Parashat Ki Tavo is a treasure trove of ideas. In it, we face a challenge. It contains a section that is referred to as the ‘Tokecha’, a warning of what is going to happen when we don’t follow God’s laws. It contains the notion about the issue of Reward and Punishment. In it, we read that “The Eternal will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be wiped out because of your evil doing in forsaking Me.” (Deut. 28:20) Yes, sometimes bad things can happen to good people.
Asked by reporters a couple of years ago to name his favorite book in the New Testament, Democratic National Chairperson Howard Dean answered that it was the Book of Job. He was one testament off, and returned later to tell reporters that he knew it was in the Hebrew Bible. He said that he liked it because it “sort of explains that bad things happen to very good people for no good reason.”
Maybe he was onto something.
Theodicy is the attempt to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of the existence of so much evil in the world. The Book of Job is entrenched in the problem of Theodicy. And Job asks God the same question, in one form or another: Why? God never tells him why. At the conclusion of the book, He appears to Job out of the whirlwind, and affirms that He is the Lord who created heaven and earth. That’s why.
Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist William Safire wrote that Job is the most controversial book in all theology—the outraged cry of a blameless sufferer, a call for someone to take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement. In his book, “The First Dissident”, not everyone thinks that God comes off well in his response. Others fault Job for his confrontation with God, or for his subsequent response to God’s speech. The ending to the story is controversial, but what is indisputable is that the confrontation caps a literary, religious and political story that is among the greatest of all time.
Until the premature death of his son, Rabbi Harold Kushner believed, as many do, that God was all-good and all-powerful. This tragedy resulted in the re-examination of his beliefs, and his book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”. Rabbi Kushner looks to the Bible, especially the Book of Job, for answers. He concludes that God is loving and just, and therefore never wills that bad things happen to people. The problem is that God does not have the power to insure that this happens in every situation. God intends good, but is not always able to work out the details in actual experience. If we can accept life’s challenges as neither God’s punishment nor in His control, then we can turn to our God for strength and comfort in the belief of God’s compassion and desire for our well-being. We can maintain our own self-respect and sense of goodness without having to feel that God has judged us or condemned us. We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry with God. More than that, we can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. So, the basic question, finally, is not, “Why do bad things happen to people?” Rather, the question we need to come to terms with include: ”Can I find a why, a meaning, to go on living, despite what has happened?”