When We Can’t See the Good in Things: The Torah on Challenge and Adversity
Spotting an extraordinary teacup, a middle age couple who shared a deep appreciation for fine antiques and pottery, asked the proprietor of a local antique shop if they might have a closer look: “We’ve never seen a cup quite as beautiful,” they told the lady as she handed them the delicate article.
“I’ve not always been a teacup, you know,” whispered the antique as they took her into their hands. “There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.” “Oh, please tell us more,” urged the awestruck couple.
“As I said, I was once just a lump of red clay when my master took me and rolled me and repeatedly pounded and patted me. ‘Don’t do that,’ I yelled. ‘I don’t like it!’ But he only smiled and gently repeated, ‘Not yet, not yet.’
Then, wham! I was placed on a spinning wheel and suddenly I was spun around and around. ‘Stop it! I’m so dizzy; I’m going to be sick!’ I screamed. But the master only nodded and muttered quietly, ‘Not yet’.
He spun, poked and prodded and shaped me to suit himself and then put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door. ‘Help! Get me out of here!’
I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side saying, ‘Not yet, not yet’.
When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf where I began to cool. Oh, that felt so good. ‘Ah, this is much better,’ I thought.
But after I cooled off, he picked me up and he brushed and painted me all over. The fumes were horrible, I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please stop it! Just let me alone!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘not yet’.
Then suddenly he put me back in to the oven. Only this was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged, I pleaded, I screamed, I cried. I was convinced I would never make it; I was ready to give up.
Just then the door opened and he took me out and again placed me on the shelf where I cooled and waited, wondering what was next. An hour later he handed me a mirror and said, look at yourself, and I did.
‘That’s not me’ I cried, ‘It can’t be. It’s so beautiful! I’m beautiful!’ Quietly he spoke: ‘I want you to remember that despite the pain of being rolled and pounded and patted, had I left you alone you’d have just dried up and disintegrated.
I know that spinning around on the wheel made you dizzy but had I stopped you’d have crumbled. I know it was hot and dreadful in the oven but had I not put you there you would have cracked. I’m aware how bad the fumes felt when I brushed and painted you but without it, you would never have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in the second oven your hardness would not have held, you wouldn’t have survived.
Now you are a magnificent product. You are what I had in mind when I decided to create you.'”
In 1980, a man by the name of Harold Kushner wrote a book entitled: When Bad Things Happen To Good People. The book became an instant bestseller and the author went on to become a prominent writer and lecturer. This of course is not without good reason. Kushner has after all, dared to tackle a highly complex and disconcerting subject.
As its title suggests, the book wrestles with the belief in an Al-mighty, Al-merciful G-d and the dreadful calamities that only too often befall His treasured earthlings. Especially disturbing to the author are the heartbreaking challenges that dog the upright, kind and innocent men and women, many of them religious and G-d fearing.
The quandary of human suffering and adversity is no small matter. It invariably impacts our perception of G-d and religion, as it deals at its core with Divine justice. Indeed man’s entire view of human existence and purpose is influenced by this very issue.
Still, despite the popularity of the book and its author – who has come to be regarded as leading authority on the subject – the book’s central theory is fundamentally flawed.
In his fervor to exonerate G-d for man’s senseless suffering, the author has stripped Him of His Divine power. “We ought not be upset with G-d for the pain and suffering in our lives, for He is limited in what He can and cannot do to help,” asserts the author. G-d, in other words, is really not bad; He’s essentially handicapped (Heaven forbid), so much for the term “Al-mighty.”
The absurdity of this philosophy, save for the obvious, is beyond the scope of this forum. Suffice it to say that the Torah makes absolutely no pretenses about the reality of adversity and challenge, even as it maintains G-d’s full power and control.
Anyone who has studied the book of Genesis is familiar with the trials and tribulations of the patriarchs. Each of these Biblical giants has experienced his own unique set of hardships beginning with Avraham, who as we know was tested no less than ten times.
Yitzchak to be sure, had his share of trouble as well, not the least of which was his designation as a human sacrifice. He also suffered ongoing antagonism from the king of the Philistines. In addition to his rivalry with his own brother Ishmael, he was forced to contend with an even uglier rivalry between his two sons; Yaakov and Eisav.
But it is Yaakov more than anyone, who personified the epitome of challenge. The Torah describes his many trials and tribulations in elaborate and colorful detail. Beginning with his protracted altercation with his brother Eisav – from whom he eventually fled for his life – his ordeal only intensified.
His twenty-years with his uncle Lavan were fraught with backbreaking toil and constant deceit. His encounter with his brother after twenty years of exile, described in last week’s Parsha, left him entirely sapped, not to mention his wrestling stunt with the angelic force.
His beloved wife Rachel passes away on him before her time. His daughter Dina is seduced and taken by Sh’chem. To add insult to injury, his sons react to the atrocity with excessive force. They take matters into their own hands and destroy all the males of that city, leaving Yaakov ashamed and horrified.
When Yaakov finally returns home to Canaan, he is ready to call it a day – looking forward eagerly to some peace and tranquility. Yet, as our Parsha, Vayeishev, relates, he is overwhelmed by the foremost challenge of his life; the loss of his beloved son Yoseph.
It is noteworthy to recall the words of the tenth century classic commentator Rashi regarding this painful episode: From the contrast of the word “Settled” – used in the Torah in reference to Yaakov’s return to the land of Canaan; which implies permanency, and the word “Sojourn” – used with regards to his father’s stay in the same land; which implies wandering, it is inferred that after his long exile and struggles, Yaakov wished to settle down in tranquility, but the anguish of Yoseph’s disappearance overwhelmed him (Rashi, Genesis 37:2).
Nor is it the patriarchs alone who are singled out for challenge. Rashi proceeds with the following fascinating observation: “Though the righteous seek tranquility, the Holy One Blessed is He, says, ‘are the righteous not satisfied with what awaits them in the world to come that they expect to live at ease in this world as well?'”
How do we explain all this? Would anyone argue in earnest that our patriarchs were not good people? Why did these pillars of humanity deserve to endure hardship? And what do we make of Rashi’s comments that the righteous can expect to suffer?
Whatever the reason might be, it is obvious from all the above that the Torah does not view adversity as bad or evil. Perhaps it is because challenge unleashes our soul’s deepest potential and untapped reserves, as goes the saying: “Adversity causes some men to break and others to break records.”
Perhaps it is due to other reasons, among which is the notion that we are part of a greater whole and must sometimes sacrifice some of our personal tranquility and wellbeing for G-d’s greater cosmic purpose. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our life in this world is but a tiny fraction of a much greater journey, and that at a later point the score is evened-out.
A major tenet of Torah Judaism, which Kushner seems to entirely ignore, is the belief in the immortality of the soul, otherwise referred to as life after death, or life beyond the grave. The latter is an indispensable component of Jewish theology, indigenous to every facet of the Jewish religion from rituals to liturgy – a principle without which Judaism is essentially meaningless.
This single factor quite obviously changes the entire dynamics vis- a vis the issue of reward and punishment. Yet Kushner does not recognize this phenomenon as part of the equation. In fact, nowhere in his book is this idea even mentioned. This helps explain his agonizing struggle with Divine justice. Such strife, however, holds no sway over those who are in tune with Judaism’s true creed regarding the Afterlife.
The answer to our enigma regarding Divine justice lies in good measure in our perspective of human existence. To isolate our existence on this earth from the greater eternal existence is like trying to make sense of one piece of a ten thousand piece puzzle, or one frame of a movie.
If however, we are to view our physical life the way Judaism teaches us, as one small segment in the soul’s eternal cycle, and that reward and punishment are carried over from one dimension of existence to another, it is then a great deal easier to accept the mysterious and elusive ways of the world, hence the following Talmudic passages: “Know that the grant of reward of the righteous is in the world to come.” (Ethics Of The Fathers 2:21). “This world is like an anteroom before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet-hall.” (Ethics Of The Fathers 4:21).
As mortals we sometimes simply fail to see the whole picture. But that shouldn’t dissuade us from our belief in G-d’s goodness, for the deficiency is from our human limitations by which G-d is not bound. Regrettably though, Kushner takes issue with this intrinsically Jewish principle as well, as is evident from his subsequent remarks: “Often, victims of misfortune try to console themselves with the idea that G-d has His reasons for making this happen to them, reasons that they are in no position to judge. . .
‘In 1924 the novelist Thornton Wilder attempted to confront this question in his novel The Bridge of San Luis Ray. . . More than forty years after writing The Bridge of San Luis Ray, an older and wiser Wilder returned to the question of why good people suffer in another novel, The Eighth Day. The book tells the story of a good and decent man whose life was ruined by bad luck and hostility. He and his family suffer although they are innocent. At the end of his novel, where the reader would hope for a happy ending, with heroes rewarded and villains punished, there is none. Instead, Wilder offers us the image of a beautiful tapestry. Looked at from the right side, it is an intricately woven work of art, drawing together threads of different lengths and colors to make up an inspiring picture. But turn the tapestry over, and you will see a hodgepodge of many threads, some short and some long, some smooth and some cut and knotted, going off in different directions.
Wilder offers this as his explanation of why good people have to suffer in this life. G-d has a pattern into which all of our lives fit. His pattern requires that some lives be twisted, knotted, or cut short, while others extend to impressive lengths, not because one thread is more deserving than another, but simply because the pattern requires it. Looked at from underneath, from our vantage point in life, G-d’s pattern of reward and punishment seems arbitrary. But looked at from outside this life, from G-d’s vantage point, every twist and knot is seen to have its place in a great design that adds up to a work of art’.
There is much that is moving in this suggestion, and I can imagine many people would find it comforting. Pointless suffering, suffering as punishment for some unspecified sin, is hard to bear. But suffering as a contribution to a great work of art designed by G-d Himself may be seen, not only a tolerable burden, but even as a privilege. So one victim of medieval misfortune is supposed to have prayed, ‘Tell me not why I must suffer. Assure me only that I suffer for Thy sake.’
On closer examination, however, this approach is found wanting, asserts Kushner. For all its compassion, however, it too is based on wishful thinking. The crippling illness of a child, the death of a young husband and father, the ruin of an innocent person through malicious gossip – these are all real. We have seen them. But nobody has seen Wilders tapestry. All he can say to us is ‘Imagine that there might be such a tapestry.’ I find it very hard to accept hypothetical solutions to real problems.
How seriously would we take a person who said ‘I have faith in Adolf Hitler or in John Dillinger. I can’t explain why they did the things they did, but I can’t believe they would have done them without good reason.’ Yet people try to justify the deaths and tragedies G-d inflicts on innocent victims with almost these same words.” – Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People.
If you’re feeling a bit queasy after hearing these words, especially the shocking comparison between the inexplicable fate of mankind – which every credible religion attributes to a righteous and just superior power – to that of a maniacal mass murderer, you are probably in good company. Had it not been for the deep pain and distress on the part of the author of these words – due to personal tragedy – it would actually be hard for some not to be offended.
With regards to the substance of Kushner’s argument that it is “very hard to accept hypothetical solutions to real problems,” it should be obvious by now that this logic is based on a total misconception of G-d and faith. There is thus really no need for an elaborate response. Indeed the answer to Kushner’s argument can be summarized in the following sentence: The notion that “seeing is believing,” is perhaps true on a human level, in relation to G-d, however, this principle represents the utter denial of His true existence and quintessential being.
The reality is that we don’t really know the particular reason for the adversity and challenge in our life. But does that really matter? Since it is obvious from the Torah that challenge is not a bad thing but rather an inevitable part of life and the purpose of one’s particular existence.
G-d, clearly, knows what He’s doing with each of us. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us and make us and expose us to just enough pressures of just the right kind so that we may become a flawless piece of work, to fulfill His good, pleasing and perfect will.
So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control; when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace of hardships, or when life seems to smell horrible, think of what a beautiful product is in the making.
The venerable King David, himself no stranger to suffering, has best summarized this basic Jewish ideology in his declaration: “For a moment in His wrath grants life in His favor; weeping will tarry for the night, and joy will come with the morning.”
Even the saddest hours of our lives – that which comes to us as weeping at night – that which we bewail as a calamity – says King David, are but the birth pangs of future sublime happiness that will be greeted with joyous song in the “morning,” i.e., once it has the desired effect on our spirits, for the ways of G-d are all nothing but gifts. His wrath is intended only to make us become more worthy of His eventual favor and hence of life itself.
Most importantly let us not forget that even in our darkest moments of dread and suffering G-d stands at our side firmly and vigilantly, as stated in the familiar chapter of Psalms, chapter 23: “Even if I will walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and your staff – they will comfort me. . .
May the final words of the chapter come into complete fruition: “Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life…” with coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.