Since the beginning of the tragic events in Japan, I have been receiving a number of letters from people saying that God allowed this tragedy because of a negative statement made by the Japanese government last year about Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria. And it really bothers me. It reminds me of some rabbis in Israel when they claim that there was another terror attack because not enough people kept the Sabbath, or that Israeli soldiers are killed in battle because they didn’t eat kosher food.
These conclusions are based on a false assumption that suffering is always the result of sin. It is the same misunderstanding and false teaching that Job’s friends had when they accused Job. They came to the conclusion that the tragedy that had fallen on him was the result of his sin. These friends had no other way of understanding his punishment (Job 2:7). But they were wrong (Job 42:7).
The Book of Job does not give us the answer of why humans suffer. It only leaves us with the mystery of why bad things happen to good people. Our conclusion must be that there is no answer to the problem of suffering in the world. Life is far more complicated than we can ever imagine and there are many things that we cannot understand. It is even as the sages taught, “It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked” (Pirkei Avot 4:15).
So why do some people think that they can accuse God for bringing this tragedy on Japan because of some anti-Israel statements? Do they think that they can frighten the Japanese into becoming believers by pointing the finger? Did Job come closer to God because ofhis friends’ accusations? In fact, it is these kinds of accusations that only make God into a narrow-minded and grudgeful vindicator.
What we can learn from Job is how to endure our tragedies. It is the lesson that all those who suffer must learn; how to walk through the tragedies of life without losing our sense of mystery and awe. Job argues with God at every point and questions him with fervor. But in the end he can only confess, “Therefore I spoke but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know… Therefore do I repent…” (42:3-6 ).
Troubles have a way of teaching us more than we know. Suffering broadens our capacity for tenderness and teaches us to resist the temptation towards bitterness and desolation. It is in suffering that we learn that we can find the good, even amongst the devastation. We learn to endure through hardships, not because we understand, but because we are willing to take another step towards compassion.
May all those who think that they have the answers learn to be quiet when tragedy strikes. May they not attempt to place blame on the victims, but rather learn to offer real comfort to the people who are suffering. Real comfort comes from acts and words of kindness and concern, not from false accusations.
I am indebted to Reuven Hammer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly for some of the material found in this blog adapted from his article "Job and his Comforters," Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2011