A baby boy born with a defective heart has multiple surgeries before his first birthday and will suffer from physical and cognitive impairments for as long as he lives. An aging matriarch, who thrives on mentoring young people and challenging them to push the boundaries of their abilities, is suddenly enfeebled by a stroke. A young mother often incapacitated by pain, is, after years of inconclusive tests, finally diagnosed with a genetic disease—but not before she passes it on to two children.
And that's just in my congregation, just this year.
We all struggle with "why bad things happen to good people," a question for which there is no answer. Is God not all-powerful? Or all-good? Or is God—if you believe in God's existence—removed from the world? More than three decades ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner deliberately titled his book about theodicy When Bad Things Happen To Good People, not why, because, he came to believe, pain and tragedy are simply part of the world as God created it. Kushner wrote:
"God does not cause our misfortunes. . . . Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws."1
But because bad things do happen to good people (and, vice versa; we often see bad people reap the rewards of misdeeds), we have a lot of trouble swallowing what we read in Eikev, the third parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Here the so-called Deuteronomic theology is in full display: If you obey God, you will be rewarded; if you disobey, you will be punished. God, through Moses, lays out the choice in language that people who live off the land will understand:
"If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I also will provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them. For the Eternal's anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you." (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
These words are familiar to anyone who davens regularly from a traditional or Conservative prayer book, as they comprise much of the second paragraph of scriptural verses that immediately follow the Shema. They do not appear in American Reform prayer books. We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.
We are not the only ones troubled by it. Two millennia ago, the early Sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, and the death and desolation that accompanied it, formulated the notion of the olam haba, the "world to come," as the place where people would finally get whatever is due them in this world. "All Israel have a portion in the World to Come," in the teaching of the Mishnah, with the exception of heretics who reject Torah itself. Ovadia of Bartenura, in his classic fifteenth-century Mishnah commentary, highlighted the rewards to good people who might have suffered in this world: "The righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and enjoy the brilliance of the Divine Presence."2
The olam haba may give some comfort to those who struggle with theodicy and the question of God's place in our lives; yet we all still must live in the olam hazeh, in "this world," flawed though it might be. My rabbinics professor, Dr. Edward Goldman, told us in seminary that the Sages' teachings can be boiled down to this lesson: God only expects us to do the best with what we've got. It's a lesson of comfort found in this same parashah, in the chapter that precedes the troubling verses:
"And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul . . ." (Deuteronomy 10:12)
Many of the Torah's mitzvot carry challenges, be they physical, material, or theological. Rabbi David Fridenberg taught that you cannot fulfill the commandment of tzitzit, for instance, if you don't own any clothes, and you can't place a mezuzah on the doorpost if you are homeless. The exception to this is the reverence of God, he wrote, "because that commandment can be performed regardless of the conditions and situation."3
As Rabbi Kushner wrote in coping with loss, "because the tragedy is not God's will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are."
Turning to God, not away from God, when the olam hazeh gets tough, may bring us a reward in this world—a reward of comfort and healing that helps us cope with whatever may come. And that is something that all of us deserve.
1. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (NY: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 134; also excerpted on www.myjewishlearning.com
2. Mishnah Sanhedrin: A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), Chapter 10, Mishnah 1, pp. 137-138 in the paperback edition
3. Rabbi David Fridenberg in Torah Gems, Vol. III, Aharon Ya'akov Greenberg, comp., Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein, trans. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 220
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she was ordained in 1999.
Rabbi Korotkin deftly explores the challenges of how we might understand, today, the system of rewards and punishments that are laid out so matter-of-factly in this week's Torah portion, Eikev. Does the world, our olam hazeh, really work like this? As we head toward the High Holidays, we see that our liturgy provides comfort and insight.
Un'taneh Tokef , from the High Holiday service, presents us with a picture of life that is challenging and unsettling: Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? Who serenely and who in turmoil? For me, this Un'taneh Tokef prayer, when you listen for its emotional content, evokes a startling and overwhelming anxiety about the uncertainty of life. "Who will live and who shall die?" None of us knows the answer!
Rabbi Marcia Prager shared with me a path for embracing life even in the face of loss. Rereading that familiar verse from the Shofar service: "HaYom Harat Olam," traditionally translated as "Today is the birthday of the world," she guides us to a new understanding. The Hebrew word,olam, can mean "world" (as in Melech haOlam) or it can mean "eternal" (as in L'olam va-ed, forever and ever.) The actual phrase harat olam originally comes from Jeremiah 20:17, where Jeremiah bemoans his fate as a prophet and wishes that he had never been born; that his mother had been harat olam, "eternally pregnant." (The word, harah can mean "birth" or "pregnant.") So, now, our verse in the Shofar service reads: HaYom Harat Olam, "Today is eternally pregnant." Today, the now, each moment, is always pregnant, eternally filled with potential and possibility; even when we are confronted with great sadness and loss.
This, I believe, is the direction in which the Un'taneh Tokef prayer is guiding us. It is just so easy to be asleep to life. We are meant to be startled by the message of Un'taneh Tokef into a great awakening to the preciousness of life, perhaps by virtue of its precariousness. Wake up! Look at what a gift you hold in your hands! Love, live, learn, give, grow all you can each day. Today is a treasure, don't waste it! HaYom Harat Olam: life is a dazzling array of possibilities, one after another, each a gift waiting to be opened, eternally.
Rabbi Greg Wolfe has been the spiritual leader for Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, California for twenty years and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1989.
Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114