Parashat Metzora: Why Do Bad Things Happen?
Flight 370. Fort Hood. Chile. Ebola. Meningitis. Hail. These events made headlines in our news just this week. But why? Not why did they make headlines– obviously it is because of the scarring human impact. But why– why do these things happen? Period. Tonight, I would like to examine this week’s Torah portion, called Metzora, through a deep theological lens– approaching one of the most difficult quandaries that occupies the hearts and minds of religious people everywhere– why do bad things happen in the world? And, more specifically, what is at the root of the terrible afflictions people suffer?
The question came up in Torah study last Saturday morning as we were studying the Torah portion Metzora– you see, the sages suggest that a person becomes a “metzora” (someone who is diseased) when one commits the sin of “motzi shem ra” (bringing forth a bad name onto someone else). The sages make this link for two reasons:
1: the similarities in the sounds of metzora and motzi shem ra suggest that one would get metzora from engaging in motzi shem ra, and
2: we read in the book of Numbers that Miriam is afflicted with skin disease after she is noted to have gossiped to Aaron about her other brother’s (Moses’) wife.
When one gossips about another, it seems that they, in turn, are cursed with skin disease.
On the surface, this might seem like a simple and plainly fair consequence of unsavory behavior. But, when one spins out the concept further, one realizes that it makes the suggestion implicitly that illness is punishment against the ill.
The problem of that concept is that we have all known people who have been afflicted with diabetes, heart disease, cancer– are we to assume that their afflictions were punishment for immoral behavior? Viscerally, we know that it cannot be the case. Of course not. It screams of the kind of close-minded, fundamentalist theology that would argue that gay men contracted AIDS because they engaged in immoral homosexual activity- a clearly reviling assertion.
Plus, even if one were to entertain the link between homosexuality and immorality, it does not account for the fact that many children– innocent simply because they were too young to have committed any great sin– contracted AIDS as well. We may remember how the death of Ryan White, may his memory be for a blessing, was instrumental in revealing the fallacy of the argument that AIDS was punishment for immorality.
So, why then, does pain and plague and disease afflict people regardless of their moral character? Or, as Rabbi Yannai noted 1800 years ago in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:15): “אין בידינו לא משלוות רשעים, ואף לא מייסורי צדיקים.” “We cannot explain why some evil doers enjoy satisfying lives while some good people must endure severe suffering.”
The spirit of the book of Job, who is a man who is disstraught about the death of one plant more than the deaths of an entire village, points to the agony of this reality in the world: that there appears to be no rhyme or reason to suffering in the world.
But this suggestion raises so many questions about the power of God, or the goodness of God, or the justice of God– if God is omnipotent, good and righteous, why do the righteous suffer?
Weren’t we promised in the Ve’ahavta blessing that if we are good, rain and consequently our crops will be plentiful? Aren’t we guaranteed a spot in the Book of Life, during the days of awe, if we morally cleanse ourselves?
So, why does evil exist? And why do the innocent suffer? The week after next, we will once again recount the Israelites’ hardships in Egypt– are we to believe that our entire people was so terrible that we merited a life of slavery? Are we to believe that somehow the Jews in Europe somehow brought the Holocaust upon ourselves?
The problem with these questions and this dilemma is the sickening thought that we know some people who would believe that the answer to these practically heretical questions is “yes.”
Thank God for the progressive communities that do not see AIDS or cancer or any other affliction as one of God’s consequences for the sufferer. We do not believe that this is why evil exists. But, then are we to believe that Harold Kushner, author of the bestselling book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” was right– that bad things just happen? (As the bumper sticker would suggest).
Recently, I read an excerpt from a book called, “Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach” by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner which took issue with the assertion that bad things just happen.
The article went so far as to call the Conservative Rabbi Kushner’s ideology “un-Jewish” and suggested that we ought not give up on the idea that God is in control. The article instead insisted that the idea of Divine Providence should direct us to a theology that everything that happens has a purpose.
So, which is it– does evil just happen? Or does evil happen for a purpose that we have yet to understand? Will we ever know the answer? Unlike Rabbi Kirzner, I believe that both answers and many more are Jewish answers. That different people find strength in different answers. And like the multi-vocality in the rest of our religious tradition, we should respect that of one another because one thing we can agree on is the power of a united community after a tragedy.
Last year, you may have heard that there was a little boy, just 10 years old, nicknamed Superman Sam, who died of cancer. The son of two rabbis, one would think that theology might be the focus of Sam’s death. But instead, earlier this week, the focus at the CCAR (Reform Rabbinical) Convention (where Rabbi Lisa was) was not on theology or crisis of faith– each person’s own theology, whatever it was, led them to action– the crazy action of shaving their heads in solidarity with Sam’s parents and family, with families battling cancer around the world, with all who suffer. The campaign originally envisioned 36 rabbis to “Shave for the Brave,” to raise awareness about cancer and to raise money for research. In the end, 54 rabbis shaved their heads– and by the way, they raised over $575,000.
My colleague and friend from my early rabbinic days serving a congregation in Orange County, Rabbi Heidi Cohen, was given the honor of shaving our colleague’s heads. Just six weeks ago, her community suffered a debilitating fire to their sanctuary building and likely was challenged by the same deep theological questions we are asking tonight. After her experience shaving head after head, Rabbi Cohen later reflected in her blog, ravima.com, that joining together as a community in this way calls each of us to, “recognize that the tza’arot that plague our lives are not insurmountable. That they can be cleaned and we can be made whole and able to embrace a new normal.”
Perhaps we don’t know where evil comes from, but we know good when we see it. And that was definitely an action of healing, of positivity, of community and of light.
May we all reach out to community in our times of need and find people who would help us meet any evil we experience with the tools to overcome and feel the positive presence of God. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.