The recent massacre at the synagogue in Har Nof, Israel, should not be easily forgotten, and for some people it cannot be.
One of the those who cannot easily forget is a friend of mine whose parents are both sole survivors of Shoah families, having been mere toddlers at the time, and who miraculously escaped the horrors.
This friend was deeply troubled this week, crying out about why, if God loves us Jews so much, he lets us suffer so . . . and the fact that these religious men were murdered in the midst of praying the holiest prayer of the daily liturgy, the Amidah, makes their seeming abandonment by God the more crushing.
There is nothing one can say that will make the pain go away, nor should there be. Some pains are not meant to vanish. They are too crushing, too deep, too horrid, and existentially, relationally, philosophically, or theologically significant. They are meant to remain. And contemplating such pains can ennoble and instruct us, even amidst the sorrow or terror, and even when we can find no answer for the questions we ask.
Why the innocent suffer is one of the oldest questions of self-aware humankind. Certainly, it looms large in the Bible. The issue of suffering appears in the Bible with Adam and Eve, banished from the Garden, their relationship to each other, to God, and to work forever complicated and changed, exiles from life as it was meant to be to life as it is. The suffering of the innocent is a subtheme of the story of Cain and his brother Abel. Abel is innocent—and religiously accepted by God. And yet his jealous brother rises up and kills him. We see here a foreshadowing of what happened at Har Nof.
Here at the very start of the Bible we meet issues which will be there until its last pages: issues of violence, and of the suffering and death of the innocent. What am I saying then? I am saying the dilemma is ancient and that one of the evidences of the weight of the Bible is that it takes suffering seriously. Indeed, the most extended theological investigation in the Bible is the suffering of the innocent as handled in the Book of Job.
Here are some thoughts to bear in mind on this issue, from the perspective of the worldview of the Bible and the religious culture of the Jewish people.
It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. . . . [that] the death of the righteous [is] an atonement for the sins of other men.. . . Jews nurtured this classic idea of death as an atonement, and this attitude toward their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile.
Wein quotes as well from an old and revered midrashic source:
Would the Holy One, Blessed ia He, dispense judgment without justice? We may say that he home God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation. . . .
The great Solomon Schechter [1847-1915], the Founder of Conservative Judaism, reminds us,
The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. Their atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of the righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 28a].
None of this makes the pain of suffering go away. In some ways, God is like someone who comes and sits shivah with us, that is, sitting silently and attentively with a mourner. There is nothing He can say that will make the pain go away, and he will not explain things to us, in fact, we might not understand if He did explain. But he is there, our companion, and as the Prophet Isaiah said of Israel, “b’chol tzratam lo tzar—in all their afflictions he was afflicted” (63:9).
And near the close of Torah we read “hanistarim l’Adoshem Elokenu, v’haniglot lanu ul’vanenu ad olam, la’asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot”—the secret things belong the the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children that we might do all matters of this Torah” (Dt. 29:28/29). This is a religious Jewish epistemology: there are things that only God knows, and there are things that we can know, which lead us to our responsibility to obey all that God requires of us.
The four remarkable, learned, and saintly men who were murdered at Har Nof lived and died in service to this truth and to this God. Whether we live or die, let is live likewise, trusting in the God who knows, who accompanies us, but who doesn’t always explain what we want explained. Yet he gives to us life and breath and everything. Even when that life is taken away, we should say like righteous Job, “HaShem gave, and HaShem took away: blessed be the Name of HaShem”
These four murdered men left behind 24 children, and their wives, grandchildren, family members and friends.
May Hashem comfort all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.