Now, here is your host Mike Feder.
MIKE: Yes. This is Mike Feder, in fact. And I am here live in the studio. We are going to talk tonight about the subject of G-d and suffering and pain. But first I just want to mention that we thank you all very much for all the letters we have gotten and the E-mail and the calls that we received.
I am going to give you the details on how to reach us later on. The telephone number, the address, and E-mail, you will have all that. But I think what I would like to do is just get right into our topic for today.
I am willing to bet that everybody listening right now and, perhaps, the two of us in the City here have suffered some really awful pain. Maybe we have had some kind of operation or we have suffered in some way. But certainly we all know people in our family or in our extended family that have suffered needlessly.
The question has to be — and now this is presuming that you have some sort of a faith in a Supreme Being or in G-d. I mean, after all, there are biological reasons why people suffer or not, and we can talk about that.
Now, here is the question and let’s put it in a nutshell. How do you reconcile a benevolent loving G-d with human pain and suffering? Let me just add one thing to that. G-d created human beings. Now why would somebody who created people want his — I am using the word “his,” by the way. I don’t want anyone to be offended by my continuing to use “his.” Maybe we can find a better word for it.
I don’t want my children to suffer. Why would a benevolent loving G-d who created us human beings, and everybody listening, want us to suffer so much? How can we reconcile all of this? An easy question; right?
RABBI JACOBSON: That is a million dollar question. A question that goes down in history as, perhaps, the most perplexing and difficult question, I would say. I would just like to be clear at the outset that there have been many philosophies and many teachings that have addressed a question of this nature.
There is one principle that I want to begin with. You made a good point, Mike, by saying that we are presuming faith in a Supreme Being. I would argue and submit this: the mere fact that we are bothered by this question, by the mere fact that we cry out when we see innocent people suffer. We cry out, “Why? It is not fair. It doesn’t seem right.” That in itself, I believe, is the greatest testimony to faith in G-d. Because why should it bother us?
If you take an evolutionary approach to life, survival of the fittest. We don’t like to see the tender deer that has just been born or is unable to escape the predators being eaten for dinner. But part of the law of nature is survival of the fittest. I haven’t seen anyone cry over it. If we take the approach of survival of the fittest and dog eats dog, to that extent why does it bother us? Why do we assume that justice has to prevail? That good people have to prosper and the wicked suffer? Why does it bother us that the wicked prosper and innocent people suffer?
I am sure there are many answers that will be given on this show. That, G‑d willing, is going to be a long journey and an experience for all of us, so I am sure we will address many of these topics many times in different ways.
MIKE: This will come up again, sure.
RABBI JACOBSON: But I did want to submit this thought. It is because we have an inherent voice inside of us, something that is deep inside of us that tells us, “No, it doesn’t make sense and it isn’t right for innocent people to suffer.” This isn’t some type of quirk of our conscious, but this does reflect a sense of some type of higher justice or higher good that should ultimately prevail and we demand it emotionally — not even intellectually, but emotionally. Though everything can be argued, but at least let’s use it as an axiom.
This, I believe, is one of the great arguments for the belief somewhere deep inside our hearts that the system should work and justice should work, that G‑d should be just and life should be just.
Let’s get to the question after my making this disclaimer or this introduction. Life is unfair so often. We do see innocent people suffer.
MIKE: And we see the bad prosper.
RABBI JACOBSON: Exactly. We have every reason to believe as we grow from children into adults to say, “Hey, if you can get away with it. If you can succeed even at the expense of others. If you can be a back stabber and no one catches you, why not get away with it?” We see people do succeed and never get caught, so to speak.
We all understand logically that we need red lights and greens lights for someone to make some type of order or else, if you kill me, I kill you, and that type of thing. But that is very arbitrary and very circumstantial. What happens when you are all alone in a room, and you don’t seem to be hurting anybody else? You can tell by what we say and do. So we are touching upon an issue that covers so much ground, I think it is important to focus and keep it focused.
I will make two points. I will make two vital points. I invite you, Mike, and the listeners to challenge it with everything we have, because we all have to do that.
Number one is the sensitivity to a person who is in pain and suffering. I think that comes first and foremost. To try to give a philosophical explanation, as they say, is good for other people and not when it happens to you.
I will tell you a brief story, a famous story that they tell in Jewish academies and Torah academies. There was a great rabbi and teacher who was very much beloved, but he unfortunately suffered a deep tragedy. His family were in the timber business; they would go off to another country and bring back by ship the lumber and they would sell it locally. Then tragedy struck. The ship sunk and he lost his entire family. When the news came back to town they said, “How do you tell him? How do you tell the man?” They chose the lucky one who was his favorite student. They said, “You are so close with your teacher and with your rabbi and with your mentor. You should broach it.” He was thinking back and forth what should he do. He runs around the block. Finally he thinks of an idea. He goes in the academy into the Yeshiva and opens up a Talmud.
The Talmud and the tractate is Brachot, which is one of the tractates of the Talmud. He opens it and he asks his teacher, “My great teacher, my great master, explain this to me? One is to thank G-d for the mishaps and for the tragedies and for the curses in one’s life, as much as they thank G-d for the blessings.” That expression in Hebrew is “ki’shaym she’m’vorchim al ha’brocho, kach m’vorchim al ha’kloloh.” “How do you explain that?” Of course, the brilliant scholar went into a long explanation. That no pain, no gain. The challenges in life bring you to the greatest heights. He went through every philosophical thought and idea that has ever been said on the topic. But the student continued to persist. “But tell me, but still, how could you equate the two?”
So he went into the explaining that we don’t understand G-d’s ways. It is a form of humility learning that there is a bigger picture. It may not be seen, obviously, in our generation, but it may take time until we see the entire balance of things. All good explanations.
The student was not willing to accept any of it. He said to this rabbi, “So you are telling me that a person after they suffer a strategy has to get up and dance just like as if it were their child’s wedding?” The teacher said to him, Yes. No matter how difficult it may sound, that is what it comes down to. True faith dictates that type of acceptance.
The student looked at him with deep compassion and he said, “Rebbe, you can start dancing,” and he told him what happened. Instead of dancing, the man fainted.
When he came to and he was revived he said to the student with tears, “Suddenly, I don’t understand this entire Talmud myself.” The point being that when it comes to pain and suffering, we are dealing with a realm that is outside of intellect.
If someone thinks that you are going to soothe a bleeding heart or a crying spirit with a nice intellectual concept, the mind does not speak to the heart, particularly in those types of circumstances. We all know this. When we are emotionally overwhelmed, it is not a question of logic, even if it makes to the heart. The heart is still, “I am in pain. What are you telling me? That the pain is a blessing? Even if it is, right now that is what I feel.”
So right now I think the number one and most important thing is that sensitivity is recognized. That before we even discuss the subject in any philosophical manner, we must recognize that part of us is recognizing that sensitivity. Even being silent in the face of it, because when a person is hurt what you can do most is hold their hand, soothe them, and be there with them. That gives the more powerful answer. To tell them, “Here is an explanation. Try it out and see if it works.” I think that itself is not an answer, but it is an approach. This leads us now to the second half. Do you want to saying anything, Mike?
MIKE: Let me ask you, if right there at that point you are sitting next to somebody. I just got through reading a book by Roger Kaminetz who wrote The Jew and the Lotus. He is a fairly well known writer. He wrote a wonderful memoir which just came out. It was just published concerning his mother who was dying of terminal cancer.
You are next to somebody in a bed who is in a hospice or who is literally dying in tremendous pain. Even in so much pain sometimes, that the morphine doesn’t help. They look to you and, let’s say, they were brought up to believe in G-d or to have faith to believe in a just system of something or other. They look at you at virtually the last moment in tremendous pain and they say, “I have always been good, and I have always done the best I could for other people. I see people all around me who are thriving and nothing has happened to them. Why is this happening to me? Why is G-d letting this happen to me?”
Think of yourself in this room. We are in this room right now. What do you say to this person? I don’t want to be so strident about that. But that really is something that happens every day. While we are sitting here, it is probably happening.
RABBI JACOBSON: I want you to be strident, and we have to deal with it in a real way. This isn’t a cute question and answer type of thing. But I still began with what I have said. If I would say any words, I would say what I have said until now.
Generally speaking, the Jewish approach – or the Torah approach which I believe is a universal approach to the issue of pain and suffering in the face of a good G-d, “Why is G-d doing this to me,” using your words – is that we may never know the answer to that question.
The real question is not so much why, but what you do about it. Let me explain. As I just said, to the crying heart, the bleeding heart, I don’t know of any logical answer, even through the most brilliant person. What would G-d say? So we have precedent.
There was a story in the time of the Romans when they barbarically murdered ten of the greatest Jewish and Torah leaders of the time for whatever reason. They decided this, and the excuse they had then. So tradition tells and the Talmud tells the story that the angels came crying to G-d. They said, “These are righteous people. This is the Torah. These are the scholars. And this is the reward they get?” And what did G-d answer? He said, “Silence. Be silent. This is how it arose in my will.” This is documented. This is documented.
What was he saying? You are right. We can’t really say “he” and “G-d,” but what was G-d saying? G-d was saying that is part of the mystery of existence. We are going to discuss this in a moment. Silence often is the only true answer. Not the silence out of passivity or weakness, because I don’t have a logical answer; but it is a certain type of awareness that that logic and intellect cannot speak to the pain.
Yet we still need to address the question that you are asking. So not backing off, I just need to emphasize that we often do not know why and the answer to the question is not necessarily going to resolve the emotional issue. Yet we do have to ask the question, “What do we do about it?”
Here is what it comes down to. Job is one of the most powerful ..
MIKE: I was just going to mention Job.
RABBI JACOBSON: There is an entire book of Job that is dedicated to this eternal question. One of the most powerful phrases and one of the most powerful statements that touched me when I read Job — and this is with some paraphrasing and interpreting — is when he asks G-d the question: “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you allow me to be hurt and suffer? I am dedicated to you.” G-d essentially said to him, “Were you there when I created it all, heaven and earth?”
Let me explain. We ask the question why there is death, but do we ask the question why there is birth? We ask the question why there is pain, but do we ask the question why there is life? If there were no birth, there would be no death. If there were no life, there would be no pain.
But we ask the question, because certain things we take for granted. “I am alive. I am here. Once I am here, I want it to be the best and most comfortable way.” I am not suggesting this is an answer.
MIKE: Returning to Job. I remember this part. I just read about this actually. G-d says to Job, “You are asking me these questions?” It is almost like he is saying, “Who are you to ask me who created the entire universe? Who understands all these mysteries?” Maybe I am getting it wrong.
RABBI JACOBSON: That is why I was interpreting the meaning in Job’s words. It is not that way. It is not at all, who are you? If you appreciate all of life in existence, you may understand this mystery.
MIKE: The whole thing?
RABBI JACOBSON: Right. We know very little about life. We know about the interim place between birth and death, but we don’t know why the birth and why the beginning. We ask why the end. We do ask why is it not working, but we don’t ask why it is there in the first place.
Life is a gift. We accept it as such. Yet life has many difficulties and hurts us, as we are discussing here. But we ask the question when it doesn’t work. We don’t ask the question why it is here in the first place.
So what G-d is really telling Job is that if you understand the mystery of birth, then you will understand the mystery of death. We will get there. I am not finished. We have, thank G‑-d, an hour here to discuss this or 56 minutes or whatever.
I think to do justice to a topic like this, Mike, and I don’t want to give you some type of cute answer. It is not that way. This is complex.
So far we covered here silence. We covered here the ability and the strength of recognizing that we don’t have answers to everything. Because I think, as we will discuss, this is perhaps the deepest answer of all: that life itself is perhaps more a question than an answer. That doesn’t mean that it is less of an experience. It may mean it is a richer experience for that matter.
In summation, this whole issue of pain and suffering is intertwined with the mystery of birth, and happiness, and joy as well. Because if there were no joy, there would be no pain. So it is all by contrast.
So let me share with you a story that happened to me. This is about a woman who wrote to me. She is from Chicago. Her mother was suffering and dying from a terminal illness in Toronto. She went to see her mother. At some point she had obtained my book Toward a Meaningful Life, and reading it was very soothing for her.
She asked her mother if she could read some chapters to her. She was telling me the story. She wrote to me about the story. Her mother in her career was an educator and a teacher. So she read the chapter on education, and also read the chapter on pain and suffering. There is a chapter there on that topic.
She was on medication and they were keeping her alive. Essentially, she was about to write and sign the papers to stop the treatment and let her die, because she was suffering already over two years and was in a lot of pain. She didn’t want to prolong the agony.
The daughter read to her the chapter on pain and suffering. That if you make a mathematical quantitative calculation of your life and its experiences, you would list in one column all the good things that have happen to you and in another column all the bad things that have happened to you. The times of your sufferings, your losses, and your gains. Often column two will be much longer than column one, but not for everyone. Taking that into account, it may seem it is not worth it. From a business calculation, it is not worth it.
Indeed, the Talmud actually says — and this is an opinion and an opinion that we hold by –it is more pleasant not to been born than to be born. There is another assenting opinion, but there is that opinion.
MIKE: I have felt that way once or twice myself.
RABBI JACOBSON: So if you make a quantitative calculation, it may seem that it is not worth it. If I had a choice, obviously, it may not be worth it, because I would weigh the two. But that is when we look at life quantitatively.
If you look at it qualitatively: that you are put here for a higher purpose, and you are not here to just be comfortable. You are here to accomplish something and to achieve something. Now we are getting into the mystery of life and death. You are here to be a partner with G-d in creation. Partnership entails responsibility and also entails risks. G-d takes a risk and we take a risk, because it is not a game. If it were a puppet playing out a program, then the puppeteer is responsible for everything. But if we truly have free will, as one cynic or whatever you want to call it said, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
So with that type attitude, if you have free will and we are here as partners, life is a complicated dance between us and G-d. It is not just a supreme being in heaven as we have discussed in previous shows that just writes the script where we come and play out the act, and then we close up the puppet box. It doesn’t work that way. We influence and affect the drama of our lives.
Interestingly, especially in Jewish thought and particularly in the Kabala it talks about how we influence G-d. This isn’t a one-way street. It is a two-way street.
Let me go back to the story of the woman. Quantitatively it is true. Qualitatively if life is driven by purpose and by design, and we are here to fulfill a purpose and we are here to contribute something to change my corner of this word. There will be good and bad times to do that. There will be setbacks as well as positive moments. Then life takes on a different meaning. Then even the pain and even the sad moments and the losses is in some way a part of the entire picture. That is when it becomes worth it. The pain doesn’t become less, but it becomes part of a perspective. It is not just measuring and saying, “Twenty percent of my life is happy and 80 percent is not.” It is one bigger picture of growth. You begin to then look at pain in a different way. You begin to see it as part of the bigger picture.
Then as she continued reading the chapter on education, and an educator isn’t just a facilitator. An educator actually forms and shapes lives. But to make a long story short, the woman was so moved the daughter tells me that she insisted that, no, she would not go off the medication. She wants to live. She will fight. She is in deep pain. But she is here. She will fight with her will power.
Interestingly, she went into regression and came out of it. The doctors attribute it to her own will power and the sense of no resignation and not giving up. We know that in Medicine today there is a certain optimism, and faith, and power that allows you to feel this light at the end of the tunnel. As soon as you give up that light, your entire immune system weakens. But the point was not so much the end of the story, but the actual attitude.
With a mother and a father, when the child first starts walking, there is a moment that you have to let go of the hand of the child and they will be able to fall. That fall, of course, is relatively painless. But it is still a fall. Metaphorically speaking, if you don’t let go of that child’s hand, they will never learn to walk.
There are risks in giving human beings free will. There are mysteries in the pain and suffering of human beings, particularly innocent ones. Children don’t seem to be in any way at fault. You see I am specifically not emphasizing here, because there are natural tragedies and there are other illnesses — as you pointed out at the beginning of the show — that are not in our control. I will just say that the understanding of it all has to be interlinked with the understanding of the mystery of life itself. There is more to say, and I hope you challenge me.
MIKE: I will ask another question. This is a good time to take a break and re-identify who we are and where we are.
This is WEVD in New York, 1050 AM on your dial. You are listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson. I am Mike Feder. The name of the show is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson.
I wanted to mention I think at this point how you can comment on anything you hear here or how you can write to us. You can do that in the following way. You can call us at 1‑800‑3-MEANING or that is 1‑800‑363‑2646. 1‑800‑3‑MEANING or 1‑800‑363‑2646. You can write to us at the Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, New York 11213; or E-mail WisdomReb@aol.com
Taking this opportunity to mention that a lot of what you hear us talking about and, in fact, almost the central blueprint for much of what you are going to be hearing on this program is the book Toward a Meaningful Life by Simon Jacobson. It is published by William Morrow. It has been selling for more than three years. You can buy a copy of this book at any bookstore. We urge you to buy it, because the questions asked in here and the answers in here I think really are in some cases inspiring and can help you.
I have to tell you something. I am sitting here and I am listening to you and I am asking these questions. I will put myself in the position, let’s say, this is a hospital room. Let’s get very dramatic here. I am lying here and I ask you this question. Let’s say I am in terrible pain and I ask you these questions. I have to tell you that so far — now this could just be me, because I am verbose and I am a pain sometimes — but I haven’t heard anything yet from you, and I am suffering right now and I am in terrible pain, that would make me feel like the pain that I am suffering was worth the life that I was given. Maybe I am a hard case, you know.
I have read the story of Job, and I have never understood that to my satisfaction. Maybe I believe too much in the system of justice. Maybe there isn’t justice in the world at all. But here is a man, it says in the Bible, who is the first among all of G-d’s current creation at the moment who is good and who worshipped him in the right way, and who is devoted to all his family and to everyone else. This is the one that suffers interminably the most awful things. People die and suffer physically. I still don’t understand how to say this is a mystery. There are things you don’t understand. There is life and everything. How are these things soothing to somebody? How do these things encourage someone to believe that their life is worthwhile? Sorry to give you such a hard time.
RABBI JACOBSON: There is nothing to be sorry about at all. If we really want to visualize a hospital room, then we have to do it completely. I would not be sitting here and talking on this radio show or in a hospital room with any of the words I have said in the second half of my discussion here.
I would be sitting and soothing a person with anything I have and holding her hand or whatever, and talking about their life and their children and their achievements. Because, you see, what we ultimately are discussing is with outsiders. If you were actually in pain, I would never speak this way. That is why I didn’t begin with the natural thing with the mystery and all of that.
I want to add some more things, but let’s go back because your question is completely legitimate. The greatest people of faith — Moses, Abraham — in history in the Bible did something interesting. They didn’t seem like faithful people at all. They challenged G-d. They stood up and screamed. When Sodom was going to be destroyed, Abraham — and knowing full well their crimes, didn’t justify their crimes.
MIKE: Sodom and Gommoroh?
RABBI JACOBSON: Right, the story in the Bible. Abraham did not justify their crimes, because he knew they were true. He didn’t say, “No, that never happened.” He said, “What will people say? That the Judge, the Supreme Judge does not do justice?” So G-d said to him, “Find me ten righteous people in the city and I will save the city.”
MIKE: Didn’t he bargain them down?
RABBI JACOBSON: Yes, fifty all the way down to one. But there were some negotiations. He couldn’t even find one. And he still appealed. He had given in, because it was really a wicked city.
It was the same with Moses. Moses comes into Egypt. He points an accusing finger at G-d, “Why are you doing evil to these people?” He doesn’t say, “Why are you allowing human beings to do evil? Why are you standing by?” He blames G‑d straight out, because ultimately G-d can do anything that we wants. He created the people. You are allowing it, as if you are doing it.
MIKE: That is a good question and the answer.
RABBI JACOBSON: The fact is that was challenged. Faith seemingly is not a challenging attitude. Faith should be acceptance. Blind faith, the euphemism. Blind faith. Yet the truth is that faith isn’t blind at all and faith isn’t passive at all. Faith is the most aggressive attitude a person can take. It is the absolute belief that no matter how human beings behave, the greater good must prevail, and refusing ever to succumb to the evil or to the pain in the world saying no resignation, that there is nothing to believe in any further.
Now, I told you what G-d answered earlier. “Silence.” You may not like the answer, Mike, and maybe no one likes the answer; but there is no better answer. Perhaps life is the humility and the acceptance that life is not about questions and answers. You know where you get questions and answers? Go to a mathematics course. There you have equations. You have calculations. There is a question and there is an answer. That is life itself and forget about pain. The good times in life also don’t really have a logical answer.
If we were sitting with someone in pain suffering, and I am sure there are people listening here that may, I would not get into any philosophies. We are dealing here with a person who is hurt. They need the strength. They need the support. They need perhaps an ounce of energy just to move on and to completely not succumb to demoralization.
The worst thing about suffering is not often the suffering, but it is the secondary suffering the demoralization creates. The giving up and the resignation. You don’t even want to fight. You don’t even want get out of bed. You don’t want to see anyone.
MIKE: The pain can make you feel that way.
RABBI JACOBSON: Exactly. And it is so debilitating. I think that a person, in that case, there is some miracle that happens with human touch. When you see someone that cares and cries with you.
A guy once came to one of the great Rebbes because a tragedy befell his family. So the Rebbe looked at him and took his hand and said, “I can’t answer you, but I can cry with you.” I think there is something extremely freeing and powerful about that.
Maybe before this show you thought you were going to get some type of million dollar answer from me?
MIKE: I was hoping for that. Simon Jacobson, Toward a Meaningful Life, now we are going to hear the real answer.
RABBI JACOBSON: Sorry to disappoint you. But I will tell you there is something freeing when you know that the question is asked so much why bad things happen. But what do you do about it? How do you not allow to it to demoralize you? How do you have the strength? How do some people have that strength to forge ahead? You ask some people.
MIKE: I will do that.
RABBI JACOBSON: So perhaps let’s submit a few things here. Number one is: how did you come in? Maybe that is how you go out.
People’s faith is shaken when bad things happen. One has to ask the question, if one really has faith in a higher G-d, is it faith when things are conditional only when things are working well and you are comfortable? If you love someone unconditionally, your child for instance or your parent, then when things don’t work, the love prevails.
So if one has a true relation with G-d is it only based on when things are working out? I never, G-d forbid, would question anyone’s challenges by G-d or any type of tests that people have gone through in life, because I am not in their shoes. But if we speak about it in a more detached way, I feel that is an important point to make.
Another thing I would like to say, and I have been avoiding actually answering that — the issue of pain and good and evil. Do you know why? Because I feel that it is somewhat vulgar to begin when you are dealing with suffering and try to explain it. That is why I have not attempted to do that. But if everything that I have said until now has registered for myself as well. You know, when you speak you also speak to yourself?
MIKE: Yes, I do it all the time.
RABBI JACOBSON: Because tears are tears. If this has somewhat registered, then that would be the only time I would begin to even venture to try to discuss this.
Let’s talk about pain for a moment. Let’s talk about physical pain. What is physical pain? We live in the age of painkillers. If you can get rid of any pain, get rid of it. Pain essentially is a warning or a signal there is something wrong. If we did not have toothaches, if we did not have nerves, we wouldn’t feel the pain. What would happen? We could really hurt ourselves. So pain is like a warning or a signal that something is coming. Do something about it. Something is out of wack or out of sync.
Now, of course, if you can get rid of it on a remedial level, just a type of symptom — such as take an aspirin, great. But often it doesn’t work. Then you realize you had better go find out what the root is and what the cause is.
The same is true, I would say, with psychological pain and in a way you could say cosmic pain. Tragedies that have befallen in a world where innocent people suffer — getting now to your initial question — something is out of sync. Because if G-d said, “I created the universe to work a certain way. Here is the machine. This is the way it should work.” Suddenly we see that good people are suffering and wicked people are prospering. That is not the script. “You told us that when you are good” –G-d, that is — “when you are good, you will prosper.”
MIKE: That is what I thought.
RABBI JACOBSON: When you are wicked, you will suffer. Not necessarily as a punishment, but let’s call it like cause and effect.
We discussed this last week at length. But cause and effect is, like, if you put your hand in fire, you get burned. It is not a punishment. That is cause and effect.
So in a sense when a human being behaves in a way that is inconsistent with their own system, what will happen? Things won’t work. On that level the Torah teaches, and particularly Kabalistic teachings, tell us that the pain in life often is a signal that things are not in sync.
I must qualify this, because it is not always so black and white. It is not like with the human body. You cut yourself on a piece of glass. There is a little pain in your finger, the blood, and then it clots, and then it heals. That is the short term. On a cosmic level, things sometimes take generations to repair themselves.
Let’s take the environment. There is an oil spill in some ocean. What happens is it kills a certain type of fish. With that fish, the whole eco-system is thrown off. It may take centuries or at least years or decades for it to straighten itself out. There is a natural correcting system or an immune system.
In a way the pain and suffering of innocent people, that is why we are not to blame. But the fact is that there can be pain that is seemingly inconsistent with a good G-d.
Let’s talk about the question of reconciling a good G-d with pain is in itself the best signal, as we have pain, that the cosmic order is not in sync. We believe firmly that when human beings persist in their goodness and kindness despite the pain, they do something to repair that damage that may have happened 50 years ago, or one hundred years ago, or yesterday.
It may have happened in New York and someone in Australia may be doing something that on a more spiritual level, there is a certain type of corrective ability or healing ability that we all can initiate.
MIKE: There was somebody in my extended family, which was about 15 years ago, that got leukemia. A child 12 years old had to go through incredible suffering and pain, chemical treatment, and injections in his spine. This person had never done anything. They were brought up to eat healthy food. They were brought up to be good to other people. With all due respect, a two year old kid can get cancer and get a heart condition. They have never done anything to anybody. Now I am getting very angry about this obviously. Where is the justice in this? Where is the lesson? What is being set straight with a little innocent kid like this suffering? What is being set straight? What did they do before? They weren’t even around before. They were just brand new practically in the world. I am getting carried away. It is such a serious churning thing. We are all suffering with pain in some way or another, so it is so universal.
RABBI JACOBSON: I have no answer for you. That is why I spend a half an hour of this show telling you that. I have no answer to that question. As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that the child may have done nothing. I am not even looking to find something that the child did. So there is an element of mystery. It is not a question of tit for tat.
Let’s talk about it for a moment in a more detached way, if I may. In an attached way, I would tell you I don’t have an answer — to hold that child. We have the strength in our own inner good. We can’t give up. And that child cannot see us being that way. It is true, because the child needs the strength to forge ahead. People have gotten stronger through the losses of life. I am not suggesting anyone should have that, G-d forbid, but you can see that. You see others that have been so broken, so to speak, that the tragedy continues to the second and third generation.
MIKE: There is something that we don’t understand that is being corrected somewhere.
RABBI JACOBSON: But here is the point. The mere fact that there can be such a thing, that an innocent child like this 12 year old can suffer from leukemia or, for that matter, other people anywhere suffer in a way that seeming is so unfair to them and to their parents and to their families and I don’t minimize. That is why I said that the greatest people challenged
G-d with that.
The mere fact that things like that can exist shows that the system is not in sync. Let’s put it this way and I will use Kabalistic language: spirit and matter are not one seamless equilibrium. It is no different than, as I said, an infection that attacks the body. The body may not be at fault. The heart may not be at fault, but it may affect the heart. We have to get rid of that infection.
So in a strange way, yes. Your behavior and my behavior sitting in this room may affect somewhere and someone. The question is: it is not fair. Why does it affect us? Because the human being and the human race in another mysterious way are interlinked with each other. When we say we are responsible for each other, that is not just a nice cute statement. It really means we are one great web. We are interlinked.
Today modern physics testifies to some type of mysterious super rational type of underlying unity. We are interlinked and our behavior does affect each other. No one can explain where it expresses itself. Why does the infection attack the liver and not the heart, or the leg and not the arm? We don’t understand that completely.
So if you speak on a very personal level, I would defer and say, “Hey look, we don’t have the answers to the questions. We don’t have answers to all the questions. We don’t always know why innocent people suffer. You have to hold their hand and soothe them. ‘I am here with you and I will cry with you.'”
If we can be somewhat detached and in someway step back, and I am leading to something with that, then you could look at things and study things and understand things. It is like at the moment of the crisis when the building is burning, you are not going to sit down and start talking about how to read fire preventive manuals. Then you have to get out of the building. When the motion strikes you and when you are in that type of paralyzed state, you are not going to sit down and discuss philosophy. “Why did G‑d do this?” Now a person needs strength. Be there with them. Cry with them. Scream with them. Yell. Whatever it may take.
But — and this is the key — interestingly, when Joseph, who is in the Bible, was asked, “What should we do?” They knew there would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. So Joseph came up with a brilliant idea, for which they immediately appointed him viceroy of Egypt, which sounds strange. What was the idea? He said, “Stockpile. Put away from the years of plenty. We will stock up the gain. That way we will have gain for the seven years of famine.” They said, “Brilliant. Brilliant. Make him president.”
This seems like simple logic, but here is the surprising element. It is very logical. But ask anyone about savings. Logically, I am going to put away every month $50. But why do we force them to withdraw it automatically from the account? Because the fact is when things are going well, psychologically we don’t think it is ever going to end. The same thing emotionally. When things are going well and we are living in joy, we don’t really remember the pain and we would like to believe it is never going to end, the party is not going to end. The wise people understand, not necessarily that the worst thing will happen, but they always reserve. As long as there is a person somewhere in pain, I can never be in complete joy.
It is interesting that those people that are a hundred percent consumed with their own joy, when, G-d forbid, tragedy strikes, then they are one hundred percent consumed by that.
The person who remembers the pain of another person when they are happy, will remember the joy of another person when they are sad. It is a balance. It is how you see life. When you are totally consumed with your own state of mind and state of being, then that consumption can work both ways.
So what Joseph’s brilliance was — and this is a suggestion to all of us — of the many of us who are 40 or 50 years old, who hasn’t suffered some loss in their life in different ways? It may be in divorce, or it may be the loss of a close one, or it may be an illness. It is critical in the years of plenty to stockpile. Which means, if you want to understand G-d when you are in pain, you had better understand G-d when you are in joy. Because then it is easier as you build up you arsenal, so to speak, it is a certain type of understanding of life. You realize life is not just a little party with things going well. Because if you think it is that, when things don’t go well ..
MIKE: You have no resources?
RABBI JACOBSON: Exactly. It is like if we diversify in investments, you need to diversify also in this. There is a story they tell. One of the Rebbes was arrested in 1927 by the Bolsheviks, and he refused to cooperate with them. Obviously they considered him arch enemy number one because of his perpetuating Judaism there. He refused to cooperate. So one of them came over and said to him, “Rebbe,” and pointed a pistol to his head, “this little object here has made many people cooperate.” The Rebbe replied very calmly, “This little toy can frighten someone what has one world and many gods, but not someone who has one G-d and many worlds.”
One world and many gods, means my material world and my success right now, the here and now, which we all know is temporary and transient. If you put all your eggs in one basket called “materialism,” and you will see what happens when materialism wanes. But if you can diversify you realize you have many worlds. I have a world of mind, and a world of heart, a world of intellect, a world of psychology, of subconscious, a world of love, a world of children, a world of altruism, and a world of spirituality of G-dliness. You have a lot to rely on when one part may be taken away from you. That is not an answer, but it is what do you do about it? How do you forge ahead? The journey of life is complicated.
You and I may resolve all the issues here, Mike, tonight, but people will still be in pain tonight. I do think that in a cosmic way we all have an affect. It is like a wave affect. They say the butterfly affect. A butterfly flutters its wings some where in Kansas City, and there is a typhoon in Singapore. I don’t know why they choose those cities, but that is what it is.
MIKE: This whole concept is reminiscent. We have talked before, and maybe we have talked off the air about this, there are a lot of Jews — and this is a subject for a whole other program obviously — who have drifted into Buddhism in the last 20 or 30 or 40 years. But there is a concept of Buddhism known as karma
that is very much like what you have been taking about. There is an idea that every single thing you say or do has an effect. Even if you can’t see it currently in your own life, it has an effect somewhere because everything is interrelated. I don’t know if that is the same kind of principle, but it sounds like it to me.
RABBI JACOBSON: You say mazel tov, which is a form of mazel which means from, like, a good star. There is a good energy. There are definitely times. Free will is never taken away from us, but we all go through life. We have to see life’s challenges as like riding the waves, where there are times that the energy is a better one time or a good energy, so to speak. It doesn’t mean that it is going to be good, but it means it is more auspicious. There is a propensity for or it is easier. There are times of celebration, and then there are times in the calendar where it is considered a time where there is a negative energy. Again, this does not mean that we have to be evil or wicked. There is no such thing in Jewish thought that has any force. But it is the season and there is a propensity or a challenge.
There is an interesting concept called the “spiral staircase.” In Yiddish a spiral staircase is called “shvindel-trep. “Shvindeltrep” means swindling steps. Steps that swindle. Why? Because when you walk up a regular staircase you see the designation right up ahead, but in a spiral staircase it is deceptive. As you walk and you face the other way at a 360 degree turn, but you are about to come to the top. Sometimes life is that way. You don’t see the designation, but you are going somewhere. And sometimes you have to turn with you entire back to the designation, and you do not realize that it is right there. The key is to see it through.
It is a mystery but it is also a very interesting type of dance. Of course, I must say that I wish all of the listeners, and ourselves as well, that we should only experience joy and not any pain and suffering.
But all of us will have at sometime a setback or two, it should be minimal, and see it as that type of challenge and see it as that spiral staircase. Not necessarily you will find an answer, but you will be able to see it through. That is the greatest lesson, if someone will see it through.
MIKE: I see that you are looking at a book here while you have been talking. Is this something that we can take some ..
RABBI JACOBSON: Yes. Because I was preparing for a practical suggestion at the end.
MIKE: Don’t send anybody away without a practical suggestion. We are not there exactly yet.
RABBI JACOBSON: But that is what I was looking at. I hope I wasn’t off topic reading one thing and saying another. It is hard to chew gum and do radio.
MIKE: I think it is a good answer. In an hour we are not going to solve the problem that has been plaguing people for as long as there have been human beings on earth.
Based on what you were saying tonight, I am not going to get into ancillary questions which were almost probably answered long ago during the course of this program. There is this book. Do you know of the book Catch 22 by Joseph Heller? This is like a technical thing. This has probably been answered already, but I am leading up to something and I will get to it real quick because we don’t have that much time left. He had a debate also about why does G‑d cause people pain in the book. He said to someone — and this is what you have said, and this is what I have heard, and this is what we all understand — pain, and any biologist who is assigned to a certain doctor and you have mentioned it yourself — pain is a way of showing us that something is really out of wack either in our biological system or in any kind of system.
So this guy says to the other one, “How come G-d didn’t put blue lights in our forehead that light up without any pain whatsoever? If G-d can create anything, if G-d is up there, if G-d made all of this and knows the beginning and the end of it all, why not have our hair stand up straight when we have liver cancer? Why not have a blue light go off when we have a spleen falling apart. Why does it have to hurt?” Has that question been answered already? It was just something that was left over.
RABBI JACOBSON: Is there an answer in the book Catch 22? Maybe that is why it is called Catch 22.
MIKE: It is interesting that you mentioned that, because, in fact, there is no answer. There is never an answer in that book. The answer is that there is no answer.
RABBI JACOBSON: The answer is there is no answer, and that answer is that life is more than answers. That life is more than just answers. I think from what I said earlier we probably could find a response to that. I wouldn’t say an answer to that, but a response to that. But you asked the same question about joy. Why shouldn’t we feel joy? Why not? Instead purple lights and green lights should go on.
MIKE: Then we would be cheated that way.
RABBI JACOBSON: So sensation is sensation. There is something to be said for actually feeling pleasure and not just seeing the red light go on. That there is pleasure in a blue light saying, “Hey, it is not pleasure.” I don’t know. Sensation is part of the human experience.
It is an interesting statement that requires its own topic: that G-d, himself, feels pain. What does that mean? The creator of it all could have done it any way. Some way he has bound himself to our experience.
King David writes in the Psalms, “I am with you in the pain.” It is not just a consolation, don’t think you are alone. There is something about it. There is something about G-d’s binding himself to our existence. That can be discussed.
MIKE: We are all the way down to, like, the last couple of minutes. I do want to have a couple of minutes here to mention the addresses again and to also thank a couple of people for tonight. Then maybe we can wind up.
Let’s re‑identify. You are listening to WEVD in New York, 1050 AM on you dial. This is Mike Feder. I here with Simon Jacobson. The show is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We have been attempting to take the first step down a 4,000 mile road of answering one profound question here tonight. We are going to go on for a long time answering these questions; and maybe we will never have the answers, like you said. Maybe we will just be ansking the questions, which is a good enough contribution.
RABBI JACOBSON: The Baal Shem Tov says for every question there is an answer, and for every answer there is another question.
MIKE: What I want to say again is that we do want all your questions and comments on this show. The number to call to do that is 1‑800‑3‑MEANING and that is 1‑800‑363‑2646. Also you can write to us at the Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, New York 11213, and E-mail: WisdomReb@AOL.com.
Before we go any further, we want to thank very much for helping us put this program on and bringing it to us all, Sharon Friedman and Weldon Turner and family. Thank you very much for helping us put this program in front of the listeners. An additional thanks also goes to Charles and Marti Yassky for the same thing.
We now have about two minutes at the most. If you have a practical suggestion after all of this abstract talk, I would be happy, believe me.
RABBI JACOBSON: So would I. Also speaking in the way of training, it is that you really have to put yourselves in those shoes.
The interesting thing is that there is a tradition that is going on now of 49 steps of personal refinement, you can say, that take pass between the Passover and Shavuian holiday.
Essentially, it is this principle that I mentioned earlier. That cosmic effect is initiated by personal moves. You make a move, and it has an affect on the entire universe in some way.
So in a way of understanding or coming to some type of peace with G-d’s mysterious ways in life is sometimes coming to peace with your own mysterious ways. It is interesting these 49 days are 7 weeks, and we are now in the second week period which deals with the issues of discipline. In Hebrew and in Kabalistic language it is called the gevura.
Gevura is how we discipline each other or how we discipline our own energies or channel them, and it is interestingly equated with G‑d’s disciplining which often takes on the shape which may appear to be pain. Because discipline when seen on its own in that context may appear to be just a negative energy.
Part of the exercises that I put together in this little book called Forty-Nine Steps to Counting the Omer is precisely how one opens those channels.
I want to suggest an exercise. Look at your discipline and even the discipline of your children, sometimes the harshness that we have and the severity, and try to recognize that it should be driven by love and by compassion and not by discipline itself. When we behave that way, G-d in turn — medda kenegged medda is the expression, tit for tat — behaves in kind. So look at people that you may have hurt and try to be compassionate to them.
MIKE: Thank you very much. It is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, and we will be back next week. Thank you very much.
This transcript is In Honor of Dinah Borenstein. Dedicated by Devorah bas Sarah and Boruch ben Ethel. May they be abundantly blessed in the merit of all those reading and being inspired by these words