and directly impacts the moral compass that allows us to maintain our sanity and move forward with productive lives.

It would seem to be a spiritual Gordian Knot: If God is indeed in complete control of the world’s events and micro-manages his creatures’ existence, then why do tragedies occur? Why do children die in an instant on the road; why does evil flourish, why are some selected for lives of ease while others – seemingly good people – struggle to simply survive? And if God is not either willing or capable of managing the planet’s affairs and seeing to it that justice is done, then how do we rationalize praying to a “merciful, compassionate” deity in the face of these catastrophes? Is life simply a random sequence of events, a rudderless ship without a captain at the helm?

Since the dawn of time, the brightest minds have grappled with this problem. Cain, who killed his brother Abel – the worst crime in history, whereby 25% of the world’s known population was murdered – expressed this quandary and confusion when he remarked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” The emphasis here was on the “I.” Cain was essentially challenging God: “You supposedly control the world; if Abel lies dead, surely that must be Your will as much as mine!” 

Moses – after witnessing the cruelty and death that accompanied the slavery in Egypt – was deeply troubled by the seeming inequity of the world, as were the prophet Isaiah and Job; each of them cried out to God for an answer. And the Talmud debates the issue repeatedly, indicating that even our greatest religious models were plagued by the question; their numerous statements display their angst and ambivalence.

Some opinions clearly express a staunch belief in Heavenly control of earthly events:

• “Said Rav Chanina: No one so much as cuts his finger in the world below, unless it is so ordained in the world above” (Tractate Chulin 7b).• “Said Rav Ami: There is no death without sin, and no suffering without guilt” (Shabbat 55a).• “Rabbi Akiva said: Whatever the Almighty does is all for the good” (Berachot 60b).• Maimonides wrote: “Calamities as well as good things are dispensed equitably, with no injustice whatsoever” (Guide to the Perplexed).• Rabbi Shlomo Aviner succinctly summed up this approach: “Every bullet has an address,” he said.

Yet other authorities took a markedly different view:

• King David said in his Psalms, “Death may occur as a result of Divine decree, but may also be the consequence of natural causes (such as old age), or result from human actions (such as in war)” (The Kuzari).• “Ninety-nine out of 100 people die due to negligence, while only one dies by the hand of Heaven” (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 14).• “Rava said: Length of life, children and prosperity depend not on merit, but on mazal” (Moed Katan 28).

‘IT’S SO difficult to go through the mourning process with each family.’ (credit: INGIMAGE)‘IT’S SO difficult to go through the mourning process with each family.’ (credit: INGIMAGE)

These different approaches are perhaps best illustrated by the famous story of the sage Elisha ben Avuya. He witnessed a young boy climbing a tree, at his father’s behest, to shoo away a mother bird from her nest in order to take the eggs. The boy fell from the tree and died. Elisha, his faith shaken, looked to the Heavens and asked, “Where is the reward of long life, promised by the Torah both for obeying one’s parent and sending away the mother bird?!” Horrified that a God who espoused truth and kindness could allow this catastrophe to happen, Elisha became a heretic and remained estranged from Judaism.

Yet later, in assessing this same incident, Rabbi Eliezer concluded that God was not to blame for the tragedy. “The ladder the boy climbed upon,“ he said, “must have been rickety, and where there is danger, one may not rely upon a miracle to be saved” (Kiddushin 39b).

Perhaps Rav Yannai offers the most salient comment of all, to which many of us would nod in approval, when he declared, “It is not in our (human) hands to explain why the righteous suffer or why the wicked prosper” (Avot 4:19).

It seems clear that the clear indecision of the sages, and the radical diversity of their outlooks, mercifully provides each of us with the freedom to choose our path. If it soothes our conscience and lessens our grief, we can maintain that events follow a natural course and “just happen” because that’s the way it is; God is not apt to miraculously save us when a hurricane or epidemic strikes, or when we choose to endanger our lives by crossing a busy street with our eyes closed. Alternately, we may opt to believe that specific events do indeed emanate from God, yet we mortals are not necessarily privileged to know or understand why we were chosen and others were not. Or, as King David said, there may be several options which “cover all the bases.” 

Despite all the pithy and profound statements that this subject generates, after all the centuries of debate and discussion, the bottom line for many – myself included – may very well be an admission that where certain things are concerned, we simply do not know. We rely on the prophet Habakuk’s motto, Ish b’emunato yichye, the righteous shall live by their faith.

Or, as my late father would put it, “You bets your money, and you takes your chances.” 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. 

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