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Home » Chayei Sara, The Jewish Faith

Chayei Sarah: Faith and Suffering

Submitted by on November 16, 2008 – 2:08 amNo Comment | 1,718 views

Does Faith Leave Room for Grief?

I was once approached by a young lady whose friend’s mother had recently died. She wanted to commiserate and cry, but was concerned that tears of grief would somehow compromise her perfect faith in G-d’s perfect benevolence. Does acknowledging the horror of a tragedy suggest that G-d, who allowed the tragedy to occur, is Himself horrible?

Faith and Trust

Our tradition teaches us to cultivate two sets of belief; trust and faith. When faced with potential tragedy we are required to pray to G-d and trust Him to protect us from harm.  When struck by actual tragedy we are enjoined to believe that tragedy serves a good cause. In the immortal words of Rabbi Akiva, “Everything G-d does is good” for the Almighty G-d is perfect in His benevolence.

Cultivating both sets of belief presents a problem. If we believe that all tragedies are perfectly good, why do we ask G-d to protect us from them? Furthermore, why do we trust G-d to protect us from tragedy and thus deny us the perfect goodness we would have accrued from it? Yet faith and trust are both imperative in the Jewish tradition. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

This is essentially the same question that the young lady asked.

The Paradox

Paradoxes are to be embraced, not resolved. They indicate levels of wisdom that transcend the human mind. We intuitively sense that both elements of the paradox are true, yet we are at a loss to explain it. This is not a bad thing; it is comforting to know that we are not able, and therefore not responsible, to explain everything – some things are beyond our understanding.

We don’t know that G-d is perfectly good, such knowledge transcends our understanding; we believe it. We cannot explain the benefit accrued to humanity by the death of a child or the suffering of the innocent. We believe that there is good in such suffering because on a higher plane everything that G-d does must be for the good. But we can never pretend to understand it. faith and suffering - innerstreamOn our level all suffering is horrible. No mother can rejoice at her child’s death believing it is for the best. Then again, every mother is comforted by her faith in a Supreme Being who will nurture her child and provide him with infinite goodness.

The horror and comfort go hand in hand; they don’t contradict each other. We cannot explain why this is so, but we know it to be so. Te deny our faith on account of our grief is to deny a portion of our soul. To deny our grief on account of our faith is to deny the essence of our humanity. G-d created us as we are and recognizes the limitations of human perception. He expects us to mourn our losses and grieve for our loved ones even as we believe in His Supreme Goodness. He expects us to cry out in horror and pain even as we accept that His decrees are just. (1)

G-d On Trial

The story is told of three rabbis who convened a Jewish court to put G-d on trial after the Holocaust. They found G-d guilty of injustice according to Torah law and then proceeded to join in the afternoon prayers.

 If G-d is guilty, to whom did they pray?

A judge must rule based on his perception and understanding of the case over which he presides. At the level of our perception, the death of Six Million was a horrible tragedy of which G-d was certainly guilty and we would be lying if we denied it. At the level of Divine perception, everything He does is perfectly righteous and we would be foolhardy if we tried to understand it. Though we can’t understand it, we still accept it – that’s what we call faith.

When Abraham lost his wife, Sara, he mourned over her and wept bitter tears. What happened to the spiritual warrior who had nearly slaughtered his son at G-d’s behest? Did the loss of his wife affect his faith in G-d’s perfect goodness? Not at all. (2) His enthusiasm to carry out G-d’s instructions resulted from his faith in G-d. His grief for his loved ones resulted from his love for his family. Both experiences are genuine. A paradox that we cannot and need not, explain. (3)

Footnotes

  1. This is further evidenced by the fact that after tragedy strikes and we accept the justice of G-d’s judgment we are still meant to pray for and trust in immediate relief. This is because tragedies should be seen in both lights; they are horrible and good at the same time.
  2. In fact, had he actually been made to slaughter his son, he would have grieved for his son too.
  3. This is also the resolution to the apparent contradiction between trust and faith that was raised earlier in the essay. We believe with perfect faith that our suffering is good, but because our experience of suffering is painful we pray to G-d (and trust Him) to spare us. Ultimately, it is our way of proclaiming that an omnipotent G-d can (and should) find a way to deliver the inherent goodness without causing suffering.
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