We Are Bereans

Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
Acts 17:10-11

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Rumination #52: Why do bad things happen to good people?

“Have you considered my servant Job…”

I am so thankful for the month of Elul. It serves as a reminder that we need introspection and repentance. Sometimes deep questions emerge from our personal cataloging. Among those deep questions is not normally, “why do bad things happen to me.” Our self-analysis, in preparation for Yom Kippur tells me that with regard to cause and effect, if “effect” is bad things, then “cause” is my sin. But at any other times it is not that simple. Yes, circumstances in our lives do cause us to examine our walk, and to repent; but there are times when a particularly difficult thing seems to come out of the blue when we are walking daily in repentance and in the fear of G-d.

Perhaps there is another answer to the question. Or perhaps there is no answer, but it can’t just be sin.

In Rabbi Shalom Arush’s Garden of Emunah, he says, “There are no tribulations without transgression.” Then he gives two primary reasons for suffering in the lives of the righteous:

  • To reveal sin, and initiate repentance
  • For “soul correction”

Of course, the book of Job absolutely contradicts the notion that tribulation is always related to transgression, but let’s come back to that thought later.

I recommend Rabbi Arush’s book, but at times it seems too simple. Not simple in the sense that faith should always be a simple dependence upon a loving G-d (for that reason, Arush makes good points). No, the book is too simple in the sense that at times it tries to answer what Scripture shows cannot be answered. You see, there is not an adequate answer to the question posed here. It is not that the question is wrong; it is that perhaps we should not be demanding an answer. Let me explain.

The book of Job is one of the most mysterious and confounding books in the Bible. I think that most people find it confusing because, from Job, they are trying to answer the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” For them, the book is a book of theology, a desire to know how things work in G-d’s universe. I think that is the wrong approach to the book, and the question. I am not dismissing the question, I am simply saying that the answer, even if it can be deduced, will not satisfy our desire to know why.

Of course, when the question is posed, the Calvinist immediately falls back upon the “all have sinned” principle, and like Rabbi Arush ascribes all tribulation to transgression in some form, at some time. And yet, the book of Job opens with the Righteous Judge’s own words:

And HaShem said to ha-Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears G-d and turns away from evil?”
Job 1:8

Blameless? Turns away from evil? No need for soul correction there. No need for repentance. In fact, Job’s “friends” spend whole chapters trying to convince Job that his suffering is caused by sin. G-d has harsh words of rebuke for these men. Throughout the discussion, Job steadfastly maintains that although he is suffering, he will not blame G-d, and he has not sinned. As to Rabbi Arush’s point that perhaps the righteous suffer for the sins of others, this is quite true, but apparently not at work in the case of Job. His children are never seen being redeemed by his pain. If this was the point being made by the book, there is not even a hint to be found.

There is a most curious thing about Job’s comments throughout the book. He never actually asks the question we are asking when we read. In fact, we are given a glimpse behind the curtain not afforded to Job. We are made aware of what seems to be the “cause and effect.” Job’s trials are initiated by HaShem. They are not initiated because Job is in need of soul correction, or because of his sin. Rather, we are given a very unsettling scene, where it is because of Job’s lack of sin he becomes the object of what appears to be a cosmic contest! Even with that information, we still seek an answer to the question. Job, unaware of this contest, does not ask. How curious.

Yeshua addresses the problem of with cause and effect:

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Yeshua answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of G-d might be displayed in him.”
John 9:2

In the theological milieu of the First Century, Yeshua throws a curve ball into the entire cause and effect discussion. His disciples had to be saying to themselves, “What?” And yet, if they had studied Job, they might have already realized there was something else in play.

Again, this is not to say that suffering does not sometime come because of sin, or that G-d does not use trials to strengthen our faith, or to improve our obedience. Yeshua addresses the issue of repentance as well:

There were some present at that very time who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1-6

Clearly, our suffering, or the evidence of the suffering of others is used to bring us to repentance.

As well, James addresses the question of the suffering of the righteous:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4

Beloved, the Bible is neither simple nor trite when we seek to answer the question. We suffer. Sometimes beyond what we think we can bare. We struggle. Intensely. We repent. We are corrected and we sometimes improve. Yet, there are times the question remains. We want an answer. Was it really that necessary? Wasn’t there a better way?

The book of Job tells us quite clearly that the answer, even if it could be deduced, is not simple.

As a reader, I enjoy reading about scientific theories that have probed the meaning of reality. Anything that deals with time travel, quantum physics, and even some science fiction intrigues me. I have learned that even with my pedestrian view of Newtonian physics, I can appreciate the stunning summary conclusions raised by quantum physics. According to Sir Isaac Newton, the world works in a defined and ordered way. Even “chaos” falls into the laws of order. For the past 150 years, scientists have discovered that although most things in the universe can be explained by the cause and effect of Newtonian physics, the facts and theories of quantum physics turn everything on its head. What we used to think was true about the way things work in the universe now seems like a child’s math workbook when we consider the probabilities of quantum mechanics. What is real? How can the cat be both alive and dead at the same time in Erwin Schrödinger’s cat experiment?

I do not understand Newtonian physics, much less at the quantum level. I do know this though: I have no idea of how the universe works. It is beyond my comprehension. This is the genius of the man Job. He does not seek an answer to the question: he seeks the One Who knows the questions before they were asked.

It was not wrong to ask why, but Job seems to be somehow satisfied with no answer. Even when Job comes face to face with the King of the Universe, he does not ask – and G-d does not offer an explanation. Job is never told of the contest.

Beloved, I do not have an answer to the question. I have asked it too many times in intense anguish, for myself, for my family, for others. I do not have an answer, though I continue to ask why. I do have this though – the words of Job:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see G-d, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

Then Job answered HaShem and said: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question You, and You make it known to me.’ I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 19:25-27; 42:1-6

At the end of our search for an answer… will hopefully… simply… reveal a Person: A good, and loving King.

L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!

[May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!]

When Fences Become Walls

And HASHEM said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to HASHEM to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to HASHEM consecrate themselves, lest HASHEM break out against them.” And Moses said to HASHEM, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.”
Exodus 19:21-23

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for G-d has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him stand.
Romans 14:1-4

“Children want boundaries.” You have heard that, or perhaps you have said it yourself. It is true of course. Human beings seem to almost crave limits to our behavior. No doubt this part of our G-d-given conscience – our sense of “right and wrong.”

Let’s be honest though, our conscience is not the same thing as right and wrong – it simply is our sense of what we think is right and wrong. Sadly, some people seem to have no conscience at all, and it is equally sad when some think everything is wrong.

When Conscience Becomes a Choice

In order for our conscience to be a positive tool in our relationship with HaShem, we need to be careful what choices we make in establishing new (or new to us) “fences” (boundaries put up to protect particular commandments) and how we maintain a distinction between those fences and the written commandments of HaShem. Once a standard is a part of our conscience, it is difficult to undo that without damaging our conscience.

It is common in newly observant communities for individuals to grab hold of standards that are new to them. This can be very good. The danger is when individuals make these fences matters of conscience. This is a matter of choice if the fences are not clearly distinguished from the actual commandments of HaShem. “So, if the standard is upheld, and the individual conscience is not offended, what is the downside?” you might ask. The dangers are:

  • An ever-increasing more-observant-than-thou attitude
  • Adding to your personal “I will be offended if…” list
  • Your children as they grow older may have difficulty distinguishing between HaShem’s commandments and your newly established fence
  • By choice, becoming the “weaker brother”

Safely Embracing Fences

In the case of neighbors with literal fences along a property line, it is easy to understand that one neighbor cannot move the fence without affecting the other. This is also the case of “fences around the Torah.” To best understand how to safely embrace fences, we must remind ourselves what fences are and how they might affect others. A fence is a standard that is beyond of the literal words of HaShem. Notice, that man did not initiate the fence around Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 to keep the people safe. HaShem commanded that it be built. So the Exodus 19 model does not apply to “fences around the Torah” – that is, unless you are also willing to disregard the very sober words in Deuteronomy 4:2:

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of HaShem your G-d that I command you.
Deuteronomy 4:2

Yeshua alludes to this in His admonition:

And why do you break the commandment of G-d for the sake of your tradition?
Matthew 15:3b

I am very encouraging to people who want to embrace Jewish tradition, making the lifestyle of Judaism, their own. I offer this personal caution however: as you adopt traditional halacha and make it your own, do not make the traditional halacha a matter of conscience. That is truly your choice. Distinguish between the literal commandment, and the traditional “how to” in walking out that commandment. Here are my personal recommendations:

  • Context. Do your best to mirror the community in which you find yourself. If your community does not adhere to your newfound fence, be careful to not promote it as a community standard. Do not broadcast your fence. It is personal, or for your family only. On the other hand, be careful to reflect the community in which you are currently a part. Do not offend your brothers and sisters by what you permit or by what you forbid.
  • If you have children, as they get older, make it clear that your “family rules” are not “more right” than any other families' rules.
  • Be gracious. Recognize that everyone errs in some way. Make sure you do not begin to look down on those who do not share the same fences that you do.
  • Remember Romans 14:4:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him (and you) stand.
Romans 14:1-4

Don’t let your fences become walls. Walls that keep out the blessing of a healthy relationship with HaShem, or walls that make your circle of brothers and sisters ever more small.

The Mideast Update News Site

In 2007, my eldest son moved to Jerusalem working as a journalist and writer. Since then he has done interviews with government officials, academics, and "the man on the street." Joshua maintains a news web site that draws from his contacts in the middle east: the Israeli government, middle eastern universities, and public relations outlets. His reporting, analysis, and insights are unique in reporting on Israel and the middle east.

Check it out: www.themideastupdate.com

Daily Aliyah App for iPhone/iPad

My friend Brock Wright has written an iPhone/iPad app called "Daily Aliyah" that displays the Torah and haftarah portion for the current week, as well as the daily aliyah for the day of the week. Get it for free in the iTunes App Store.




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