Weekly Letter: Why Tragedies and Suffering?

In a letter to The Rebbe, a person laments the tragedies and suffering – such as the holocaust – that have befallen the Jewish people. The Rebbes response is a lesson on perspectives. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

By the Grace of G-d
29th of Tishrei, 5725
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Brooklyn 30, N. Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

Your letter reached me with some delay. You write in it that you have come closer to Yiddishkeit, but nevertheless you are troubled in your mind by the fate that overcame European Jewry in recent years, and how to reconcile this with the basic beliefs of our religion, etc.

Before answering your question, I must make a general introductory remark, which applies to your question and all similar questions. This is that such questions in fact have no logical basis as can be illustrated by the following example: A small child cannot possibly understand the scientific research carried on by a scientist, and he would be quite mystified watching the scientist doing various actions etc. Consider that the scientist was at one time a small child, and that the small child can become a scientist as great as or even greater than the scientist in the illustration. In other words although there is no absolute difference between the two, it is not surprising that the child cannot understand the ways of the advanced scientist. On the contrary, it would be rather surprising and unnatural if the child did understand anything in this situation. How much less is one to expect a created being to understand the ways of the Creator, where there is an absolute difference between the two! It is only that in His abundant mercies the Creator has willed to reveal an infinitesimal measure of His ways to us human beings.  I refer you to that passage in the Torah where it is stated that Moshe Rabbeinu asked G-d, “Make known, I pray, Thy ways to me.’” In reply G-d said, “Thou shall see My back but My face shall not be seen”, (Ex. 33:23). lt should be remembered that, as our Sages explained,  the request of Moshe Rabbeinu related to his desire to know  the explanation of the perplexing question of the seeming prosperity of the wicked and suffering of the righteous, which is a common experience (See, Brochos 7 A).

Having said the above, I will offer the following remark in the hope that it may ease your mind somewhat in regard to your question.

The terrible calamity which befell our people in our time is, unfortunately, not the first instance in the long history of the martyrdom of our people in exile among the nations of the world. Going back to the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, the Jewish people suffered even a greater calamity inasmuch as there was no place of refuge at that time, since Rome’s rule extended everywhere. Even percentage-wise, our Jewish people suffered more at that time than during the recent calamity. Nevertheless it is precisely at that time that the Torah Shebe’al’peh flourished in the great Yeshivah of Yavneh. In other words the Torah Shebe’al’peh, which is intimately bound up with our faith in G-d and is the very basis of our Jewish faith, flourished at a time when the question you posed could have been asked even more forcefully. Similarly during the Middle Ages, and especially during the times of the Crusades, whole communities of Jewish men, women and children were cruelly wiped out by the Crusaders. Yet, it was precisely at that time that the Baalei HaTosfos and their disciples flourished, whose teachings and works are the well-spring of our Jewish life and Jewish way of life to this day.

I trust therefore that you will not permit such questions to hamper the progress of your advancement in all matters of Yiddishkeit, and that you will go from strength to strength in the practice and knowledge of the Jewish way of life.

With blessing


P.S. I do not know your status in regard to the so-called esoteric part of the Torah (Nistor or Kabbalah), for, as you know the Torah has four levels – Pshat, Remez, Drush and Sod. However as we find also in the writings of the Ramban and Maharsho, the events in any particular generation, though not necessarily connected with previous generations, can be related to previous generations by means of gilgul. This means that the soul of a grandfather or ancestor can be sent down to earth as the soul of a descendent, in order to complete that which it had not completed during its first sojourn on this earth. From this point of view the whole concept of reward and punishment need not necessarily be connected with the soul’s last descent to earth, but can be connected with its previous descent or descents.

Incidentally, the concept of gilgul is altogether not so mystical as may appear at first glance. Modern medical science recognizes that many physical characteristics are hereditary and even tendencies and natural propensities are passed on from father to son and so forth. This is explained by the fact that the chromosomes carry the genes that convey hereditary characteristics, upon which both the physical and mental state of the offspring are dependent.  It is not surprising that an offspring may inherit a serious disease from the parents, or ancestors. If this is so in the realm of the physical and mental, it is but a small step further to extend this concept to the realm of the spiritual.

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