Wrestling With Suffering: When Should You Question God?

This summer I had the pleasure of hearing Wall Street Journal writer, Josh Prager; he told the story of how when he was seventeen years old, a bus he was riding on got rear-ended by a truck which left him paralyzed. While Josh was in the hospital recovering shortly after the accident, some of his visitors attempted to comfort him by saying “gam zu l’tovah,” which literally means “this too is for the good.” This phrase was coined by the teacher of the famous Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva adopted a version of this saying and used it throughout his life.  One well-known story of its usage involved a journey with many hardships. Along the way, his horse ran off leaving him to continue by foot, but instead of becoming angry at God, he said “this too is for the good.” Then later that night, once he was settled in, his campfire went out, but instead of being negative, he said “this too is for the good.”

Rabbi Akiva didn’t know it at the time, but all the bad things that had happened to him turned out to be for the good when a group of bandits came through the woods that night, but didn’t hear him because his horse wasn’t there to neigh and didn’t see him because his fire wasn’t there to glow. Only then did he truly understand why the bad things that happened to him “too were for the good.”

The way that the visitors spoke to Josh got me thinking about a problem that some Orthodox Jews have which I believe comes from a lack of properly understanding Jewish philosophy. In a recent post about the challenges of Orthodox divorce I discussed the fact that this world is one in which stronger people can take advantage of weaker ones and I noted that if I were God I wouldn’t have made the world this way. I got a lot of anger from the sentiment that I expressed.  A lot of “how dare you’s” from people. I meant no disrespect to God (God forbid!). I just meant I don’t understand many of God’s ways. I asked those who were questioning me if they’d make the Holocaust if they were God. If they’d let babies die and let children get molested.

Judaism believes that God is perfect and that everything that God does is perfect and therefore, I’m afraid that such a mentality sometimes leads those of us who believe in God’s perfect world to lack empathy for those who suffer in it. If everything happens according to God’s will, then we should look at every tragedy, every heart ache and simply exclaim: “gam zu l’tovah!” And yet, something seems very, very wrong with such an attitude because just as we are expected to believe in God’s perfection, so too are we expected to be compassionate. So how do we resolve this seeming conflict?

I believe that when it comes to other people’s pain and suffering, we must feel some unease towards God’s ways. But don’t take my word for it. Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) is the one who taught me this lesson:

In the Talmud we are told of a time where Moshe gets a chance to look generations into the future and sees a scene of Rabbi Akiva (yep, the same rabbi from before) teaching Torah to his students. Moshe is amazed at Rabbi Akiva’s insights and Torah mastery. He’s beyond impressed. And so he asks God to show him Rabbi Akiva’s reward.  One can only imagine what Moshe expected Rabbi Akiva would receive for all he had accomplished.

Suddenly, Moshe beholds a ghastly scene: Rabbi Akiva is being burned alive at the stake by the Romans. Moshe Rabbeinu is horrified. Tortured. He exclaims to the Almighty, “This is his Torah and THIS is its reward?” Moshe Rabbeinu has the audacity to cry out to the Master of the Universe: “Hashem, how COULD you?!”

I was horrified to hear how insensitive Josh’s hospital visitors had been. At the end of his speech people were invited to ask questions or make comments. I stood up at the microphone and told Josh that a few months earlier, I had had a bad night’s sleep because my kid had been up a lot, and I wrote on twitter that I was exhausted because of it. Some well-meaning person then commented: “gam zu l’tovah,” and I remember thinking – “You idiot! How DARE you tell me to see the good in my suffering. All I want from you is sympathy right now.” I told everyone in the room that gam zu l’tovah must ONLY come from the person who is going through the challenge. And that was just for a bad night’s sleep. How much more so for a true tragedy like what Josh suffered.

And there’s a Torah proof for that one too.  Although Moshe questions God for the “reward” that Rabbi Akiva received, we see the same scene in the Talmud, but this time from Rabbi Akiva’s vantage point:

As Rabbi Akiva is being burned alive at the stake, he is laughing! Why? Well, he explains that his whole life, as commanded in the Shema he loved God with all his heart and all his soul, but he was never able to love God “b’chol meodcha” with all his might. But now that he’s being physically tortured for being a Jew and studying Hashem’s holy Torah, he can finally say that he is loving God with all his might.

And that, I believe is the answer to our question. For another person’s pain we should feel troubled with how the world is working. I’m not suggesting to harbor deep resentment towards God, but if we don’t feel any sort of tension in watching the suffering — if we don’t think, “How is this fair?” — have we really internalized their pain? And are we going to be motivated to help them deal with it? We won’t always get an answer to our questions. In fact, God’s response to Moshe’s question simply is: “Hush, this is how it is.” But before we accept other people’s suffering, let’s suffer a bit with them. At the same time, when we have our own travails, let’s try our best to be like Rabbi Akiva and his teacher and always find a way to see that it too is for the good.

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  • Avatar photo Chava Canales says on February 21, 2014

    Allison, you have amazing insight, and I truly appreciate your points in this article. Thank you for validating my guilt when I am angry with HaShem.

  • Avatar photo Michelle Levin says on February 23, 2014

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for following your human sense and your informed opinion. We are, after all, human. I can tell you from experience that to have "This too is for the good" said to you when you are actively and presently suffering causes an additional layer of isolation, or even self loathing. Worse that making the sufferer angry, you are shutting them up and shutting them off. You cannot possibly to get to the state where you can see a major injury or loss as part of a plan that's "good" until you have allowed for an honest reaction. Multiple times when I was in the hospital my Zadie would sit with me and say "this too will pass"…which I found to be actually comforting. It's not that I believed at the time that my Illness would pass…but the way he was saying it was empathetic and sort of a prayer that it would happen. He was not trying to convince me of anything or shut me off. In "this too will pass" is the acknowledgement that there is a "THIS" that is going to take some bearing before it passes. If he had been sitting there telling me "This too is for the good" I would have felt like a wretched Jew and wretched granddaughter

    • Avatar photo shea says on December 15, 2022

      Beautiful.Thanks for expressing and sharing your experience and thoughts. They are cause for reflection.

  • Avatar photo Patricia Kadoche says on February 23, 2014

    Very well said Allison – thank you!!!

  • Avatar photo Liza Catt says on February 24, 2014

    Very well put.

  • Avatar photo Michael Sleeth says on February 24, 2014

    Great article, transforming even. I can now better understand others that it is not so much a lack of emunah on their part as the struggles with life hurt them, but an opportunity to show compassion for me and healing for them. I can say..(in my head)..gam zu l'tovah)!

  • Avatar photo Miriam Nockenofsky says on February 25, 2014

    you are sooo right!! the person who is suffering is the one that to say it, not others, how do others know and understand the hell we got through and what business do they have saying gam zu letovah, hm what happens if its not gam zu letovah??

  • Avatar photo sarah b says on February 25, 2014

    I truly thank you for that breath of fresh air. I am often so shocked at the insensitivity of people standing on the side , watching someone go through hardships and saying the stupidest thing with no feelings of sympathy or empathy..” relax, where is your faith” or ” this is for the good”. “cmon, cant you put it aside?” Cmon you dunces..shed a tear!!! When someone is in pain, even if you are a peice of dead wood..at least show the person that you care…be there..not to criticize ..but to share and help and feel and maybe..just maybe..be human and shed a tear for what they are going through.I cant beleive these morons know what hashem and his torah are really all about..big talkers….I truly beleive hashem looks at these cold heartless, religious “sounding”…yes..stupid.. people and says..”man, you missed the boat”….


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