Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
An Exploration of Job: How to Live with Unanswered Questions?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In the following learning session, Rabbi Fohrman compares 2 seemingly unrelated Biblical characters: Job (Iyov) and Abraham. Although they appear to live in totally different time periods, the Talmud seems to indicate that they really are deeply connected. The parallels that are explored here are striking, and offer deep new psychological insights into two of the most difficult stories in the entire Torah: the expulsion of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac.
Learning Partner: Hi! So first of all I want to just take a moment to welcome Rabbi David Fohrman, who's one of my personal mentors and inspirations. Rabbi Fohrman has been the leader of Aleph Beta for many, many years and continues to inspire thousands and thousands of people around the world, including myself. And not just incredible, incisive perspectives on Tanakh and the human soul, but also just a radical way and a new way of looking at things, noticing things which perhaps were overlooked.
And I just want to thank Rabbi Fohrman, thank you so much for taking the time, and for giving us the opportunity to hear, to think, to appreciate together.
Rabbi David Fohrman: Oh, my pleasure! It's great to see you.
Learning Partner: So let's jump in. You know, Rabbi Fohrman, the first time I started looking at the Book of Iyov was about 15 years ago, I listened to one of your shiurim on it. It's one of the first experiences I had with Iyov, because Iyov seems to be this impenetrable book, everybody knows a little bit of the story, but after, I feel people kind of drop off. And that's, like, they kind of know the general story, and that's where they leave it. And there's so much more to it, and I want to spend some time thinking, maybe, a little bit, together.
One of the things that interests me, I'm just fascinated about, is that the Gemara takes a lot of time trying to pinpoint when he lived. And there's, like, theory after theory after theory — in times of Avraham, in times of Mitzrayim, was he in times of Moshe Rabbenu, was he in the time of shoftim? You have all these fascinating suggestions, you know, and there's even one opinion that lo yachol v'lo nivye, he never really was, he's just this metaphoric character. What do you make of those debates, what's the Gemara trying to convey to us?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, so I'm not sure — you'd have to look through the Gemara in detail. Those kinds of Gemaras are, you know, I'll just give you my impressions, sort of the shitchi, the superficial response to that, and then maybe a deeper way of looking at it. But the superficial response, I think, is that — and this is a point which I think was made well by Rabbi Eisemann in Baltimore, who wrote a commentary on the Book of Iyov. And he pretty much said that the fact that there is a, the fact that there is such a broad spectrum of possibility as to when Iyov lived, sort of suggests that he could be an everyman at any time, and that that's the sort of composite sense that you get from that Gemara.
That being said, my own personal feeling is that probably what's going on in each one of those man d'amrim in the Gemara is that each one has a particular point that he's making, and that to really go through the Gemara well, you kind of have to go back to the text of, the text, and look beyond the particular pasuk which they're quoting, but the larger context of the book. This is kind of an approach that I learned from, I forget how to pronounce his name, but Emmanuel Levinas, who, a French literary critic who also was a Talmudic scholar, wrote among his books, I think it's called Nine Talmudic Discussions or something like that, and he basically has a theory of aggadata there. Basically his idea is that whenever the Gemara cites a particular pasuk and kind of compares things, that there's a much larger iceberg underneath that pasuk. That pasuk is the kind of linchpin, and you've really gotta look and see the larger context of the perakim around that, and what that pasuk is doing with respect to those perakim, and then come back and see what the aggadata's talking about, and then you begin to see some of the larger meanings of what each one of those things you're saying.
So I think about it, beyond just saying that there's 15 different, you know, different man d'amrim as to when he lived, I think what they're really saying is that the issues that Iyov is struggling with can be seen through the prism of each of these other stories. If you like, I stumbled on something recently, which I'd love to share with you if you find it interesting, it's on one of those man d'amrim, the notion that Iyov lived in the time of Avraham, right? So, you know, you've just been learning Iyov with your folks, so if you happen to have a sefer in front of you — just crack open the first two perakim for a moment, which is really the prologue to the book, before you get to the body of the book in terms of its poetry, things like that. And then, sort of, and ask yourself, is there anything there that sort of reminds you of the Avraham story?
And then kind of in the vein of Levinas, I would just pick up and say that there is a — I'm not sure if it's the Gemara in Bava Basra that you're referring to, but there's another Gemara that talks about Avraham, that seems to suggest a kind of Iyov connection to Avraham. And let me introduce it to you. Rashi really, Rashi quotes this midrash… let me see if I can dig up this Rashi here. It is — yeah. If you happen to have a Chumash in front of you, open it up to the beginning of the story of the akedah for a minute.
Learning Partner: Sure, let me pull that up right now. Bereshis chaf beis. Here we go, okay.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. So, Bereshis chaf beis of the akedah famously begins with the words achar hadevarim haeleh [Gen. 22:1], right? So, and that leads to the obvious question, that, you know, what were the things that happened before the akedah that were the preamble to the akedah, v'haelokim nisa et Avraham [Gen. 22:1]. So, Rashi picks on this, it's really a Gemara in Sanhendrin, right? And listen to this, and I'll just read this, Rabbi Trump, and as you do, I'd like to ask you, what does this remind you about in, say, Sefer Iyov? Just as we read through this aggadata.
Achar hadevarim haeleh, yesh marabosenu omrim, right? Some of our sages say, achar devarim shel satan, right, what happened? What happened was is that the Satan came, and he had something to say, vayam mekatreg, he was prosecuting. V'omer, and what was the nature of his prosecution of Avraham? He said, mikol seudah she'asah Avraham, lo hikriv lifanecha par echad o'ayil echad. Alright? From the whole seudah that Avraham made — now, it's not clear in the Gemara what seudah we're referring to, we have to kind of put that together, we'll get to that in a moment.
But every seudah, from this great seudah that everyone made, lo hikriv lifanecha par echad o'ayil echad, he couldn't give a cow to you, he couldn't give a ram to you? Right? There was no, there was no offering that he gave in his big seudah. Now, the seudah, of course, that we're talking about, as you'll see in a moment, is a seudah which was just a couple of chapters earlier — actually was in the last chapter, and it's of course the feast that was made for Yishmael, right? And if you look at that pasuk, just a little bit before, chapter 21, we identify that. Let's just take a look at the actual pasuk. So it says, vayidgal hayeled vayigamel [Gen. 21:8] — this is pasuk chet here, and this is 21. So the child grew up, vayigamel, and was weaned, vaya'as Avraham mishteh gadol bayom higmel et yitzchak [Gen. 21:8], and he made this great mishteh on the day that Yitzchak was weaned. Let's keep that in mind, right, and come back to, and come back to this Rashi that we see in vayehi achar hadevarim haeleh [Gen. 22:1]. So that mishteh, he couldn't offer any offering to you?
Along comes God and says, hey, amar lo, kulom aseh eleh bishvil b'no, God comes and says, look, you think that he — the only reason why he made that feast was for his son, to celebrate the birth, the weaning of his son. You know what? Here's what I bet. Ilu haiti amar lo z'vach oto lifanai, if I were to tell Avraham, I'd like you to take that son that you made that feast for and offer him up to me. Forget taking a par or an ayil — I actually want the son himself. You think he'd let me? Lo haya makev — I bet he'd give him to me. I bet that he wouldn't hold him back. He would give his son to me. And that was the kitreg, right, of the Satan. Now, when you read this, you know, just kind of free-associate — what, if anything, remind you about Iyov here?
Learning Partner: It's unbelievable, I'd never, you know, now that you read this, it suddenly all fits into place. So it's pretty explicit over here, when you hear about this whole episode, I mean, it's actually pretty explicit. There's this conversation that happens between the Satan and Hashem. And the Satan says — first of all, let's go, let's backtrack — there's a feast which happens at the beginning of Iyov. And every day —
Rabbi Fohrman: And look at the text! What's the particular word for the feast in the text?
Learning Partner: So we have it over here as mishteh beit ish yamo. It's the same thing.
Rabbi Fohrman: What's the — so, the very last mishteh in the Torah is the mishteh of Iyov. The very first mishteh in the Torah is Avraham's mishteh, b'yom higamel et yitzchak [Gen. 21:8]. Okay, keep going.
Learning Partner: And, what's interesting is that Iyov seems to be very concerned about his children at the feast. In other words, unlike Avraham Avinu, it seems — Avraham's accusation is it seems like he's making these feasts for himself. Here it sounds like Iyov is concerned that they're too self-centered, and there might be some sort of exclusion of God, he sort of makes up for that by making the sacrifice every day.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. So — I'm losing you here, but the… yeah, hold on for just one second, because you just got hung up over here.
Learning Partner: Oh, I can still see you.
Rabbi Fohrman: Great, I can see you now. So go ahead, the last line.
Learning Partner: We're in what seems to be —
Rabbi Fohrman: — that yes, Iyov has been protecting, is being protective over his sons, right? And that seems to be the kind of feeling that you're getting from this chazal about Avraham, right? In a way, the sons comes along and says, ah, did he give you anything? God says, you know what, I bet he'd even give Me, I bet he'd even give Me his son. Now, okay, keep on going. And —
Learning Partner: And then it seems like the actual Satan enters -- the Satan, in this case not in the subtext, but in the text itself, the Satan enters, and he essentially says, achinam yareh iyov elokim, if fearing God alone — by the way, the word yareh elokim, elokim is the name used by God in the, used to describe God in the akedah, and yareh elokim, harah Hashem roeh [Gen. 22:8], which is the test of the akedah itself.
Rabbi Fohrman: Not only that, but the angel comes out of the clouds, what does the angel say to Avraham when he passed the test?
Learning Partner: He says atah yadati ki yireh elokim atah [Gen. 22:12]. Right? Now, I know that your fear of God, it seems to be precisely the same sort of framework of the whole episode.
Rabbi Fohrman: So, the question is, it's like, here — and also, what would you say the tone of this conversation between the Satan and Iyov is? Right? If you'd have to characterize the nature of the back and forth as chazal put it, or even forget that. Let's go to Sefer Iyov. What's the tone of the back and forth between God and the Satan in perek aleph and beis?
Learning Partner: I find it confusing… it seems like there's certainly a testiness, it seems to have a certain level of contempt, there seems to be a certain level of disbelief, of haughtiness. These are the kind of tones I'm hearing in the Satan. What are you thinking?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, it's almost like, you know, here's the Satan, he's a little saucy, right, he's, you know, and God is, is, is taunting him, almost. Right? And the Satan's taunting God back. It's like this very, you know, we call the Satan the Adversary. It's this very adversarial, it seems a very adversarial thing. God says — on the one hand, they seem to be buddies, so to speak, God says hey, where have you been, right? Where've you been? The Satan says I've been hanging out, mishut ha'aretz umehithalech bah [Job 1:7], I've been hanging out here, I've been hanging out there. I've been seeing things. So God says, asamta libcha al avdi iyov, have you seen my servant iyov there, Well, Satan says, eh, not very impressive. God says, yeah? It's almost like they're playing a poker game and they're bluffing and pushing their chips into the — and if I'd ask you, what's the quality of this discussion between God and the Satan, it's exactly the same quality. Right? That sense that, how long has the Satan has — eh, Avraham, right? He didn't even offer You anything, nothing.
And God says, yeah, I'll up you one. You say he didn't give Me anything? If I asked him for his son, he'd give it to Me. Watch. And bang, before you know it, you've got a test, and before you know it you've got a test, in both stories. So this seems to be one of these examples where, again — you know, I want to argue, using Levinas' methodology, which I think is well-grounded, that this chazal didn't come out of nowhere, right? It wasn't that chazal just kind of took this out of the air, right? They saw something and they came to certain very considered conclusions about it.
So let me actually bring you back, you've already talked about some of it, but beyond what you see in the chazal, this is just the tip of the iceberg. You go back to perek aleph and beis, let's just, you know, crack open a perek aleph and beis. Ask yourself as you begin to read Iyov, right — so what about it reminds you of either of the akedah or the story before that, which is the weaning of Yishmael and the subsequent story of giresh Yishmael.
So, we already talked about the mishteh, v'halchu banav ya'asu mishteh [Job 1:4], but just keep on reading. Let's actually start from perek aleph pasuk daled for a second. Halchu banav ya'asu mishteh beit ish yomo, so every child would make this mishteh, right, v'sholchu v'karu lishl'shet achoteihem le'echol v'lishtot imahem, they would go and they would call to their sisters, right, le'echol v'lishtot imahem [Job 1:4], to go and drink with them, vayehi ki hikfu y'mei hamishteh vayishlach iyov vaykadshem v'hishkim baboker v'ha'aleh olot [Job 1:5]. Now, thinking of Avraham —
Learning Partner: Vayashkem Avraham baboker [Gen. 22:3].
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly, vayashkem Avraham baboker [Gen. 22:3]. Not only that, what did Avraham do in the morning, right? Vayashekm baboker — and by the way, v'ha'aleh olot [Job 1:5] reminds you of…
Learning Partner: Isn't that the episode with the Philistines, where they have these seven, be'er sheva, is that what you're thinking of?
Rabbi Fohrman: No, just the akedah itself.
Rabbi Fohrman: Ha'alehu sham l'olah, right? Ha'alehu sham l'olah [Gen. 22:2]. Very reminiscent of that. And speaking of the story of Yishmael, right, because what happens immediately after this, is the story of giresh Yishmael, where God comes and says, where Sarah says they've gotta go, right? And Avraham is like, no, really, they have to go? And God is like, yeah, they really gotta go. And so, take a look at perek chaf aleph in bereshit, pasuk yud daled. Right? God says they've gotta go, and what does Avraham do? Just read pasuk yud daled.
Learning Partner: There you go, so one second… so vayashkem Avraham baboker — again, vayashkem — vayikach lechem v'chamat mayim vayiten et hagar sham al shichmeh v'et hayeled [Gen. 21:14].
Rabbi Fohrman: Now, notice that not only is he waking up in the morning, but he's doing — what is he doing? He's taking bread and he's taking drink, and he's giving it to Hagar. What does that remind you of with this mishteh? Go back to Iyov, beit ish yomo, what do they do? V'shalchu v'karu lishl'shet achoteihem, le'echol v'lishtot imahem [Job 1:4], right? You see that? In the mishteh, there's this invitation to this feminine figure, right, to eat and drink with them. And here there's a mishteh that excluded, seemingly — I mean, seemingly excluded somebody, right? And who and what — we'll get to that in a moment. Who was excluded in this mishteh? If the mishteh was celebrating Yitzchak, who's watching this from the outside and wondering whether there was a mishteh like this when he was weaned?
Learning Partner: That's Yishmael, right. So that's the excluded brother.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly, the excluded brother, and the excluded mother. And now instead of these women being invited le'echol v'lishtot, there's an excluded woman and her son who's given le'echol v'lishtot [Job 1:4]. And by the way, this same word for invitation is, look at that in Iyov pasuk daled, v'shalchu v'karu [Job 1:4]. Take a look at giresh Yishmael, again, pasuk yud daled. Do you see that word v'shalchu [Gen. 21:14]?
Learning Partner: Yes, there you go. So it says, v'shalchu, they go. So she, he calls, he sends her out.
Rabbi Fohrman: Competing verses, right? Instead of the invitation, it's the exit card, for them, for her to leave, v'talech v'teta b'midbar be'er sheva [Gen. 21:14]. So it sounds like — again, even if you only saw this, it sounds like there's a larger iceberg underneath the surface, right? Chazal didn't reference all of this stuff, but they saw this, right? And it's part of what's helping them craft this notion, right?
So when you put two and two together, something astounding seems to emerge, which is that if you had asked me, so, what do you think it means that chazal say that Iyov lived in the time of Avraham, right, and you take the chazal like this, I'd say what they're saying is, is that you could view the Avraham story as a lens upon the Iyov story, or the Iyov story as a lens upon the Avraham story, such that you might say that one possible reading of the Iyov story — and this is an astounding claim, but I think it's plausibly true — is as a commentary on the Avraham story. If you wanted to understand the akedah and through the lens of giresh Yishmael, you would look at how you'd look at this story.
Learning Partner: That's so interesting, because it seems that's exactly what chazal are saying, they're actually — chazal inserts a third character into the conversation, the Satan and Hashem here. So the Gemara, as you're referring to, the Gemara says the Satan wasn't just saying that Iyov was not as good as he looked, but he said he's not like Avraham. So chazal are inserting Avraham into the conversation between God and the Satan here, because of all of these parallels which chazal were obviously looking at. It's almost as if Iyov is living in a paralyzed fear of being like Avraham. Isn't it fascinating?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. And by the way, think of — just go back to the beginning of Iyov. Literally the first pasuk. What reminds you of Avraham in the very first pasuk? Ish haya v'eretz uz, just read the rest of that pasuk.
Learning Partner: So, iyov sh'mo, his name was Iyov, v'haya ha'ish hahu tam, this man was tam v'yashar v'yireh elokim v'sar merah [Job 1:1].
Rabbi Fohrman: So yireh elokim reminds you then, at the end of his life, he, the angel comes and says, yireh elokim, right? What about the word tam? What does the word tam remind you of with reference to Avraham?
Learning Partner: That's interesting. That's usually, there's a certain level that refers to Ya'akov later on, but it also relates to Noach. When it comes to the life of Avraham —
Rabbi Fohrman: We don't usually associate, we think of Ya'akov as ish tam. But lo and behold, look at the story of the brit milah covenant in chapter 17. What does God want from Avraham in the brit milah covenant?
Learning Partner: Tamim, right. Yes, let's see over here. Hithalech lifanai vehyeh tamim [Gen. 17:1], so I want you to be pure, I want you to be — that's the very beginning of the bris.
Rabbi Fohrman: I want you to be, right?
Learning Partner: Isn't that interesting? So it's almost like Iyov starts off where Avraham ends up.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. Right? He's got all these qualities — he's tam, he's yireh elokim, and now, so — tam is clear, it's there in chapter 17. Yireh elokim is clear, it's there in chapter 22. The brit milah is sar merah. The sar merah appeared with Avraham. By the way, just — we'll get back to that, but take a look at pasuk beis for a minute. Vayivaldu lo shivah vanim ushloshah banot [Job 1:2], so would you say he had a lot of kids? He had a lot of kids.
Learning Partner: Yeah, seven kids.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. What does having a lot of kids remind you of, with reference to Avraham? What was Avraham promised?
Learning Partner: He's l'goy gadol [Gen. 12:2]. So he's gonna have this large… right, wow.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right, bime'od me'od [Gen 17:2]. Right? You'll have a lot of kids. And Iyov is avudah rabah meod [Job 1:3], he's got all this stuff, all these kids, right, and — right? So now if you — so what does it all mean? And by the way, that whole thing with the Satan, right? Isn't that strange — when God asks the Satan, say, where have you been, Satan? So what's the Satan's answer? You'll find it in verse seven. Take a look at perek aleph pasuk zayin.
Learning Partner: He says over here, it says, he says, mishut ba'aretz umehithalech bah [Job 1:7], touring the land, umehishalech —
Rabbi Fohrman: What does hishalech remind you of?
Learning Partner: Hishalech lifanai vehyeh tamim [Gen 17:1], right, about Avraham Avinu himself.
Rabbi Fohrman: But even before hithalech lifanai vehyeh tamim [Gen 17:1], that's in 17, go back to 13 with Avraham. Take a look at perek yud gimel pasuk yud zayin, where you have actually a mandate for Avraham to be hithalech. Well actually, even before he's hithalech before God,
Learning Partner: Kum hithalech ba'aretz [Gen. 13:17].
Rabbi Fohrman: Kum hithalech ba'aretz [Gen. 13:17]. Now read the Satan's words one more time, vayomer —
Learning Partner: Mishut ba'aretz umehithalech [Job 1:7], I've been actually touring the land like Avraham Avinu.
Rabbi Fohrman: Almost as if there's been this sardonic twist, yeah. I've been touring the land, I've been walking right behind Avraham, checking him out, right? But I'm not so sure about this guy.
Learning Partner: So one second — so Rabbi Fohrman, let's get this straight, then. So if that's the case, what it sounds like you're saying is that the, what the pasukim seem to be pointing at is that Iyov is starting, so to speak, at the end of the life of Avraham, with all the accolades and achievements that Avraham has had. And it's almost like he's living in this fear of losing them, and that's precisely what the Satan says. He doesn't really own them; he's not like Avraham Avinu. He hasn't achieved them. And that's exactly what happens to him. Is that fair to say?
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, that's possible — yeah. So the question — I'm not sure. I'm not sure I know what it means, but if you go back to chazal, the way — now, here's where we get cue from chazal. Chazal seems to be telling you what they think it means in this Gemara in Sanhedrin that Rashi quotes. What they think it means is it explains the akedah, which is crazy, because the truth is, if you think about the akedah, if you were Avraham and God comes out of the clouds and asks you to slaughter your son, right, what — what challenge do you now have? And think about it, does that challenge resonate, let's say, for Iyov at all?
Learning Partner: That's so interesting. So you're looking the other way down the street: how does Iyov explain the akedah, essentially?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. In other words, the problem that Avraham has is in a way the problem the reader of Sefer Iyov has, which is, it's one thing to serve God when God is nice and He's rachum and He's chanun and everything is wonderful. But how do I worship a God in the face of tzadik v'rah lo, right? How do I —
Learning Partner: This is so different though, Rabbi Fohrman, because what you're saying is, Iyov to me always seemed like a post-facto experience, meaning Iyov has experienced X, Y, and Z, and now he's trying to put his life back together, he doesn't understand how to. What you're saying is that it actually can apply a priori. You're saying, like, when God presents you with a challenge like Avraham Avinu's asked to, it's the same problem.
Rabbi Fohrman: In other words, yeah. In other words, the problem, in a way, one of the, you know, the akedah is a terrible nisayon, right? But one of the aspects of the akedah surely is tzadik rah lo, right?
Learning Partner: How could he do this to me.
Rabbi Fohrman: How could he do this to me, right? You know, what gives you the right to go asking me to take a machine gun and train it on a classroom of kindergarteners, right? You're asking me to do something which is prima facie immoral, right? This is, right, just read all the commentary — we as frum Jews, we don't like to think about the akedah in that way, but that is an issue that you have to deal with in the akedah.
I think chazal seem to be saying, what would make — I think, I suspect that chazal is saying that the nature — that Avraham had to struggle with that for a particular reason, and they're finding the reason for it, strangely, in the story of giresh Yishamel, in the story of the seudah for Yishmael. There was something in that seudah that provoked the task. What was their rayah? Their rayah was they saw all the language in Sefer Iyov that resonated with the Avraham language, they did the algebra, and they said, what provoked the stuff to come in the Iyov story? The answer was, a mishteh did. Right? A mishteh that was seeking to sort of guard your child and make sure that God really couldn't get to him.
And now ask yourself — okay, the mishteh that Avraham makes for Yishmael, let's talk about Yishmael. God comes out of the clouds and tells Avraham that he's going to have Yishmael. It's actually at the end of the circumcision covenant, right? At that point, what's Avraham's immediate — sorry, that he's going to have Yitzchak. He already has Yishmael, Yishmael's 13 years old. God comes and says you're going to have another child, Yitzchak. And that's news to Avraham — he hadn't heard about it.
What's Avraham's very first response when God says, you know what? You're going to have this child, Yitzchak. Fascinatingly, it wasn't, thanks, that's wonderful, right? It was lo Yishmael yichyeh lifanecha, right? Oh God, I'm totally fine, me and Yishmael were good. Right? And it's like, what's Avraham trying to do? It's like, you know, I've got it, right, this is my child, let me just protect him and bring them up. And God's like, no, I have other plans, right?
And Avraham is like, no, this is really good, right? And then everything starts to fall apart in chapter 21. What happened? Yitzchak is born, there's this mishteh. Now, seemingly, along comes the Satan, according to chazal, and the nature of the kitreg is similar to that of Iyov, which is, hey, if you think about it, what's the similarity between what chazal are saying about Avraham and what the Iyov story is? Right?
Learning Partner: So chazal's like, when Iyov is bringing those sacrifices the next morning, he's really doing it for his child, or for himself, essentially. There's a certain level of self-centeredness.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. It's like — because if he's really worried that his children blaspheme God, right, that's the chinuch issue, what should you do?
Learning Partner: Speak to the children, don't try to cut the extra slack for them.
Rabbi Fohrman: Instead he never talks to the children; what does he do instead?
Learning Partner: He just offers the offerings the next morning.
Rabbi Fohrman: Insurance policy offerings, right? What's a little life insurance, you know, to keep things — to keep God at bay, as it were, from not taking my child. Okay, now when's the moment that Avraham starts worrying about a child getting taken from him? At the feast. Because at the feast, Yishmael is mocking, he's metzachek [Gen. 21:9], and Sarah goes ballistic. And Sarah's like, no, he's gotta go. Now, what was Avraham's response to Sarah when Sarah said he's gotta go?
Learning Partner: Vayerah hadavar me'od [Gen. 21:11], he's very upset.
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, vayerah hadavar me'od b'einei Avraham [Gen. 21:11]. So Avraham thinks that's not nice, to send out Yishmael, right? Why don't we talk to God about this? So, he and Sarah go to talk to God, and what's God's response?
Learning Partner: Shma b'kolah [Gen. 21:12], listen to her. She's right.
Rabbi Fohrman: What did Avraham think was going to happen when he asked God?
Learning Partner: God all-merciful was gonna take his side and be nice.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. So imagine how astounded he is when God is like, you know what, she's got a point. Like, there really is no future here. If he's mocking, if he's scornful, if he's rolling his eyes, you know, maybe you're at fault in the past, maybe you didn't bring him up right, whatever, but the bottom line is, he's gotta go. And don't worry, Avraham — he has a different destiny. I'm gonna make him into a great nation, right, because he does come from you, but you really just gotta let him go and find his own path with her, and you got Yitzchak. Right?
Now, let me ask you something. The story of giresh Yishmael is one of the most painful stories in all of Bereshis, and one of the reasons it's painful is because it ends so badly, right? Hagar gets lost, her son is gonna die in the desert, and you ask yourself, okay, so here's Avraham, who's such a ba'al chesed, right, and such a nice guy, and what does he do? He sends her off with a canteen of water and a loaf of bread into the desert, right? Like, anybody could see where that's gonna end, right? That's not gonna end pretty.
So what was that about? That's not such a nice thing to do. And you, you thought it was such a bad thing — so why didn't you send her with ten camels full of provisions and a guide taking her to the next city? How come you only sent her with a canteen of water, right? So the answer seems to be — now, plug in what chazal seem to be saying, right? Did you ever — it's almost as if the way chazal are seeing that feast is it was his insurance policy, like trying to keep, you know, trying to keep Yitzchak, perhaps, out of God's reach.
Learning Partner: You're saying Yishamel's the sacrifice?
Rabbi Fohrman: No, but Yishamel's this other child that he doesn't want to give up, almost like Avraham finally has these two heirs and he really wants to hang onto these two heirs, and along comes Sarai and it's like, no, one of them has got to go, and God is like, one of them has got to go. Now remember yireh elokim — sorry, remember when it says vayerah hadaver me'od b'einei Avraham [Gen. 21:11], Avraham thought it was really, really bad, and along comes God and says do it anyway? There's your first moment when the morality of God seems to be questioned. Right? Which is — I think it's really mean.
Learning Partner: That's an Iyov moment.
Rabbi Fohrman: It's an Iyov moment, and along comes God and says, no, she's right. I know you think she's just being mean; she's actually right. And Avraham's like, I don't get that, right? Now, what do we know about Iyov, according to the very first pasuk? You know he's yireh elokim, you know he's tam, you know one more thing about him.
Learning Partner: Sar merah.
Rabbi Fohrman: Sar merah. Chazal seem to be saying, I think, that was Avraham in vayerah hadaver me'od b'einei Avraham [Gen. 21:11], he was sar merah. I feel that chazal are seeing that almost sardonically. In other words, he was sar merah, but was that good? Do you — what happened when God tells you to do something and you think it's rah? What should you do? Right? So now the question is, well, why — so let's get back to our question, why didn't Avraham send her with ten camels off to the next place? The answer is, okay: he doesn't want to let go of Yishmael, he thinks it's bad. He doesn't want to let go of Yitzchak. Sarah has expelled him. Remember the word for "expel," you go back to 21?
Learning Partner: Garesh [Gen. 21:10].
Rabbi Fohrman: Garesh et ha'am hazo [Gen. 21:10]. Look at what Avraham actually does.
Learning Partner: Vayishalchehah [Gen. 21:14].
Rabbi Fohrman: What's the difference between the Hebrew words garesh and vayishalchehah?
Learning Partner: As opposed to active, it's passive as opposed to active.
Rabbi Fohrman: Garesh means what in English?
Learning Partner: Literally, divorce
Rabbi Fohrman: Divorce, expel. On a scale of one to ten, how final is garesh?
Learning Partner: It's absolute, it's final. A ten.
Rabbi Fohrman: A ten. How final is the word shalach?
Learning Partner: It's — you can see reluctance there, maybe a five or six. There's a releasing.
Rabbi Fohrman: Shalach also means send. When you send someone, what possibility is there?
Learning Partner: There's another destination, even.
Rabbi Fohrman: Another possibility is when I send a shaliach, what do they do when they finish they're, what they're supposed to —
Learning Partner: They return.
Rabbi Fohrman: Return. If I send Hagar with only a bottle of water —
Learning Partner: Oh, oh!
Rabbi Fohrman: Only a piece of bread —
Learning Partner: Wow, that's a very incredible suggestion. So he's really, really playing with the command of God, essentially.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly.
Learning Partner: Wow.
Rabbi Fohrman: If I think I know what's right, and that's rah, right, and God surprisingly comes down on Sarah's side, I'm not gonna defy God. I'll do it.
Learning Partner: You'll nod in the direction of the law, but you're gonna kind of —
Rabbi Fohrman: But what if I just send her with a little loaf of bread and some water? When that's used up, what will she — and it's not like Hagar never came back and ran away. This is the second story of her running away. What happened the first time, a few chapters earlier?
Learning Partner: She did come back.
Rabbi Fohrman: She did come back! So Avraham is like, we've got a history, right? Surely I'll do what I'm supposed to do, she'll come back, I'll organize it just the right way, and God is like, really? What are you gonna do when she gets lost? What about that? You've really figured it all out, you think you can play God and manipulate it? When she gets lost — and then the chesed that you're doing, right, that you think she's coming back — now you just sent her into the desert with a canteen of water.
Learning Partner: Fascinating. And this whole period, presenting it here now makes a lot of sense with the in-between story. Because between the whole giresh Yishmael and the mishteh, there's this whole story of Avraham making peace with Avimelech. And one of the things the Rashbam comments on is he connects the achar hadevarim haeleh [Gen. 22:1] to that episode, where he essentially says, you think you can guarantee the safety of your son by making an intergenerational covenant with your neighbors — well, you know what? I'm gonna question whether you have your son with you, which is essentially the same theme.
Rabbi Fohrman: Same idea, right. So along comes God and is like, okay, you weren't willing to let go of an heir when there was a spare, right, that you could — Yitzchak, and you wanted to make sure to come back — and remember how God reassures him. God doesn't reassure him by telling him, no, don't worry, I'll take care of Hagar, right? Why doesn't he do that? The answer is there's no hava amina that Hagar needs taken care of. If I'm Avraham I can send her with ten camels to the next place. It's not that she's in danger; it's that I don't want to lose my heir.
So along comes God and says, don't worry, you're gonna have another heir, ki v'yitzchak yikareh l'cha zarah [Gen. 21:12], it's gonna be fine. He's gonna go away. But Avraham is sar merah, and that's the kitreg of the Satan. The Satan comes along and says, you know what? He was trying to keep his children close, and that's Iyov with his mishteh, trying to make sure — I'll fear God, I'll offer Him the sacrifices, I'll do everything He says, but I'm just trying to make sure that God doesn't interfere too much in my life. So God comes along and says, alright, let's see — what will happen if — and now, what's the kitreg of the Satan, what's God's defense?
God's defense is, you know, you say he didn't offer Me a sacrifice... If I asked for the son, he'd give it to Me. Right? And this is that moment where God says, alright, so now there's no spare. Now I want him. And plus, you have real issues with sar merah, right? Let me put that front and straight and center for you, because the problem is human beings have a hard time telling what rah really is. You thought it was so evil to send away Hagar, and that Sarah was such a monster when she said that Hagar had to go away, and then when I started with her, that was, like, the worst thing in the world. But you know what you didn't see? You didn't see how advantageous it was for you to adopt that viewpoint, because you could keep all of your heirs close. Right?
You — so, you didn't see the self-interest that you had in maintaining your vision of rah. And the human vision of rah is very easily, is very easily corrupted, right? So you ultimately have to trust Me that I'm a good God, and that when I tell you to do something that seems to violate, right, your sense of what's right and what's wrong, that ultimately, right, I am a just God, and the things I am asking for don't come from a place of bias. I'm outside the system and I can be trusted. So now let me as you the thing that really violates your sense of rah, which is what if I want the kid back? Right?
And Avraham at that point kind of has to get out of himself and say, you know what? That might seem really rah for me, but Avraham at the end of the day is able to say, you know, in a certain way what Iyov starts to say, has to start playing with Hashem natan v'Hashem yikach [Job 1:21], and this question of, does God really have a right, and that ultimately He could have a right to ask for my son back, He is a parent. You know, and the analogy I often give for this to try to explain it is, you know, if you imagine a custody battle between parents, but imagine a custody battle in a divorce case, where there's a mother and a father, and the battle is going to be decided on the basis of, not of necessarily who it's gonna be best for the child to be with, but on the basis of din, right, which is injustice — who is the greater parent? Right?
So the father says, well, I'm the father, and the mother says, yeah, but I — this baby grew up in my stomach, I nurtured him, I created the child, I nursed the child, and I raised the child, right? So the mother wins, because if you had to pick the main parent, it's gonna be the mother. But now imagine a three-way custody battle when God knocks on the door, and God says, excuse me, I'd like custody of the child, I want the child back here in heaven. Normally God doesn't make this request, but imagine God says, you know what, I want the kid. So now the father says, but I'm the father, the mother says, yeah, I had this child in my womb for nine months, I nurtured the kid. You're the lawyer for God — what would you say to assert God's claims in the face of the mother?
Learning Partner: I allowed this to all happen in the first place!
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly! Did you make the biochemistry of the womb, mother? Right? You figured it all out, you know exactly how to put together a child, the secrets of reproduction — no! You're just a vehicle; I'm the one who created this whole process, so I'm the parent. Most courts would recognize that, right, that God is the actual parent and the mother is just the vehicle. So God does have the right to ask you that. However, being a parent, at the same moment that God has the right to ask, it is something He would never ask. Which is the tension of the akedah, right? That the midas hadin of elokim, right? It's fascinating — if you look at the names of God, you find that the names change in the akedah. Right? The beginning of the story, it's all elokim, right? Elokim nisa et Avraham [Gen. 22:1], midas hadin, that which I can demand.
Learning Partner: And there's harah Hashem roeh [Gen. 22:8]. So it changes.
Rabbi Fohrman: It changes. At the very end, what kind of malach comes to stop the hand of Avraham?
Learning Partner: Malach Hashem.
Rabbi Fohrman: Malach Hashem.
Learning Partner: Of rachamim.
Rabbi Fohrman: The malach of mercy, the malach of God, of his fathers, says no, I'm a father too, I could never ask you to do this. So elokim can demand this, in midas hadin, but YKVK says I would never ask this from another father. In midas din you could ask, but I could never ask him.
Learning Partner: Wow.
Rabbi Fohrman: But it's something that Avraham has to go to in order to understand that God can be trusted, and sometimes when He asks you to do something that violates your morality, right, there's, there is a higher morality from the author of morality, and, you know, you've gotta learn to be able to trust that, because your own self-interest gets in the way. Right?
Learning Partner: Fascinating.
Rabbi Fohrman: So, I think, you know, when chazal say these things about where, you know, they're not just casually saying, oh, it's something — they've seen a lot in the text, there's a lot of evidence in what they do, and if you pull the threads together, you begin to see that there's a kind of commentary putting on, which I think is fascinating, that chazal seems to actually say there's a way to read Iyov as a commentary on the Avraham story to help you understand the akedah, and to understand the role of theodicy within the Avraham story.
Learning Partner: Fascinating. What a different way of looking at things.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah.
Learning Partner: And this is, it's so fascinating because it takes so long for Iyov to process this, you know — it's funny because, like, he's more like the we, the people who's witnessed something that doesn't make sense, and they're trying to process it, and some people come close and some people don't come as close to processing and understanding and unpacking this relationship.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And of course, you know, it's — one of the — yeah. And then one of the interesting questions to ask about the book in general is, I often say in Aleph Beta land that, you know, I quote Mortimer Adler, that one of the things you do when you approach a book is you have to ask the book what genre the book is, right? And sort of the approach that I've given you here is that certainly, you could argue this, in perhaps the prologue of the book, that the genre of the book — I think most people would say the genre of the book is a philosophy book, because they would say the book is struggling with the philosophical question of tzadik v'rah lo.
And to some extent, that's true. But the problem is that if that's true, that the book is only to be viewed through a philosophical land, one could argue that it's unsatisfying, because the end doesn't seem to answer the question in a philosophically coherent way, right? God should come out of the clouds, He's got three chapters to explain Himself, and explain it — so that I could imagine if I were Iyov, you know… and, like, Iyov, if there's one thing you can trust Iyov for, it's that Iyov doesn't, he's somebody who's honest at the end of the day, right? He's gonna call you out if he thinks that you're patronizing him. He does it constantly to his friends, right? You talked to me off-camera about chapter 13, right, and the chapters leading up to chapter 13, right?
There spans a really, sort of, a cross between comfort him and sort of intimidate him at the same time. And Iyov's heroism in a way is that he's not having any of it, right? And it's like, if there's an answer that doesn't feel right to him, it's like no, I don't really think I'm guilty of that, and I don't — if I am, that doesn't justify what happened to me. So he's an honest kind of guy. So I could imagine, like, if I was Iyov, like all I want is God to show up and explain Himself, right?
Learning Partner: It doesn't really happen.
Rabbi Fohrman: It won't happen. So, and you know, like, God comes out of the clouds and says, oh, I'm the creator; who are you? Right? So I don't know — if I'm Iyov, it's like I would say, alright, You're the creator, I get it. You see a lot, You know a lot, I'm gonna pull up my lawn chair, I'm gonna just sit back, I've got time. I'm a pretty smart guy — explain it to me, right? You just — you know, tell me everything you need to tell me, give me all the background You need to ask me.
And yet, for some reason, God doesn't do that. There's no — it's poetry, what am I doing using poetry for — you'd never write a book of blossoming poetry, would you? It's prose, it's concepts, it's ideas. But I think there's a possibility that the book is not actually only a philosophical book, or even primarily a philosophical book, and that even for Avraham, the challenge of theodicy is only to some extent a philosophical question. But — and I think for all of us, that's true. I think when we struggle with questions of tzadik v'rah lo, we can — it's a very tricky thing. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we're primarily struggling with a philosophical issue. There is an element of philosophy to it, there's an element we don't understand, and we think that if only we could be explained it, it would be fine.
But the truth is, I would say, the genre of the book is different. It's not really about philosophy. The genre of the book — right, and to some extent it's because of that that the book is such a good book. Because if it were a philosophical book, if God came out of the clouds and, so to speak, explained to Iyov why all of this is happening to him, it would have very limited application, right? Because if He explained to Iyov what it is that suffering means to him, but what does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with any of the rest of us? Who says I can extrapolate from that, right?
So the other possibility is that what the book is really all about is not what is the answer — and also, by the way, if the book was about that, it's 40 — it's 38 chapters too long. Right? Because, like, the body of the book is, like, all of this poetry, this discussion between the friends and Iyov, and it's like, why do I even have those chapters? And I think that at some level, the book is not about what the answer to tzadik v'rah lo is, but what it's like — and this is the point I made in that shiur that you listened to, which is that what is it like to live without the answer?
What does it look like when you have a relationship with God that is threatened by not having an answer to that, to live in that space and not having that answer and not really knowing and somehow trusting that this is the right thing to do? What does it mean to trust in that kind of way, to live with that kind of horror, and to wonder whether I'm being duped and whether I'm being wronged. If you think of other chazal in the akedah, by the way, that involve the Satan, which I think are also going back to the akedah, remember that famous chazal that says that the Satan came to Avraham —
Learning Partner: Yeah, the old man and the river.
Rabbi Fohrman: Old man and the river, right? And you ask yourself, and he appears in the guise of an old man. What's fascinating is then he appears to Yitzchak in the guise of a young man. And do you know what verses in the chazal, the Satan quotes verses at him. Do you know where those verses come from? They come from Sefer Iyov. Right? As if chazal are saying you could read Iyov as Iyov's commentary on Avraham walking up to the akedah. Right? And why do you think the Satan shows up as an old man to Avraham, and as a young, strapping man to Yitzchak?
Learning Partner: It's almost a reflection of self, in a sense.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. It's almost as if the same way — and this is an interesting way to see the Satan, right? But who is the Satan, really, but midat hadin of God? It's not separate from God; it's a way of conceptualizing an aspect of God, right? That there's a midat harachamim of God and there's a midat hadin of God, and that somehow both of those are approximations of who God really is, that God doesn't have midah, He's a unitary being, right? And yet we conceive of Him in our fragmented world as having middot. So we would conceive of the midat hadin of God and the midat harachamim of God, and Iyov breaks those apart and says — it's as if there's a conversation between two aspects of God.
And another way of seeing the Satan is a conversation between two aspects of ourselves. So by figuring out what does it mean to trust in a God who I can't understand, so Avraham had three days of struggle with that character. As he's walking to these rivers and going through all this, and he's thinking, how do I even do this, this is so harrowing, and then this vision of himself shows up to argue with him, and this vision of Yitzchak shows up, and the verses from Iyov are the verses where the friends taunt Iyov and basically accuse him of being foolish and naive and not really understanding, right?
And Yitzchak, the Satan comes and says, you know, your dad's probably lost it, right, and he's — don't you think he's really, like — it's like, what are you going up for? Oh, we're going up to worship. Really, you're going up to worship? Where is the altar, then? Where is the lamb? Oh, my father says we're gonna find a lamb. Really, do you think you're really gonna find a lamb at the top? It's like, you and I both know what the lamb is, right? And of course, all of this is just explicating you to imagine the actual conversation, the stuff that's going on in his head, right? That's the actual conversation that Yitzchak is having. And how do I deal with that? So what the book is really about is about what does it mean to struggle when I don't know the answer, and how can I maintain that relationship with God from that position of trust when I'm so horrified and I don't even know if I'm right? Right? And that, I think, is the real challenge to Iyov, right, in that kind of way.
Learning Partner: That is remarkable, and it's so profound, so real, it's so — who, we sort of read those lines, those three days, you never think about what's in the gap of those three days. I think we spend a lot of our lives in those three days.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yup.
Learning Partner: A lot of our lives are just the space of Iyov, essentially, which is just a remarkable perspective. Wow.