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Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

This is a discussion of the age old question (see Job, on second thought, see Genesis - this question is at least as old as Abel) of why good people often face misery and bad people get rich and famous, started by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky of Darche Noam Institutions in Jerusalem. If you like the type of questions and comments R. Karlinsky poses, you should try out his e-shiur (electronic shiur) on Pirke Avos (Ethics of the Fathers).
From Volume 1, Digest 1
From: msbillk@pluto.mscc.huji.ac.il (R. Shaya Karlinsky)

[The following is a chapter which Rabbi Karlinsky wrote for a book on
questions people ask about Judaism.  Comments, anyone?  He has offered a
second chapter for a future Torah-Forum Digest.  - MOD]

This origin of this question is built on a number of assumptions. 1) We are ENTITLED to have good things happen to us. 2) Everything that happens to us is either a reward or a punishment for something that we did. So if we behaved well, we deserve to be paid back in kind with an easy life.

Judaism has a different perspective which does not accept these asuumptions. We are in this world to confront challenge, to CHOOSE to do good deeds. Every situation in which we are placed is a test, and it is our responsibility to respond with ethical behaviour and service of G-d. This is the purpose of our temporary life on earth, and the level of our success determines our place in an eternal reality.

The real question then becomes: Why do bad things happen to good people - as well as good things?

If G-d gives us good health, social prestige, or lots of money, it isn't necessarily because we have been "good boys and girls." He is giving us resources with which to serve Him, and it is our responsibility to use those resources for that purpose: To imitate G-d by giving to and helping others; working to bring the recogniniton of G-d in to the world; improving the world in some way. When we are in a situation of poor health, poverty or some other difficult situation, it is not neccearily a punishment. We are being challenged by G-d to remain faithful to Him, to commuincate to the world our conviction of His existence, and to contiue serving Him in every situation.

Ideally, every resource that G-d gives us should be utilized in His service. So if a person is given one million pounds a year, he must justify how the entire amount was used in some way or another in the service of G-d. This does not mean that comforts of life, nice homes, or recreation are discouraged. They may truly enhance our effectiveness as human beings, they may improve our disposition so that we are nicer to our neighbors, they may enable us to host more guests and treat them more lavishly. But we may frequently find that we spent a lot of money on our personal self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy physical or social drives that in no way imporved our ability to serve our Creator. If G-d sees how a rich or healthy person is misusing his resources, He may decide to redistriute them. With only 25,000 pounds a year, we would have an easier time standing before our Creator explaining how every pound was used on the necessities of life, devoted to serving Him.

G-d can only expect service commensurate with the resources He provides us with. If a person is ill, poor, or suffers tragedy, this is his challenge. How will I serve G-d under these circumstances? And without people placed in these difficult situations, there would be no challenge for others to give of their resources to improve these situations.

We prefer going through life healthy, wealthy and wise. If G-d grants us those resources, it places great responsibility on us to use them totally in the service of G-d, improving the world, and sharing with those who were given different challenges.

Sources for further study:

  • The Way of G-d. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Part 2, Section 3.
  • Talmud Bavli, Brachoth, 5a
  • Talmud Bavli, Bava Bathra, 10a
  • Kli Yakar, Shemot 22:24

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky                   Darche Noam Institutions
Shapell's/Yeshivat Darche Noam          POB 35209
Midreshet Rachel for Women              Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Tel: 972-2-511178                       Fax: 972-2-520801

From Volume 1 Digest 2
From: isaiah@borealis.com (Isaiah Cox)

I have to take issue with the section by Rabbi Karlinksy. While his section is inspirational in terms of allocating our resources, it neatly dodges the subject he gives: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

We are not in a world where making less money is the worst thing that can happen to us. As Jews, the worst thing that can happen includes horrible atrocities. So I find it hard to believe that:

When we are in a situation of poor health, poverty or some other difficult situation, it is not necessarily a punishment. We are being challenged by G-d to remain faithful to Him, to communicate to the world our conviction of His existence, and to continue serving Him in every situation.

And,

If a person is ill, poor, or suffers tragedy, this is his challenge.

If the whole world is a test, then why do we bother? Are we circus animals to jump through G-d's hoops?

So, in the spirit of "reducto ad absurdum" I ask if the holocaust was a "challenge," if the Jews in the Inquisition just had to turn the experience into something positive? Are we "challenged" to die like sheep to sanctify G-d's name?

I think Rabbi Karlinsky's answer, while it may have relevance to, perhaps, a Jew living in a stable yeshiva environment, lacks any internal or historical solidity. This reply may be a little harsh, but I don't feel that an answer of this type is any help at all. There is more to the puzzle G-d has made than merely blind faith and a purpose. We should be very wary before we accept an answer which advocates sticking our heads in the sand for fear of questioning our Maker.


From Volume 1 Digest 2
From: Len613@aol.com, len613@delphi.com (Leonard Mansky)

Rabbi Karlinskys chapter doesnt go nearly far enough and presents only one dimension of a complex, multi-dimensional problem. There are many different cases with different explanations. Why is a child stricken with a fatal disease before it is old enough to sin? What about natural disasters? What about the holocaust, Rabbi Akivas martyrdom, or murdered innocents? What about Job? <> Does this mean to suggest that some are made to suffer simply in order to test others?

There is also the other half of the question, "Why do the evil prosper?" Without addressing this, no response to the first question is complete.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside, LI, NY, issued a masterful cassette audiotape series on this subject; eleven cassettes, about 18 hours. He critiques Rabbi Harold Kushners book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," and gives his Orthodox view of the subject. The series is full of references to primary sources. Call 516-678-9186 for information.

Rabbi David Hartman also dealt with the subject in "Rabbinic Responses to Suffering," Chapter 8 of his book, "A Living Covenant (The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc., NY, 1985)."

Leonard Mansky


From Volume 1 Digest 2
From: Yitzchak Freeman <J_F_S@delphi.com>

It seems a nice discussion; however, I must say that in terms of an easily readable, rational, well laid out exposition, I have not seen better than the chapter on this topic in "The Informed Soul" by Rabbi David Gottlieb (Artscroll, I think).

Yitzchak Freeman


From Volume 1 Digest 3
From: sbechhof@casbah.acns.nwu.edu ([Rabbi] Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer)

It should be noted that the Rambam's approach (Moreh 3:51) is that most humans are not subject to individual Divine Providence (although Chassidim are particularly vehement in their opposotion to this Rambam). Therefore, according to the Rambam, the question of why good people suffer would only apply to those on a high enough level that they are indeed under constant Divine surveillance and manipulation.

Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer


From Volume 1 Digest 3
From: Shaul Wallach <F66204@VM.BIU.AC.IL>

As expected, Rabbi Karlinsky's thoughtful essay has provoked some equally thought-provoking responses on the timeless problem of evil in the Jewish tradition. In particular, Isaiah Cox seems to be raising the same kind of questions that Job raised thousands of years ago in his Book that Oriental congregations read to this day on Tish`a Be-Av.

Time and space do not permit me to do justice to this great theological issue, but I will try to cite a little source material for those who are interested.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 55a) we see that the righteous not only suffer, but they are also the first ones to suffer. In this passage we are told that when Gabriel went out to punish the people in the days of the First Temple (Ezekiel 9:4), he put a sign of ink on the heads of the righteous and a sign of blood on those of the wicked, so that the Angels of Destruction could tell them apart. At this the Middat Ha-Din (measure of judgment) complained to the Holy One, Blessed be He, and asked what the difference really was. She was not content with the answer and said that the righteous deserved to be punished first because they should have rebuked the people but did not. The fact that the people would not have listened was no excuse because they could never be sure. This passage brings me to tears when I read it - what excuse do we have in our generation not to rebuke and bring people back to Judaism, when we know many of them will indeed listen???

Going back to Job, however, we see from the plain sense of the Book that there is no really satisfying answer. The Book is well worth close study with the classical commentaries such as the Ralbag, the Mezudot and the Malbim. It is always a moving experience to read the book on Tish`a Be-Av in a Yemenite congregation. Each person in turn reads a verse out loud and participates himself in the drama of Job maintaining his innocence against the attacks of his friends, until everyone reads the last chapter together (in Haftaric trop) celebrating his triumph after the climactic encounter with G-d. We don't get any clear-cut answers to our questions, but our lesson can perhaps be summed up in the verse (Job 28:28) "And He said to man: Behold, fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to refrain from evil is understanding."

In the Mishna we likewise learn (Avot 4:15) "Said Rabbi Yannai: We have in our hands neither the comfort of the wicked nor the sufferings of the righteous." Here too the commentators offer various insights to this basic theme.

In the very first pages of the Talmud (Berakhot 4-5), too, we see the greatest of the Amoraim crying over their misfortunes. Perhaps the Talmud is trying to tell us not to worry if we don't understand it all, because people far greater than we went through similar trials and also proved to be only human.

What the Talmud does tell us to do in practice, however, is to search our souls and do repentance in response to the troubles that come over us, just as Rav Huna did in the above passage after his wine turned sour. Even if we find no logical connection between our sins and our sufferings, certainly G-d always wants us to mend our ways, as the Rambam sums it up in Hilkot Ta`anit 1:1-3 and 4:2.

At this critical juncture in time, when we see our precious Holy Land being given away from us before our very eyes, and Jewry falling prey to assimilation around the world, I see no other course to follow than that which the Rambam showed us on the basis of our Sages Z"L. What is important for us in G-d's eyes is not the theory, but the practice.

Shaul Wallach


From Volume 1 Digest 7
From: Michael Green <mgreen@river.bgu.ac.il>

I wish to comment on the reply to R. Karlinsky by Mr. Cox.

I agree with him in so far as we must examine all aspects of our lives and ask questions regarding possible cause and effect, further more I agree fully with the comment of Mr. Manskey regarding to the world not being a simple place. However I take issue with Mr. Cox's oversimplification of the horror's of jewish history. I would like to look, in light of R. Karlinsky's outlook, upon those very 'sheep' who were herded to slaughter only a generation ago. When a young, healthy, strong man was about to be 'herded', in many cases this young man had the chance to run and fight (the natural impulse) yet doing so meant leaving weaker members of the family - a mother and father perhaps - to die alone. Who is the weak 'sheep' here? I dare say sticking with elderely parents to serve them to the end is a harder decision to make then becoming a freedom fighter in an environment where all is lost.

The Holocaust and other periods of persecution leave every individual with a test of belief, Why and How are questions that every one must ask for himself. As for 'Tov ve'rah lo' [A good person, but for whom occurrances in his life are bad] every individual has his relationship with Hashem and is constantly being tested, this is the purpose of this world, as we learn in Pirkei Avoth 'This world is a vestibule before the world to come, prpare yourself in the vestibule such that you may enjoy the world to come' (paraphrased by me). Everyone must deal with his own 'vestibule' - be it a persecuted existance, an 'insular' yeshiva existance, or existing in the complicated 'Jewish' state. Each and every existance has it's own trials and tribulations.

To sum up my point, I remind you of the story of the worm living in the onion, since this is the worms existence, he doesn't realize His home is bitter. Don't trivialize the Holocaust and other periods of Jewish History with simple anger - nothing is simple.


From Volume 1 Digest 10
From: Micha Berger <berger@sbcm.com>

Unfortunately, the A-lmighty gave me time to consider this question. Much of the week that my wife and I sat shiva for our daughter. "Why me?" crossed my mind alot. I mean, I may not be "good people", but surely I'm doing better than many people who haven't lived through such tragedy. Aren't I?

I reached a few conclusions:

1- The pasuk in Yeshayah that is euphamized into the text of the first brachah before the morning Shema reads:

Yotzeir or uvorei choshech

Who formed (yotzeir, from tzurah - image) light and created ex nihilo (see Rashi on Breishis 1:1, bara means yeish ma'ayin, creating something from nothing) darkness

Oseh shalom uvorei es hara (brachah reads: hakol)

Who does peace and created ex nihilo evil (brachah reads: the all, i.e. the universe).

But more to the point of our question, we see that the two dichotomies are compared; light is to darkness as peace is to evil. Both light and peace are briyos, creations ex nihilo, darkness and peace are derivatives.

A totally empty room is dark. Light is a substance, darkness is its absence. The implication of the pasuk is that peace too is the "substance", evil is merely the absence of peace, not an item iteself.

(BTW, this was my understanding of tzimtzum. In order to allow evil to exist the A-lmighty provides the appropriate absence of good.)

During shiva, this point was brought home to me on a very emotional level. The gift was that I had 3 healthy children (now 7, k"y). That is the miracle.

Left to itself the universe decays in obedience to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The fact that we can live is the exception, the Divine intervention. Just because we take usually take this intervention for granted makes this point no less true.

2- R. Nachum Ish Gamzu used to say "gam zu litovah" (this too is for the best) when faced with calamity. His student, R. Akiva, would similarly say, "Kol da'avad rachmanah litav avad" (all that the All Merciful does, He does for the best). They believed that bad things don't happen to anyone -- bad or good people. Our problem may be in that we have a misunderstanding of what a "bad thing" is.

Back to the pasuk in Yeshayah... R. SR Hirsch considers the root of ra, evil, to be reish-ayin-ayin, to shatter. The root of shalom, peace, is shin-lamed-mem, whole. Perhaps this tells us something about the definition of "good". Being good, imitating the creator, is to be constructive; evil is -- by definition -- to be destructive.

It's interesting that light vs. dark is paralled to peace/wholeness/harmony vs. evil, and not good vs. evil. This may be due to a problem with how to define the word "tov", good. For humans, Judaism defines good behavior as imitatio D-ei, acting as G-d does. With reference to Hashem, however, that definition is tautological. Of course G-d is good, if "good" means to act like G-d.

Our problem is only because we have a definition of evil that is based on humanism. The American ethic is that good is anything "that makes you happy and doesn't hurt anyone". This is the ethic of an era of instant gratification. It doesn't pursue building something for the future, to reach ultimate hights, it goes for happiness in the here-and-now. The distinction is obvious when we look at the difference between the Torah and humanistic ethics on what goes on between "two consenting adults". (This distinction is built into the systems' respective axioms: Torah, Divine in origin, takes the long view; humanism, because of the limitations of humans, can't.)

Evil never happens because everything is toward building, toward shaping oourselves to be receptacles for his goodness in the next world. This is why the gemara calls this world the "foyer of the palace." Our goal here is to get ready for the next world -- even if this means that we choose to avoid happiness, or even happiness is forcibly taken from us in the short run.

Micha Berger                   Help free Ron Arad, held by Syria 3027 days!
berger@sbcm.com  212 224-4937             (16-Oct-86 - 31-Jan-95)
aishdas@iia.org  201 916-0287
AishDas Society's Home Page

From Volume 1 Digest 14
From: EDTeitz@aol.com

the pasuk quoted seems to come to the opposite conclusion that micha reaches. the pasuk said bara choshech. darkness was the creation( as was evil ) and light and good were merely formed from something already existent, and are therefore the derivatives.

also, on nachum ish gamzu:

his opinion as well as r. akiva's is not that all that hashem does is good. rather, all that hashem does is for the best ( nachum does not say gam zu tova, ' this is also good', rather l'tova - 'for the good, or for the best'. likewise r. akiva ' all that G-D did is "l'tav", for the good, not "tav" good in and of itself. ).

the loss of any person can not be seen as good, and should not be seen as good, in and of itself ( except maybe in the case of extreme r'sha'im ). rather, it should be for the best, some good should come from this situation. i can not even begin to discuss what that could possibly be, as only a person put in that situation can fully comprehend the loss to try to assess the good to come from it.

the point of the post though is still a valid one. looking at the long term rather than the short term.

micha- hamakom y'nachem etchem... Hashem is truly the One who can comfort you, and may you find that nechama. as david hamelech, a'h, wrote, luley soras'cha sha'a'shu'ai, az avad'ti b'onyee - if not for torah that soothed (?) me, i would have been lost in my grief.

eliyahu teitz


From Volume 1 Digest 14
From: Micha Berger <berger@sbcm.com>

[This is in reply to a personal letter by Isaiah Cox. I thought the chevrah (group of friends) might have comments.]

But we are taught right from wrong, and G-d has taught us, by his contruction of our world, that we must make our own decisions, and that we are responsible for our actions, both in this world, and in the world to come. The world is what we have made it, and what we continue to make it.

I do really think that atrocities and horrors are all for the good. To break it down, there are three people affected by a crime: the perpetrator, the victim, and the observer.

Just to dismiss the easiest case first, the observer clearly gains. He has the ability to learn from other's mistakes without being the one injured. But what about the other two?

G-d wants people _choose_ good over evil. This means that in order for man to best reach his goal, it is best if the ability exists to choose evil. So, while the perpetrator is actually harmed by commiting a crime, it is best that the possibility exists.

The principle I quoted in an earlier post -- "All that the All Merciful does, He does for good", forces us to phrase the problem in terms of how is this "for the best". You seem to be answering that it is for the best to let mankind live with his (and others choices), that it is not only best that the possibility exist, but that we live with the consequences.

The choice, however, need not succeed. As the Yiddishism goes: mentsch tracht, unt G-tt lacht. Man preposes and G-d disposes. Planning does not guarantee success. Many Arabs have killed themselves trying to build bombs that exploded prematurely. (The State estimates at 2 or even 3 to one ratio between premature explosions and successful bombings.) If G-d intervened in EVERY attempt to do evil, then doing evil wouldn't be a real choice -- it would be choosing immediate punishment. So, even more to the point, why was the bombing at Beit Lid when certain people were there r"l, and not others?

On the other hand, many evils occur without a human perpetrator. Earthquakes, disease, flood, famine, Tay Sachs, Downs Syndrome, stillbirth...

So, it's possible to choose evil without creating a victim, and its possible to be a victim without anyone choosing to do evil. Solving the problem of why G-d allows us to do wrong does not answer the question of why bad things happen to people who deserve better.

The problem is that we lack the ability to see subjuctives. The homeless man who sleeps outside my office building -- what would have happened to him had G-d created him sane? Would he have been a successfull business man and philanthropist, a happy family man? Or would he, with the same personal weaknesses, still ended up an addict, but instead of alcohol, he runs the Wall Street rat race for crack money?

We can never know. We lack the ability to see the subjunctive, the hypothetical, what would have been if. We have to take it on faith that things would have turned out worse -- if not physically, than we would have not have progressed as far in our spiritual quest.

This, in my opinion, is the message of the book of Iyov (Job). Iyov seems to start out depicting the title character as a pawn in a game between Hashem and the Satan. This is obviously an over-simplification, as it casts a mere angel as being able to be G-d's adversary. The Satan suggests that perhaps Iyov is only good because he has life easy, that had he faced challenges, Iyov would not maintain his faith.

After all the calamity, the final answer Iyov gets from Hashem is that it is wrong to ask why Hashem does something, because we can not understand Him, the answer is outside of our grasp.

This is the way I read the story.

Iyov grew all he can as a wealthy, happy man. The Satan, who is not an adversary but a servant of G-d whose job is to introduce adversity when Hashem's plan requires it, suggests that it is time for Iyov to be challenged, to grow in times of trouble.

Hashem's answer to Iyov makes it clear that it was His plan for Iyov to suffer, and that Iyov could never understand why. Not only for the obvious reason, that calling what G-d does as "thinking" is overly anthropic, that we can not understand Hashem or His Motives. But also because Iyov does not know what he would have become in the "what if" universe he preferred.

This is why, even after some part of the answer is given in the opening pesukim (verses) of the book, we are told the answer is not knowable. We may know that in theory this is for "our own good", but we could never know why or how.

Micha Berger                   Help free Ron Arad, held by Syria 3033 days!
berger@sbcm.com  212 224-4937             (16-Oct-86 - 6 -Feb-95)
aishdas@iia.org  201 916-0287
AishDas Society's Home Page

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