“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to have to stop my sermon, I’m feeling a little dizzy.”
Those words may sound familiar to some of you. They were the last words I said last week from this pulpit before everything went black.
The next thing I remember is being surrounded by people, taking my pulse, and calling my name. For better or worse, someone who knows me too well assumed this was actually part of the sermon I was giving; some gimmick to get a point across.
It was not. It was a pretty lousy experience to pass out in shul while giving a drasha. But I’m okay now, I really am, and I appreciate all of your concern.
But it was unsettling though, right?
It gets worse.
Exactly one week before this incident, just a few feet away from where I fainted, another unsettling event took place. At Mincha on Shabbos afternoon, someone was carrying the Sefer Torah and slipped on one of the stairs. Our crown jewel, the centerpiece of our shul, the Torah scroll fell on the floor. Since then, I have had recurring flashbacks of the chazzan and the Torah sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. And I’m not done.
This past Tuesday morning after Shacharis, I came home and noticed that my wife had gone out quite early. Only that when I came inside, she was still there. Apparently, it wasn’t her who took the van, it was someone else… But don’t worry, we found the van… or more accurately, the police found it, smashed into a 7-11 after a hit and run, in which thankfully, no one was hurt. But our van is no longer with us.
Quite a week. Are you spooked yet?
Now in the larger scheme of things, none of this is terrible. I am alive, my family is healthy, and our Sefer Torah is okay. But I’d like to use this as an opportunity, if I may, to address the age-old question, of why bad things happen to good people. Because all of us have and will have setbacks and difficulties in life. All of us will be faced with a choice of how we respond to those events. I’d venture to say that how we respond to the question lies primarily in how we ask the question.
What I’ve learned over the years is that there are three ways to pose this question; actually, three postures. The first and classic way to ask this question is to point a finger at G-d Almighty and yell, J’accuse! You’re guilty! Lama ha’rei’ota? Why have You brought evil? What did I do?!
I’ll be honest, I’ve never asked this question, not because I’m that righteous. On the contrary, it’s because I know I am not.
What do I owe G-d and what does G-d owe me?
When G-d dropped my soul down into this world, He never told me how healthy I’d be, how comfortable or uncomfortable my life would be. He never even told me how long I’ll be here until He’d send an Uber to pick my soul up. So G-d’s holding up His side just fine.
But He did ask me to do a few things. Not just “be a good person” and to “try your best.” Nope, that’s not what He said. That’s the criteria we make up to make ourselves feel good, not His criteria. He told me exactly what He wants me to do. 248 positive Mitzvos, 365 prohibitions.
I am not holding up this side of the bargain. I am trying. Usually. Sometimes. Not always. I have no right to ask, why did You do this to me.
The only context that this question makes any sense in, is in regard to a child who suffers; a child is not responsible like we are as adults. But as adults, can anyone legitimately say they’ve followed through with their responsibilities? Really?!
I may indeed be the nicest person in the world – which I’m not. But how can I point a finger at G-d and claim injustice using watered-down criteria that I made up and not His.
So no, I am not pointing a finger at G-d this week. I am way too aware of all my many shortcomings to have the audacity to claim that He is in the wrong. No way.
Now there is another similar way of asking this question of why. It’s not directed at G-d, but it’s also directed outward. It goes like this: Why did you drop the Torah? Why did you ask me so many questions before Pesach making me so exhausted? Why did you steal my van?
These questions are fair ones. But we’re usually not very satisfied with the answers we receive from the people we feel who wronged us. If we’re still holding our finger out after they respond, we’ll pose harder questions, like what kind of answer is that, and we’ll get weaker answers.
It’s a fair reaction to tragedy and hardship, but it’s not a very healthy one. Holding our finger out there, wagging it in every which way. It’s going to get tired. We’re going to get tired. We’re going to get bitter; very, very bitter.
Which might lead a person to believe that the best way to ask this question of why bad things happen is to not point any fingers, but to shrug. This is the path, by the way, that is most natural to me. Temperamentally, I am not confrontational, I am ready to just move on. I need to take better care of myself, make sure the people carrying the Torah are careful as they go down the stairs, and make sure my cars are locked at night… that’s it, no fingers, no questions, case closed.
I could even justify this approach from our tradition. There is a line of thinking in many classical Jewish sources that describe olam k’minhago noheig. According to this approach, G-d is not a puppet master and us humans have full autonomy. What we see happening around us and to us, is nature running its course. Of course, G-d allows for the world to run this way, and we believe G-d can, at any moment, change anything. But for the most part, according to this line of thinking, 99% of the things that happen in this world are just nature running its course. A Torah dropping a few feet from where you’re standing, fainting in middle of a talk, and your van stolen? People slip, people faint, people steal. All within ten days? Coincidence. Nothing more and nothing less.
There is another type of shrug which has become much more mainstream over the past few decades. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the question of why was posed over and over again. While bad things happening are not necessarily a product of our misdeeds – there are numerous reasons listed as to why tragedy can befall a person, sin is the most obvious and most discussed in our literature. And so, to counter this explanation which would be too much for the survivors to bear, the leading rabbis of the day shifted our attention to the fact that we ultimately do not know G-d’s ways. “We cannot know,” became the most well-known refrain in response to suffering. A shrug. A heavy shrug, but a shrug.
This party-line was a hora’at sha’ah, it was meant for a specific group of people at a specific juncture in time. To shrug when bad things happen to ourselves is to close our eyes to what historically, has been the most powerful call to personal growth and change. To chalk up our misfortunes to being beyond our comprehension or to a fluke of nature, while both potentially theologically-sound, allows our tragedy to be doubled by ignoring its possible message.
Which brings me to the third and final way to ask the question of why bad things happen. It involves asking the question, not just shrugging and moving on. But instead of pointing a finger upwards or outwards, it involves pointing a finger toward oneself; why did this happen to me?
It involves stopping and appreciating that something is wrong; not just the things that happened around us, not just the people messing up and being mean around us. But something is wrong inside. Some people, when bad things happen to them, they check their Mezuzahs. I have to tell you, if G-d is manipulating nature to send me a message, if He’s making ‘all that effort’ to speak to me, I’m fairly confident there are things in my life that need fixing that are far more important than my mezuzahs. You want to check something? Check your soul.
Am I really living my life to the fullest? Am I actualizing the potential that G-d filled me with? Am I using the gifts G-d gave me to better the lives of the people around me, to the full capacity, or am I getting by with just enough to fool anyone watching? That I believe is the question that needs to be asked; why did this happen to me. It’s a question I need to ask myself. It’s a question we all need to ask whenever there is disruption. It’s the only question worth asking, and it’s the only question that we can answer – and answer it we must.
We’re about to begin Yizkor. There are people in this room who have questions – fingers pointed to G-d; Why? Why did you take my loved one? What did He do to you? What did I do to you?
And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.
There are people in this room who have different types of questions – fingers pointed at parents who are no longer alive. Why? Why didn’t you give me the attention I begged for? Why didn’t you respect me? Why did you give me so much pain?
And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.
There are people in this room who have no questions at all – the eino yode’ah lish’ol, just gliding through life, unmoved.
And then there are people in this room who are taking advantage of this moment, filled with memories both good and bad, and asking difficult questions like, how can I not make the mistakes my parents made? How can I be an even better person inspired by the love I received? How can I show my appreciation for this gift of life? They are also pointing a finger, but it’s directed at themselves.
We have a tradition that only 1/5th of the Jewish People crossed the Yam Suf. The rest of them remained back in Egypt. Why? Or more accurately, how? The water had turned to blood, there were frogs, lice, animals dying, hail, locust, darkness, death of the firstborn. How could they have not seen what was happening? How could they have ignored all of that?
You see, 4/5th of the Jewish People just never stopped to ask, why? They shrugged and went on with their lives as if nothing happened.
I imagine if we were to ask that question to one of those who stayed behind, he would scoff at us; You’re asking me why I didn’t open my eyes to the miracles around me?! Israel is in your hands, Jerusalem is your capital, you have freedom, you have health, you have everything. How could you not see what’s happening? How could you ignore all of this?
We must live with these burning questions. Not only when disaster strikes, but when the sun shines. Not only when we lose loved ones, but when we wake up and see them sleeping near us. Not only when we are ill, but when we can take in this brilliantly fresh air. To be a Jew is to ask questions. To be a good Jew is to ask the right questions in the right direction.
Why did this happen to me? Why am I living in these incredible times? In what way do I need to change my life?