Sunday, July 22, 2018

There They Blow!

Iyov is my favorite book of Tanach (and I am grateful that it may be studied in Tisha B'Av). It is fascinating, disturbing, challenging, subversive, profound, and it includes the most extensive discussion of wild animals of any book in Tanach!

This past Shabbos, in Netanya, I gave a shiur on Iyov vs. Moby Dick, which I will also be speaking about this coming Shabbos at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. Now, you might be thinking, what does Iyov have to with Moby Dick? In fact, God's speech to Iyov from the whirlwind culminates in an extensive discussion about whales, and Melville actually wrote Moby Dick as a modern repackaging of the Book of Job.

Curiously, this morning I received an email which directly related to one of the themes of my shiur. A reader wrote to tell me about an unfortunate illness from which they are suffering, which has seriously harmed one of their senses. Even more upsettingly, friends are telling him that it must surely be a Divine sign for his having sinned with that sense. The person wanted my help in knowing what to respond.

The answer is that this persons "friends" are doing exactly what Iyov's friends did - and it is something for which God castigates them.

When Iyov's friends first heard of his terrible suffering and went to visit him, they first sat in silence with him for a week. That was the right thing to do, the correct way to show empathy, and they are praised for it.

After that, they went horribly wrong.

When Iyov starts wailing that he is a good person, and he didn't do anything to deserve such suffering, his friends switch from empathizing to making firm theological declarations. They say that he must have sinned, and that's why these things happened to him. God is Just; hence, Iyov must have deserved this suffering.

Sounds like a very pious speech. And yet when God finally speaks from out of the whirlwind, he declares that Iyov's friends were spouting a lot of hot air, and He is furious with them. It's not just that it's utterly insensitive. It's that it's actually theologically incorrect. Iyov had not sinned. Bad things really do happen to good people. It's not that they have secretly sinned, or (as Yosef Mizrachi would say) because they sinned in a previous incarnation. When God appears to Iyov, he does not present any such justifications.

It is true in Jewish theology that suffering might be inflicted as a result of sin. And there might be people - prophets - who can pinpoint which sins caused it. But there is also suffering that takes place without the person having done anything to deserve it. Since that is the case, then to suggest to a suffering person that his sins brought it on is wrong and a sin of ona'as devarim. The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b explicitly makes that point, stating that when dealing with a suffering person, it is wrong to adopt the approach that Iyov's friends took.

But if suffering does not necessarily happen as a result of sin, then what is the reason for it? The unfortunate answer is that we don't know. Even Moshe Rabbeinu didn't find out the answer. God's speech to Iyov does not give the answer - instead, it is about how to relate to a universe in which the answer is unknowable. But better no answer than the wrong answer, even (and perhaps especially) if it is one inspired by religious zeal.

Captain Ahab was also a man who was obsessed with his spiritual certainties and his holy crusade. He did not care about the price that it would exact on his crew. Ultimately, in his sacred zeal, he ended destroying everyone around him - including himself.

It is not our place to understand the great mysteries of the universe. And when dealing with those who suffer from the turbulent storms that the universe - and God - sometimes throw at us, it is wrong, sinful, and heretical to claim to know God's reasons. Our job is to simply reflect upon how the universe is too vast and grand an existence for us to ever fathom, and to show friendship and support to those sailing through life with us.


See too this post: Theodicy and Idiocy

On another note - for details about the Biblical Museum of Natural History's forthcoming feasts in Israel and Teaneck, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast

41 comments:

  1. Your words have consoled me in a time of personal suffering due to complex family issues.

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    1. All the best, Meir. You are part of a larger group that cares.

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  2. Why was this posted on Tisha Bav? Is Moby Dick really your Tisha Bav reading?

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    1. It’s an insight into Iyov.

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    2. A good example of sinat Chinam

      Here let me help you:
      Iyov is my favorite book of Tanach (and I am grateful that it may be studied in Tisha B'Av)...

      Now, you might be thinking, what does Iyov have to with Moby Dick? In fact, God's speech to Iyov from the whirlwind culminates in an extensive discussion about whales, and Melville actually wrote Moby Dick as a modern repackaging of the Book of Job.

      Curiously, this morning I received an email which directly related to one of the themes of my shiur.

      And then the rest of Rav Slifkin's article is a shiur on Iyov, something we may learn of Tisha B'av.

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  3. For accuracy's sake, it is a machlokes in the Gemoro if Moshe Rabbeinu knew the answer or not.

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  4. What about the Gemara (Berachos) where the sages told Rav Huna to examine his deeds when his wine turned to vinegar?

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    1. Tosfos says that they knew what he had done and they said it respectfully

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  5. this is only an issue for someone such as iyov who can honestly say that he has never sinned (to the extent that he could argue that his mitzvot were completely leshem shamayim, with no personal interest involved).
    we on the other hand, can be confident that we have sinned, so indeed it behooves us to search for our own shortcomings when suffering befalls us.

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    1. Of course we should do OUR OWN Cheshbon HaNefesh (Cheshbonei HaNefesh? Cheshbon Nefashim?) the problem is when someone else tries to do YOURS.

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    2. it wasn't clear in the story whether they imposed Cheshbon HaNefesh on the person or the person was reaching out for something ....

      Do the naysayers feel that the suggestion of guilt is not only wrong because it is insensitive to the person in pain, but also because they believe, for reasons known to them, that guilt can definitely be ruled out as a reason ... ?

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  6. "illness from which they are suffering"
    Tell your friend to get , You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, by Joe Dispenza

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  7. Obligatory:

    https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/WATCH-Stone-falls-out-of-Western-Wall-above-egalitarian-prayer-platform-563176

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    1. "MK Yehudah Glick called it a 'very frightening incident,' and said he does not understand 'what God means [to convey].' " -- It is proper that he said he doesn't understand, but is it already saying too much to imply he seems to know that God is trying to convey *something*? Or perhaps that is davka a good thing to say (?)

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  8. Iyov is also my favorite book of TaNaKH. But I disagree with you about God's speech. "How to relate to a universe in which the answer is unknowable" is the theme of Elihu's monologue. God doesn't actually answer. He just bombards Iyov with a series of questions. And IMHO God doesn't ask questions that in principle you can't know the answer to.

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  9. was he not following in the path of Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sala the Pious

    https://www.halakhah.com/berakoth/berakoth_5.html

    Once four hundred jars of wine belonging to R. Huna turned sour. Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sala the Pious, and the other scholars (some say: R. Adda b. Ahaba and the other scholars) went in to visit him and said to him: The master ought to examine his actions.18 He said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes? They replied: Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of punishing without justice? — He said to them: If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out. They replied: We have heard that the master does not give his tenant his [lawful share in the] vine twigs. He replied: Does he leave me any? He steals them all! They said to him: That is exactly what the proverb says:19 If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!20 He said to them: I pledge myself to give it to him [in the future]. Some report that thereupon the vinegar became wine again; others that the vinegar went up so high that it was sold for the same price as wine.

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  10. Turning vinegar into wine is a better miracle than water into wine....

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  11. Since you brought it up, I think it is important to note that Ramban davka thinks Elihu told Iyov that the reason for his suffering is what he did in a previous gilgul.

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  12. The substance of this post may be Rational Judaism, but it is not Orthodox Judaism. The entire history of the latter - from the Prophets, to the Sages, to the Rishonim, to the Achronim - consist of attempts to attribute tragedy to this failing or that. The Rambam, in fact, champion of Rationalsits everywhere, explicitly says that is one NOT to dismiss tragedy as just an unknowable part of life, and IS to use tragedy as a means to repent. That means looking for failings to repent over, whether because we killed the prophet Zecharia or bc we talked too much in Shul or bc we failed to make the blessing before studying.

    This is all very strange to Rationalist thinkers (myself very much included.) Sometimes I too, want to shake my head or worse at what appears, to me, as idiocy. I too, think of the Book of Job, which I have written commentary on, and wonder why the attitude it espouses never took hold among the populace. I have my theories. But bottom line is, those who posit reasons for tragedy are more authentic bearers of practicing Jewish tradition than those who would not.

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    1. The entire history of the latter - from the Prophets, to the Sages, to the Rishonim, to the Achronim - ...

      And if I may add, Rav Teichtal and the SR.

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    2. DF--
      You should read Rambam's early work, Ma'amar Kiddush Hashem.
      It is a good example of his strong opposition and moral indignance in the face of rabbinical authorities (and one in particular, whom he does not name) who judge people who have suffered at the hands of oppresive theocratic regimes. You could reduce it to a "limmud zchut" that he is making, restoring the dignity of Jews in very difficult situations, so that they can help themselves. But there is also a very strong stand against what you quoted the Rambam's position to be (presumably in Mishnah Torah?), that we should davka diagnose suffering Jews and prescribe to them.

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    3. To individual others or to failings of their own society? There is a big difference.

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  13. The end of the piece has the word "maybe" too few times for it to be clear to people that the first possibility, that guilt caused the suffering, isn't being marginalized, but remains a valid, and hence serious, possibility.

    But then again, lying is sometimes permitted in the interest of catharsis.

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  14. Hanistarot l'Hashem Elokeinu v'haniglaot lanu u l'vaneinu ad olam. The important part of that ma'amer is not what we can't know but what we can! The point is that which we CAN know, we MAY know. what a brachah!

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  15. "It is true in Jewish theology that suffering might be inflicted as a result of sin. And there might be people - prophets - who can pinpoint which sins caused it. But there is also suffering that takes place without the person having done anything to deserve it."

    The Rambam, for one, disagrees (Guide 3:17).

    ואנו מאמינים שכּל המצבים האנושיים האלה הם בהתאם למה שכּל אדם ואדם ראוי לו. והוא נעלה מלעשׂות עוול. הוא איננו מעניש אלא את מי מבינינו שראוי לעונש. זה מה שתורת משה רבנו אומרת במפורש, שהכול בהתאם למה שכּל אדם ואדם ראוי לו. על-פי דעה זאת התנהלו דברי המון חכמינו, שמוצא אתה אותם אומרים ברורות: אין מיתה בלא חטא ולא ייסורין בלא עוון. הם אמרו: במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו

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    1. See Shem Tov:
      מה שאמר הרב הוא כפי המפורסם מהחכמים וכפי דרשם להמון, אבל באמיתות יש מיתה בלא חטא ויש יסורין בלי עון, ואולי אמר הרב זה מהם כפי המפורסם ממאמריהם לא כפי האמתית.

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    2. The Rambam is saying that God will not act unjustly, not that every bad thing that happens is a punishment from God. Later in the Guide, he offers that evil can happen without punishment even to a righteous person when he removes his attention from God and loses his degree of Providence so that he becomes subject to natural forces. The Ran def agrees with that and the Ramban seems to as well in some places.

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    3. The Rambam explicitly argues against the view that there are יסורין של אהבה without sin

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    4. It does not seem that the Rambam would agree to the statement "there is also suffering that takes place without the person having done anything to deserve it."

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    5. You are confusing suffering and punishment. Not all suffering is punishment. Sometimes it it because people do evil to others.

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    6. Here he makes it quite explicit as an answer for Tzadik V'ra Lo:

      "An excellent idea presents itself here to me, which may serve to remove many doubts, and may help to solve many difficult problems in metaphysics. We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine Providence departs from them.
      ...
      An excellent idea presents itself here to me, which may serve to remove many doubts, and may help to solve many difficult problems in metaphysics. We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine Providence departs from them."

      http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp187.htm

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    7. Oops didn't paste in the other part properly...

      Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect and pious man: and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind. Such being the case, the great difficulty is removed that led philosophers to assert that Providence does not extend to every individual, and that man is like any other living being in this respect, viz., the argument based on the fact that good and pious men are afflicted with great evils. We have thus explained this difficult question even in accordance with the philosophers' own principles. Divine Providence is constantly watching over those who have obtained that blessing which is prepared for those who endeavour to obtain it. If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains a knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God, and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him; for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents. Hence it may occur that the perfect man is at times not happy, whilst no evil befalls those who are imperfect; in these cases what happens to them is due to chance. This principle I find also expressed in the Law. Comp. "And I will hide my face them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them: so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?" (Deut. xxxi. 17). It is clear that we ourselves are the cause of this hiding of the face, and that the screen that separates us from God is of our own creation. This is the meaning of the words: "And I will surely hide my face in that day, for all the evils which they shall have wrought" (ibid. ver. 18). There is undoubtedly no difference in this regard between one single person and a whole community. It is now clearly established that the cause of our being exposed to chance, and abandoned to destruction like cattle, is to be found in our separation from God. Those who have their God dwelling in their hearts, are not touched by any evil whatever.

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  16. The gemara in Shabbos 55b explicitly rejects that statement of R' Ami with a tiyuvta.

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  17. "...this is only an issue for someone such as iyov who can honestly say that he has never sinned..."

    Iyov's friends were also on a high spiritual level, to the extent that it was wrong for them to ascribe his suffering to sins. We, on the other hand, who are on a very low spiritual level, are obligated to ascribe everyone's suffering to their sins.

    Checkmate.

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  18. Nevertheless, we are supposed to learn something spiritually useful from events that happen to us or around us, whether or not we can fully grasp their meaning. It's best to focus on how you need to improve, not how the other person needs to improve.

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  19. If anyone claims clarity to what sins (or sins in general) have led to misfortune then they should be ready to ascribe what mitzvot or other actions have lead to particularly favorable circumstances.

    The Mishna (Avot) describes our inability to understand the suffering of the righteous or the prosperity of the wicked. Furthermore we cannot generally weigh the relative values of mitzvot nor the spiritual cost of sins.

    Man has been looking for explanations from the beginning of time.
    First of all we are hard wired to look for order. Studies with split brain patients reveal how part of brain rationalizes and confablulates data to make sense of the world around us. This activity occurs in all of us in the background- connecting the dots and making conclusions. It allows us to get out of bed each day. Secondly we commonly suffer from a bias where we confuse oorelation with causation. Post hoc thinking is common and it is easier to make assumptions that support what we want to be true.
    If anyone out there can claim with certainty that they "know" exactly how God works- please contact me. Where I live there is this powerball lottery and ........

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    1. My guess would be that the sinner knows full well what the sin is, and it's no one else's business.
      Which might be why Iyov's friends were just supposed to offer comfort in the face of suffering.
      If the sinner is a good person they will feel bad for what they did and accept the punishment. If not, then I doubt that telling them what they did wrong will make much of a difference.

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  20. The idea of treating Iyuv (Job) as a morality play about undeserved suffering appear to be missing an important aspect. Of course, Iyuv suffers 'undeservedly' - as his story is presented. His suffering is not punishment,it is a test and challenge of his relationship to the Divine. Iyuv is presented as the prototypical God-fearing man. He serves GOD out of fear of punishment to himself or his family. More is expected of him, and a challenge is presented. What if all his fears come about, will he still be connected to the Divine? Iyuv fails the test, but his erstwhile judgmental friends are the ones who are the subject of Divine anger. The point of this morality play is that the ideal divine service is out of love of - not fear.

    While we can not properly understand the issue of divine benevolence in the context of a world filled with suffering, one aspect has ample biblical examples. Suffering can be a deliberate divine challenge to those who are deemed worthy. That intent rather than punishment or even divine neglect should be the outlook of those close to the afflicted - certainly not like Iyuv's 'friends'.

    Y. Aharon

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  21. I believe you have to recognize that the opinion that we suffer because of previous gilgulim should be attributed to the Ramban in Shaar Hagemul. Although Mizrachi should be exposed for what he is, his basic premise has precedent in Jewish thought. We have to honestly admit that we find the Rambam's approach more consistent with our philosophy in contrast to the Ramban and not just dismiss it as the nonsense of some modern huckster. Often, our political correctness and fear of being called an apikorus makes us avoid the fact that many of us find the opinions of chazal and rishonim foreign to our modern sensibilities and our wishful approach to the true beliefs of Judaism.

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