The phone rang, and I could hear the tears in my friend’s voice. She explained that she had complications during pregnancy and was hospitalized for an extended period. Her twins were delivered prematurely and would need to stay in the NICU indefinitely. She worried about her babies’ development both short and long-term. “Why are other people having healthy babies but not me?” she asked. “I’ve lost my faith in God.”
Her words were painfully familiar to me. I’ve had variations of this conversation countless times. As a rabbi, people turn to me when facing cancer or dire financial straights or the death of a family member, and tell me how the crisis has crushed their faith in God. Their struggle is doubled. They not only have lost their health or loved one, but they’ve lost God, precisely when they need God most.
In reflecting on these conversations, I wonder: where do we get the idea that if we’re good then God will reward us with health and happiness? This theology that we absorb is somehow at odds with the world in which we live. One need only read the paper to know that good people suffer every day. Perhaps if only we weren’t taught this fallacy, then we could save the excruciation of unlearning this idea when tragedy strikes.
This week’s Torah portion can contribute to this problem. The double portion of B’har (on the Mountain) and B’hukkotai (In My Laws) concludes the book of Vaykira (Leviticus) with passages that resonate with its main themes. B’hukkotai begins by offering blessings for following God’s laws and curses for disobeying. The text recounts God’s promise: “If you walk in my laws and keep my commandments, I will give rain in their seasons, and the earth will yield its produce …” The blessings include agricultural bounty, security and peace — which sound great. Conversely, God explains that “if you reject My laws” then “I will wreak misery upon you …” The curses stipulated in the next 27 verses aren’t pretty!
This type of passage seems to be a source for causing such anguish. However, on careful review, we discover that God’s words are entirely addressed in the plural (which is clear in the Hebrew but not in the English translation). The text does not promise reward and punishment for individuals but only for the community.
The concept of collective consequences for behavior is a built-in feature of the world in which we live. On a global level, if we collectively care for the environment then we collectively benefit from living in a cleaner world. Conversely, if we pollute the air and water, then we suffer the devastating health consequences of living in such a world. On a societal level, if we collectively create a society that values kindness, then we are rewarded with the joy of living in a caring community, whereas if our society glorifies violence then we suffer more violence.
Violence or pollution surely affect some people more than others, and the distribution of suffering isn’t fair. The rabbis of the Talmud recount that Moses asked God “Why are there righteous who suffer and wicked who prosper?” This question resounds through the ages.
I told my friend to share her frustrations with God. Even anger can be a form of prayer. Most of all, I told her that I love her and am here for her. In this unjust world, only with time and love can faith be found again.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.