Coronavirus has ravaged the world’s population and brought the rest of us to a complete standstill. But why-- why do tragedies like this happen? We can look at this week’s double Torah portion, called Tazria-Metzora, through a deep theological lens— to approach one of the most difficult quandaries that occupies the hearts and minds of religious people everywhere-- why do bad things happen in the world? And, more specifically, what is at the root of the terrible afflictions people suffer?
The Torah portion Metzora features people who suffer. They have become known as “metzora” (someone who is diseased). The rabbis say that they are afflicted with this disease when they commit the sin of “motzi shem ra” (bringing forth a bad name onto someone else). The sages make this link for two reasons:
1: the similarities in the sounds of metzora and motzi shem ra suggest that one would get metzora from engaging in motzi shem ra, and
2: we read in the book of Numbers that Miriam is afflicted with skin disease after she is noted to have gossiped to Aaron about her other brother’s (Moses’) wife.
Essentially, the rabbis say that when one gossips about another, they, in turn, are cursed with skin disease.
On the surface, this might seem like a simple and plainly fair consequence of unsavory behavior. But, when one spins out the concept further, one realizes that it makes the suggestion implicitly that illness is punishment against the ill.
The problem of that concept is that we have all known people who have been afflicted with diabetes, heart disease, cancer and now coronavirus-- are we to assume that their afflictions were punishment for immoral behavior? Viscerally, we know that it cannot be the case. Of course not. It screams of the kind of close-minded, fundamentalist theology that would argue that AIDS was a punishment for allowing homosexuality in because they engaged in immoral homosexual activity- a clearly reviling assertion.
Plus, even if one were to entertain the link between homosexuality and immorality, it does not account for the fact that many children-- innocent simply because they were too young to have committed any great sin-- contracted AIDS as well. We may remember how the death of Ryan White, may his memory be for a blessing, was instrumental in revealing the fallacy of the argument that AIDS was punishment for sexual immorality.
So, why then, does pain and plague and disease afflict people regardless of their moral character? Or, as Rabbi Yannai noted 1800 years ago in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:15):
“אין בידינו לא משלוות רשעים, ואף לא מייסורי צדיקים.” “There are no explanations why the evil have good come to them while the righteous are tormented.”
This points to the agony of this reality in the world: that there appears to be no rhyme or reason to suffering in the world.
But this suggestion raises so many questions about the power of God, or the goodness of God, or the justice of God-- if God is omnipotent, good and righteous, why do the righteous suffer?
Weren’t we promised in the Ve’ahavta blessing that if we are good, rain and consequently our crops will be plentiful? Aren’t we guaranteed a spot in the Book of Life, during the days of awe, if we morally cleanse ourselves?
So, why does evil exist? And why do the innocent suffer? The week after next, we will once again recount the Israelites’ hardships in Egypt-- are we to believe that our entire people was so terrible that we ALL merited a life of slavery? This Tuesday night, is Yom HaShaoh/ Holocaust Remembrance Day— are we to believe that somehow the Jews in Europe somehow brought the Holocaust upon ourselves? The problem with these questions and this dilemma is the sickening thought that we know some people who would believe that the answer to these practically heretical questions is “yes.”
Thank God for the progressive communities that do not see AIDS or Coronavirus or any other affliction as one of God’s consequences for the sufferer. We do not believe that this is why evil exists. But, then are we to believe that Harold Kushner, author of the bestselling book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” was right-- that bad things just happen? (As the bumper sticker would suggest).
Recently, I read an excerpt from a book called, Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner which took issue with the assertion that bad things just happen. The article went so far as to call the Conservative Rabbi Kushner’s ideology “un-Jewish” and suggested that we ought not give up on the idea that God is in control. The article instead insisted that the idea of Divine Providence should direct us to a theology that everything that happens has a purpose.
So, which is it-- does evil just happen? Or does evil happen for a purpose that we have yet to understand? Will we ever know the answer? Different people find strength in different answers.
At the end of the day, we don’t know why bad things happen. I believe it is one of the great mysteries for a reason. Because we are meant not to focus on why bad things happen, but instead to put at the center our ability to help lessen the pain. Just look to the medical care providers and the teachers and the garbage collectors and the bus drivers and the grocery workers and so many others who are making a positive difference. We each can care for one another even simply by staying home. The point is that perhaps we don’t know where evil comes from, but we know good when we see it and we know how to increase the good.
May we all reach out to community in our times of need and find people who would help us meet any evil we experience with the wherewithal to alleviate the pain of evil by meeting it with overflowing love. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.