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February 8, 2023 12:45 pm

A Better Answer of Why ‘Bad Things Happen to Good People’

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avatar by Gershon Schusterman


A Torah scroll. Photo:

In 1981, Harold Kushner released “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a bestseller that topped the charts for several months. Kushner wrote it after his son tragically passed away from progeria, an incurable disease that causes rapid and premature aging. The pain that the rabbi and his wife endured as a result of the death of their son prompted him to write his book to help others also coping with unexpected and devastating loss.

Kushner posited that the reason why bad things happen to good people is because God simply doesn’t have control over all the evil in this world.

“God does not cause our misfortunes,” Kushner wrote. “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.”

While I understand that Kushner’s intentions were to process his own loss and try to alleviate the suffering of others, his conclusion is antithetical to the Judaism that our Torah teaches as our rabbis have understood and explained for thousands of years. In other religions, perhaps God does not rule over an evil force like Satan, who causes all the world’s suffering. But in Judaism, we know that everything — even suffering — comes from God.

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When we believe that God is not responsible for bad things that happen, we can see Him as a totally benevolent Creator. However, it’s a much more nuanced way of thinking when we can recognize that God is all-powerful, and accept that reality requires us to come to terms with an outcome we did not choose, but one that God directed or allowed. Kushner wrote, “The purpose of religion is that it should make us feel good about ourselves.” So essentially, if it doesn’t, it has failed in its mission.

This is false. The truth is that we are not the center of the universe; God is. Our central mission is to find Him, get to know Him, and serve Him. This lifelong exploratory journey is the destination, and it can be truly and deeply fulfilling and, in its own way, exciting. God is not the celestial therapist whose role is to make us feel good about ourselves. Feeling good about ourselves is a by-product of a life lived well and purposefully, with God as our guide.

I say this as someone who has experienced tremendous tragedy in my life. When I was 38-years-old, my 36-year-old wife, Rochel Leah, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving me a widower. I had to raise our 11 children on my own. Along with being married, Rochel Leah and I were also partners at our local school. Our community lost a teacher, a mentor, and a guiding light. She touched so many people and her very existence made their lives better. The day she passed away, I lost my soulmate, my rock, my partner in love and life.

I questioned God. Why did this happen? Why did He do this to me? To our children? To our community? I couldn’t understand it. I was miserable and angry. I was in shock.

At the same time, I was a rabbi for our community. I had consoled people who had gone through heartbreaking tragedies. They had lost children. They were diagnosed with terrible diseases. And these were good people. “Why God?” we all asked. When my wife passed away, I immediately had to turn to my faith. I knew that everything God does is for the good. But how could this be good?

I read Rabbi Kushner’s book, but it did not help. When I finished it, I felt troubled by the fact that he believed God was not all-powerful. I knew I had to explore original Torah sources while dealing with the emotional trauma I was now experiencing.

What I found is that there is no one answer. But, there are teachings that could help us gain perspective and some clarity.

As we live our lives, we all have crises, and some of us experience tragedies. It’s inevitable — until Moshiach comes — that people die. We would love for everyone to die peacefully in their sleep in their late 90’s, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Pain is a reality.

When it comes to bad things happening to good people: What is the definition of bad things? What is the definition of a good person? The way we define these terms forms the basis of the discussion.

We all know someone, perhaps ourselves, who went through a life-saving surgery, which you cannot get through without a lot of pain. Would you call that bad? A generation or two ago, that same condition would have been a death sentence. Today we go through some pain for a few days, weeks, even months, and then we are healed and as good as new. I would call that good.

So that which on the surface seems bad is often in reality good. We are little people and our perspectives are often myopic. With a bit of introspection, each one of us can find that many things that seemed terrible turned out to be blessings and many things that seemed like blessings turned out to be disasters.

As a young man, I went through some difficult times and read a book on the topic of depression. The thesis of the book is that when people find themselves depressed, something’s obviously wrong. They need to do a complete overhaul, to take apart the moving parts of their being and put them together again in order to reboot in a new and healthier way. Not everything that seems bad is bad and not everything that seems good is good.

Before my wife’s death, when I would console people in my community, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going through. After the fateful day when she passed away, I understood. I was able to be more helpful to them, to transform my pain into something positive, which is what happens to many people who experience tragedy.

In Judaism, we believe there are two worlds — the world we’re in now, and the world of the afterlife, where we are with God. We can’t possibly comprehend everything that happens to us because we don’t have a bird’s eye view like God does. We can’t see everything that came before us and everything that will come after us. We really don’t know how — and can’t truly know — we fit into His big picture.

Now, I recognize that while one is dealing with the intense pain immediately following a great loss, it is understandably very difficult to wrap one’s mind around these ideas. It may be rejected — scornfully — as sophistry and mental gymnastics. We are all human, and emotions come first. One must go through the grieving process, give it time, and then try to come to terms with it in an intellectual manner when they are ready.

Unfortunately for us, the answer to why bad things happen to good people is not so neat and simple, as Rabbi Kushner would like us to believe. God does control our misfortunes; there is no bad luck. However, God is the Creator and we are the creatures He created. Do we really think that we were meant to fully understand His actions?

The true test is being able to not understand them and still have faith. Only then will we experience transformative spiritual development that will make us stronger, and further cement our meaningful and ever-evolving relationship with our Creator.

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman is the author of “Why God Why? How to Believe in Heaven When it Hurts Like Hell,” which is out now. For 18 years, he led the Hebrew Academy in Orange County, California, and he is the proud father of 11 children and many more grandchildren.

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