Why Does God Let Us Suffer?
How To Trust God In Difficult Times
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Why does God let us suffer? Why does God let bad things happen? To truly find peace with loss and suffering, we need to face this difficult question.
In this course, Rabbi Fohrman grapples with the unsatisfying answers often given to the problem of evil -- and offers a new approach based on a passage in the Book of Isaiah. This fresh approach to an age-old question will deepen your Tisha B’Av experience, and may just hold the key to accepting loss as part and parcel of living a full and good life.
A personal note from Rabbi Fohrman about this course:
A word of caution -- although this is a video about loss, and how, to some extent, we might find peace in the face of it – this isn’t designed as something to be watched during shiva, or when one is wrestling with the searing pain of fresh grief. That pain, unfortunately, probably needs to be felt in an untrammelled way, I think, until we somehow re-emerge and feel ready to face the world again. This video, by contrast, is probably something to be watched after the passage of some time, when we are more at a distance from grief – but still confronting an aching sense of disquiet and unfinished business. For people who are there, I hope this video might provide a path to some peace or solace. So, please, bear that in mind, when choosing to watch this or engage with it.
Loss, of course, is among the most personal of things any of us experience. I don’t know that my own reflections on it will resonate with your own – but I hope that in some way, they will.
Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen To Us?
Hey folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta. Tisha B’Av is a day on which we mourn terrible things that have happened to us throughout history: the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago; the loss of the first Temple even before that. But it’s also a day not just of mourning those particular calamities, but our rabbis tell us that on Tisha B’Av all the losses that we as a people have experienced throughout time – they somehow come together, and year after year we mourn for all of them on Tisha B’Av.
Why Does God Let People Suffer
So today, I want to talk about the way we mourn for loss. Not just in the context of Tisha B’Av, but really in the context of any loss we might experience. Because it seems to me, as a religious person, there’s actually a difficult kind of double-barreled challenge, as it were, in any process of mourning. A loved one dies, a parent, maybe even more wrenchingly, God forbid, a child. In a terrible moment like that, not only would I be mourning, not only would I be grieving not having what was so precious to me here in this world… but I'd also be struggling with how I feel about God through all of that. One of the most anguishing parts about the situation for any religious person, I suppose, would be the sense that God probably had something to do with that loss. Why did He even do that? Is it even fair?
And these are obviously uncomfortable questions to even ask about God, and there’s difficult implications for my relationship with Him. Anger, a feeling of betrayal, even – you know, these are really powerful feelings, and to feel them towards our Maker in Heaven can be uncomfortable, to say the least. I’m certainly not here to judge any of that. But I want to offer something here, a personal reflection of mine that I’ve found helpful in thinking about loss, in hopes that maybe you might find it meaningful too.
Okay, so this question of how is it that we deal with loss – inexplicable loss where we don't get answers from the Almighty – some philosophers would call this a version of the problem of evil, or the fancy name for it, the problem of theodicy. And classically, there's kind of three religious responses to the problem of evil. And I want to begin by outlining what those responses are, and also outlining why, at least at face value, they kind of feel hollow, at least to me.
Argument number one goes kind of like this. Here Joe is; he's just experienced this terrible loss. Somebody shows up at shiva for Joe, puts his arm around them, and says: Joe, you shouldn't feel so bad. God has a master plan. And Joe says: What do you really mean? And you say: Well, Joe, you know, you don't really know what God knows, and all of this means something and is explicable in the master plan. If you knew what God knows, the larger picture, then you'd be okay with this loss. You could handle it. And therefore you should be comforted, Joe.
If I was Joe, I wouldn't feel so comforted, right? I'd feel like punching the guy in the nose. I would say: Well, God, if it's really true that You have so much knowledge, explain it to me. I'm a reasonable guy, I'm happy to listen. And if you'd say, well, you know, Joe, there's no prophecy nowadays, you can't really have much of a conversation with God… so if I was Joe, I'd say: I don't know, you know, God communicated a lot to me in the Torah. He could have devoted some of that time to explaining to me why these terrible things happen in the world. Why don't we get any of that? I'm all ears. I'm willing to read 15 books of the Torah, 20 books of the Torah. Just write it all down for me!
You know, you could even go to the Book of Job. The Book of Job is this moment where Job is actually struggling with this question, confronts God, and God actually has that one-on-one talk with him. And God seems to actually take the position that if you would understand what I understand, then somehow it would all be okay. But why did Job accept that? Why didn't Job just sort of respond to God and say: Look, don't tell me if I had the information that You have, if I was the creator like You, I would understand. Just explain it to me.
In other words, the bottom line is, the problem with his answer is, it sounds like it's just a knowledge issue, right? So find a way of communicating that knowledge! Put it on a hard disk, download it into my brain. Share the knowledge with me! This is the problem with kind of answer number one to the problem of loss and anguish. Let me go to answer number two with you.
Okay, so back to Joe in the shiva house, right? It's the second day of shiva, and someone else shows up and puts his arm around Joe and says: Joe, I know this sounds really inexplicable to you, and I know that living with the loss of your dear loved one is terrible and very difficult. Yes, it's true, you're going to go through lots of pain and lots of anguish, but you have no idea the schar and the reward that you'll get in the next world. All of this anguish and all of this pain will feel trivial in comparison to the bliss that you'll experience in the next world. The next world is the answer to these problems. That's solution number two.
So again, if I was Joe at that house of shiva, again I would feel like just rearing back and giving that guy a punch in the nose. He's talking to me about how my suffering should feel trivial in comparison with this unimaginable reward in the next world. To me, that trivializes the kind of anguish that I'm feeling now. There is no ice-cream cone that I would accept, no matter how wonderful, no matter how many cherries on top, no matter how much whipped cream, that I would accept to experience this kind of anguish. That's not the way we feel, that pain becomes worth it. And therefore it's not a matter of saying, well, if the reward is just great enough, then, you know, you’d trade it all in – no, I wouldn't trade it all in! I want to be with my loved one here and now!
And it's for this kind of reason, I think, that the next-world argument seems kind of hollow to many of us. And this, I think, is the problem with that great next-world answer to the problem of evil and the problem of suffering.
So let's move on to kind of classic answer number three. Somebody new comes to visit on the third day of shiva, and she makes a new argument to you, a more abstract argument this time. She says: All that stuff that happens isn't God's fault; it doesn't really come from God. God is responsible for the good parts of life, but He's not really responsible for the bad parts of life. Other things are responsible. It's the forces of nature. It's the devil. It's some other force that's in charge of evil. God is not involved in that; it doesn't come from Him. This is kind of the third classic approach to dealing with the problem.
But the question is, you know, whether that's true. Is it really the case that we can lay only the good parts of our lives at God's doorstep and not the bitter and painful parts of our lives? A verse comes to mind in the Book of Job, where Job at one point suffers terribly and tells his wife, gam et hatov nekabel me’et ha-Elokim v'lo et hara? Right? Are you really arguing to me that I should only accept the good from God and not the bad? You can't really do that, you can't sort of take one without the other. And that sounds like Job is making the argument that you can't sort of bifurcate life that way.
But if you really want a verse that makes this argument in spades, there’s actually a verse in Isaiah 45, a very, very mysterious passage. I’d almost say it’s a troubling verse… troubling because it seemingly lays responsibility for the bad, the unsavory, the anguishing parts of life squarely on God's doorstep.
The verse goes like this. Isaiah says that God is yotzer or uvorei choshech, He is the God who forms light and creates darkness, oseh shalom, He makes peace, uborei ra, and He creates evil. And there you have it, black on white, the God who creates ra, those bad things in the world.
Now, a verse like this, with such head-spinning implications – you might almost be tempted to disregard it or not even really deal with it. But surprisingly, we actually as a community highlight this verse. We say it every single day in our morning prayers. And yet, when we do, we actually change it a little bit. You might be more familiar with the changed version: yotzer or uvorei choshech, oseh shalom uvorei et hakol, the God who makes peace and creates everything. It is almost as if we’re so uncomfortable with the implications of the verse the way it’s written that we create a euphemism for the end of the verse. We call God the creator of everything instead of saying, black on white, that He's the creator of bad things.
And of course, the theological implications of that seem so startling. We're supposed to consider God good and wonderful despite the fact that evil, the trail of evil, leads directly back to His desk, and we're supposed to be fine with a God like that? How do I worship a God like that?
Okay, so I'd like to share a kind of theory with you over the course of these next videos, and it is this: We've talked about three answers that all seem kind of hollow. I want to suggest that if you take all of those answers and you somehow put them together, making a kind of mysterious oneness out of them, they don't seem so hollow anymore. They can actually seem meaningful, comforting, in both an intellectual and a kind of visceral experiential kind of way. And what I want to do over the course of our next videos is show you how that might be true, that all of those things seem so troubling – the kind of things that you'd literally want to rear back and punch someone in the face for telling you when you're in that shiva house – and yet somehow when you put all of them together, they are much more than the sum of their parts.
And I think the key to it is this very difficult verse in Isaiah 45, this notion that God is behind not just light and darkness, but is even behind evil itself. What does that mean? I think if we really look at that verse carefully, we'll find a startling key to how all three of these very hollow answers become something one, whole, and satisfying. Come with me into the next video, and let's see if we can figure some of that out.