So my car was smashed, the other day, with me in it. I walked away. Why me?
How did all of us get to be so lucky/blessed on that day? An out-of-control van drove across lanes of freeway rush hour traffic, breaking cars, and (to my knowledge) no living being was harmed.
I’ve always rejected crude theodicies (explanations for why good people suffer and evildoers get away with murder). Theodicies that regard misfortunes like illness and injuries to be yesurin (chastisements) for bad deeds make little sense to me in a post-Shoah world. It is manifestly untrue from where I sit that we make our own realities or that God never gives us more than we can handle. Decent people get broken in half by life all the time.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Doctor Rachel Adler points me to Talmud Bavli Berakhot 5a/b. The “a” side of the daf (page) records the ruminations of rabbis trying to articulate a theodicy of illness and pain. Here is a representative opinion: Raba (some say, R. Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord. (Lamentations 3:40) If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the man whom You chastise, Adonai, and teach out of Your law. (Psalm 94:12) If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: The person God loves, God rebukes. (Proverbs 3:12)
Then we turn to the other side of the page, the “b” side. We read: R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Johanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room, and he bared his arm and light radiated from it. Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven. Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables. Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty (that is, R. Johanan’s beauty) that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept together. In the meanwhile he said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? — He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him.
When the rabbis themselves get sick, what they need is not some Job’s friend helpfully listing all the reasons why they might deserve to be miserable. They need a friend to take their hand. As the text goes on to say, the prisoner cannot escape by himself. When caught in a circle of woe, most of us need someone else to reach in and guide us out or, at least, be there with us for a while.
So that’s when things like illness and injury are bad. Not your fault. Not mine.
But what about when it looks as though we’ve been delivered by something stronger than any human hand?
Reflexively, I say, Thank God. Thank God no one was hurt. It would be so easy to spin a narrative of meaning, to believe that I, along with everyone else in the accident, was spared “for a reason.” But those 10 people killed on the way to Sacramento—hardworking kids on their way to check out college!-- when a truck hit a school bus—was that “for a reason” too?
For that matter, I find it absurd to suggest that I “deserve” the good fortune of having been born into this time and place in which I get my own airy space with a window that opens on beauty and a door that locks; where I get to eat fresh fruit all year round and am (mostly) assured that my life will not be interrupted by air raid sirens and the threat of death (as it might be in Tel Aviv) or by a return “home” to rubble covering city blocks, festering with death (as it surely it would be in Gaza). How could I “merit” an accident of birth?
Saner by far to accept the answer of Isaiah and Job—when my consciousness can span galaxies and universal dimensions, then maybe I can hope to understand. Absent that, the best I can do is try to leave my bit of this world a little nicer than I found it, counting on the One Who is beyond all space and time. All I know is that I did walk away from a 3-car accident able to live another day. I was born into a time in place in which I have the opportunity to earn my way in the world, to learn and share Torah and to speak with you like this. What I do with that chance is up to me. Thank God.
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