And God Said: Choose Life
Question: In the Torah, God promises prosperity if we keep the Torah and destruction if we violate it. But how can we still believe that, when we’ve seen over the centuries that our actions and our reward or punishment don’t always correlate?
The question revolves around the principle of God’s justice in rewarding goodness and punishing evil. It is very clear that there are many places in the Bible where this is presented as a categorical truth. So we read in Deuteronomy 11:13-21:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…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….Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce….”
Likewise, there are many passages in the books of the prophets where we find predictions of dire consequences – plague, destruction and exile – that are punishments for Israel’s sinfulness. And, we read in the prophets and in Torah that if the people return to God their lot in life will improve and their relationship with God will be whole again. Expressions of this faith in God’s justice reverberate throughout much of the Bible, especially when the fate of the Israelites as a collective is concerned.
There are, however, other places in Scripture where this notion of God’s perfect justice is challenged, particularly when the challenger is an individual. The most powerful of such challenges is the book of Job. There, in the first chapter we read (1:8): “The Lord said to the Adversary (the Satan), ‘Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!’” The Satan then challenges God by arguing that Job is only righteous and God-fearing because he was blessed with a plethora of riches. The Satan then taunts God, saying (1:11); “But lay Your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face.” God accepts the dare and lets the Adversary have his way with Job, as long as Job is not killed.
We then read how Job suddenly loses all of his wealth and children and is then stricken with a horrible skin disease that keeps him in agony day and night. Job asks that God put him out of his misery. Three of his friends come to him, each trying to explain that God’s justice is perfect, and, therefore, Job must have done something to bring these calamities down upon him. Job, however, maintains his innocence, and cries out to one of his friends (9:17-22): “He (God) wounds me much for no cause….I am blameless—I am distraught….He destroys the blameless and the guilty.”
Near the end of the book God visits Job and tells him that he has no grounds to challenge God, because he cannot know God’s ways since God and his ways are beyond human comprehension. In the end Job relents and God restores his health and wealth and gives him a more children. Although Job realizes that he is “but dust” and cannot understand God’s ways, there is no declaration on his part that God is indeed just. And, the image of God playing with someone’s life and allowing the killing of that person’s children just to put an obnoxious angel (Satan) in his place, makes God look like anything but a caring and just deity.
A similar note is struck in Psalm 22, where we read (22:2-3): “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring? My God, I cry by day—You answer not; by night, and have no respite.” Nowhere in the Psalm do we learn why this person is suffering, and nowhere is there an admission of guilt. Like Job’s friends, the sufferer remembers how, in the past, God saved those who were downtrodden, and he affirms and proclaims his faith that God will do the same for him. Here the speaker is more faithful than Job. Nevertheless, the implication of the psalm is that God abandons people, and they have no idea why. Again, God comes off looking like a capricious God who can be, even for a limited period of time, unconcerned for the well-being of his creatures. This undercurrent of cynicism is found in a number of psalms and in Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), indicating that throughout the Biblical period the question that our questioner posed was being asked and is not new.
The Pharisees and the rabbis of the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud sought to resolve the question by affirming that a person’s suffering or death here on Earth are not the end of that individual’s life experience. There is a spiritual world, they taught, into which the righteous enter upon death that is filled with light and blessings that transcend any experience in this world. So we read in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:16: “Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.” Life in this world should be lived in righteousness and holiness so that one can attain the reward of a high level of spiritual and moral purity that affords a meaningful segue into the next world.
But then there arises the question: How can we explain the situation of people who live such a life of righteousness and yet spend their years in this world in suffering and misery? Where is the justice in this? Over the centuries rabbis have offered a number of answers to this question. Here are some of them: 1. The suffering of the righteous is yissurin shel ahavah, afflictions of love. As metal is purified and hardened by going through fire, so is the soul of a righteous person, especially beloved by God, purified and strengthened so it can rise to the highest levels of spirituality and draw even closer to God in the next world. 2. No person is perfect, and even the righteous person sins and requires punishment. Because God expects more from such a person, the punishments are more severe, and they ensure a noble entrance into heaven and the world to come. 3. The righteous suffer to atone for the sins of earlier generations who did not adequately repent for their sins. God chooses the righteous because God knows that, due to the strength of their faith, they will bear their suffering without denying God and will set an example of faithfulness for others. 4. The answer with which the book of Job concludes: We cannot understand God’s ways, and we must maintain faith in God’s innate goodness
I suggest that for many moderns, such answers may be inadequate. We are more willing to accept the reality that often human actions – not acts of God – are the causes of human suffering. We also understand that randomness continues to operate in the world, especially in the realm of nature. Contrary to the ancients, most of us do not see in the destruction caused by storms, earthquakes and the like the hand of God punishing sinful humans. We understand that if Americans choose to settle in “Tornado Alley” or near the San Andreas Fault with its seismic activity or along the southern Atlantic coast where hurricane activity is intense they should expect to be adversely affected by the consequences of their choice. All of these natural phenomena are not extraordinary. As the Talmud teaches: Ha-olam k’minhago noheg, “The world operates in its normal way.” Why? Perhaps someday we will figure that out. The bottom line is – such activity reflects no judgment, one way or the other, by God on our activity.
Human misbehavior brings more grief into people’s lives than do natural disasters. Over 60 million people died in World War II (and roughly 10% were Jews) and approximately 17 million died in World War I, for a combined total of 77 million. Reasonable people attribute this to human activity and do not lay the blame on God. This number is far greater than the total number of human beings who died in the 20th century due to natural catastrophes (maximally 3.1 million from floods, storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. – not including plagues and famines, in which human activity is a factor). And yet, Jews ask: “Where was God during the Shoah.” We ask this question because we are a covenant-based religion, and as such we believe we have a unique bond with God, who should have been present to save us. But, we Jews forget that, according to Judaism, God also has a covenant with all humans through the Noahide Covenant. Do we hear Jews asking, “Where was God during World War II?” The bottom line is war is a human generated catastrophe. It results in the loss of human life, the destruction of farmland, towns and cities, and the disruption of functioning societies. It also wastes resources that could be put to use to cure disease, clean our polluted air and water, improve the education of our children, fight disease and promote health, reduce poverty and promote economic stability and growth.
In addition to war, human immoral and unethical activity tears at the fabric of society, leading to multiple modes of social dysfunction. Poverty, inadequate health care, poor education – all the results of social neglect – lead to consequences that affect all people, not only the poor, the sick and the ignorant. Disrespect for others, their rights and their property generates crime and violence. Hateful speech, gossip and lying can lead to the destruction of people’s reputations and to acts that destroy human life. Human neglect and abuse of the natural world is causing climate change and literally changing the quality of ocean waters and can lead to new catastrophic natural events. Is this God’s fault?
Judaism is built on the principle that God gave humans free will. Thus, we read in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live.” So, humans make choices and must learn to live with the consequences – both good and bad – of those choices. God cannot be blamed for the results of such decisions. If a nation decides to cut back on funding education, and that nation suffers economic decline because its undereducated people cannot produce goods that compete in the world markets, do we really expect God to step in and fix the problem? Hardly. If Iran becomes a nuclear military power and the Saudis respond by building their own nuclear weapons and tensions escalate and a nuclear holocaust occurs in the Middle East that engulfs the all the nations of that part of the world – including the State of Israel – are we going to blame God. Hardly. These are the bitter fruits of human free will gone awry.
I suggest that a modern reading of our sacred sources requires a contemporary midrash that teaches that there are good and bad consequences to the choices humans – as individuals or as groups – make. We read in Deuteronomy 11:26-28:
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God….”
God sets before us a table of amazing potentialities – love, compassion, justice, healing, beauty, food, water, knowledge, faith and more – and bids us to choose to make these potentialities into realities so that we can live lives of holiness and blessing in a world at peace. If, however, we choose otherwise we have to expect that sooner or later, in one way or the other, dire consequences will confront us – and God will cry as His children suffer.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum