The sins of the father...

How can we explain the suffering in the world if there is a benevolent god?

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A principle of Western religions is ‘Benevolence’ that God cares and is involved in daily human existence, rewards the good and punishes the bad. But for the life of us we often don’t see it working that way.

When Abraham was arguing with God over the men of Sodom and Gommorah he asks ‘Will not the Judge of the earth be just?’ The problem is that according to all human criteria of justice, God or life does not appear to be.

If Jesus loves little children then why did he, the Holy Father or the Holy Ghost, allow millions of innocent children to die in Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur? Because some crime or failure that someone committed? The bible itself says ‘Sons do not die for fathers, nor fathers for sons.’

And although you might want to quote ‘visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons’ in the Ten Commandments, that really means that consequences of actions go on impacting on those who come after us but it is not a statement about punishing anyone.

This problem has always troubled the minds of the believers. They deal with it in various ways, God rewards and punishes in the next world not in this; we humans see things through limited and selfish perspectives; we are expecting God to be like a human being; we are being tested; bad things happen because of other factors outside of ourselves, anything, including reincarnation is offered to answer the unanswerable. I personally do find any of these answers satisfying regardless of whether they may or may not be the case.

The fact is that for some people there is no satisfactory explanation. For some there is no need for an explanation and for others even an explanation cannot take away the pain.

I have always admired the honesty of those who avoided glib answers and simply answered that either they did not know or couldn’t explain. That’s why my favourite rabbi on this issue is Rabbi Yannai who says in Avot.4.15. ‘We simply cannot explain why good people suffer and bad people prosper.’

Nevertheless we still wonder why bad things happen even if we can explain why. We still seem to need perfect answers. We still buy book after book in our desperate search for finality, closure and answers. We know about bacteria, about viruses, about bodies that pick up diseases and we also know we need bacteria to live. So even if we know ‘why’ someone dies we are still hurt, we still feel loss and suffer and we ask ‘why’.

But ‘why’ does not mean ‘why’ it means how can I cope? And the fact is that people are different and they cope differently, to all types of situations. Some people can cope by accepting, passively. Some respond actively and dynamically and use pain and setbacks to spur themselves on to greater things. Others can only deal with things through anger, anger at themselves, at others and at God.

It’s like love. Don’t you know of loving relationships based on tension and constant bickering and haven’t we heard of the ‘joys’ of make up sex? Yet do we also not know of loving relationships based on calm and quietness and ease? Who is to say there is only one paradigm? And so it is with dealing with pain and loss. Some go out and shop till they drop. Others withdraw into their shells.

There are lovely stories told in the Talmud of Rabbi Akiva or Nachum Ish Gamzu dealing with bad things in a positive way. When something goes wrong, instead of despair, they say ' It is all for the best'. 'Fate' may appear initially to go against a person, but often we only see a short term effect and fail to see a broader plan. And yet there are events that simply cannot be explained away this way. The possibility of being run over by a drunken driver is beyond our capacity to take precautions against and one can hardly argue that being killed in a car would be 'for the best'.

Once again we are left unable to find an explanation of ‘why’ to satisfy our logic. But we need nevertheless to find an answer to the question of ‘what’. What are we supposed to do now? By all means rage at your Maker, accuse the Almighty. That indeed is an old and ancient tradition of ours. Railing against, is at least an engagement with. It is therapeutic and the aim of therapy is to aid recovery and allow one to go forward. Perhaps the whole issue is one that forces us to grapple with life, raw as it is and forces us to find ways of coping.

Our world is less one of finding answers and more of finding ways.

Jeremy Rosen is an orthodox rabbi who in addition to his pulpits has also been a Headmaster and Professor of Comparative Religion. He now travels and concentrates on writing.
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