Friday, March 11, 2011

Is Suffering a Punishment for Sins?

Demonstrators at military funerals shout slogans and carry placards reading, “G-d Hates You,” blaming military deaths on American moral corruption.  In 2005, a Muslim cleric in Indonesia said the tsunami that 170,000 was a result of women not wearing headscarves.  In the 1980s a rabbi in Israel said the Holocaust was caused by people eating non-kosher food.   What are we to make of this?  Certainly, each person should examine his own deeds and ask, “Am I doing everything I can to tilt the balance of the world to good?”  But is suffering a punishment for sins? 
The Bible tells us of Job, who fathered a warm and loving family that treated each other with kindness and brotherhood.  In spite of this blessing – and his considerable wealth – Job was truly humble, thankful to G-d for these gifts, understanding that he had done nothing to “earn” them.  But one day he lost his entire fortune.  In a daze, he received further bad news - his house had collapsed, killing all his children.  Day after day, Job was struck with illness, pain, emotional suffering.  Stunned, he could not understand why G-d – Who is merciful and just – was destroying his life.  Job’s friends rallied around.  Trying to help, they suggested that he must have done something wrong.  If he would just fix that, then all would be right.  But Job knew he hadn’t done anything wrong; his friends’ continued insistence just added salt to the wound that was his life.
Between 1939 and 1942, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, wrote Aish Kodesh, discourses on the weekly Torah portion.  In the earlier discourses, the Rebbe turns his lens on the Jewish people, examining them for some fault.  But as the inferno of the Holocaust rages hotter, he comes to a “radical” conclusion.  From deep in the Warsaw Ghetto he understands that his fate, and that of the nation, is a mystery that is concealed “beyond the partition.”  G-d has hidden His face from His people. The Rebbe goes on to say that when in pain, a person must turn to G-d.  The weeping and pain a person undergoes by himself, alone, may have the effect of breaking him and bringing him down so that he becomes incapable of doing anything. But the weeping a person does together with G-d strengthens him. He weeps, and is strengthened; he is broken, but finds courage...

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, would later state, "There are things that happen in the world that do not happen as a punishment for sins, but rather as a result of a Divine decree that does not have any rationale in the wisdom and intellect of Torah…” The Rebbe goes on to say that in such cases, it is not our job to justify G-d’s acts – only He can do that.  Our job is to look with a “good eye” at those around us, and in all ways, seek to bring merit to our nation and to the world.  Shabbat Shalom.


  1. When my friend was diagnosed with cancer, another friend said, "everything happens for a reason."

    That made no sense to me. How could there be any good reason for a young mother to get cancer?

    I still don't understand, but these posts about suffering have invited me to keep thinking about it. Maybe I'll understand more, little by little.


  2. I agree with you that "everything happens for a reason," is not a helpful comment - and may even be painful.
    It can be easy to rationalize suffering when it's someone else's, but harder when it's our own. (see here:
    Ultimately, though, it's not our job to justify G-d's actions -- He can do that himself. Our job is to cry out to Him, to challenge Him, and to do something to change things.
    Our own suffering should prompt us to examine our life with an eye toward improvement, but not to just sit back and passively accept sorrow and suffering.