Explaining Tragedy

It seems to me, the overall question of theodicy and explaining why tragedy enters the lives of anyone but the most evil, can be addressed on two levels. Philosophically, the question is unanswerable. As I wrote a number of years ago (in “The Four Sons Encounter Tragedy“, under the wise son’s response:

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halakhah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

On the philosophical level, the question is unanswerable. This is the ultimate conclusion of the book of Iyov:

לח:א וַיַּֽעַן־יְהוָ֣ה אֶת־אִ֭יּוֹב מנהסערה (מִ֥ן ׀ הַסְּעָרָ֗ה)    וַיֹּאמַֽר׃
ב מִ֤י זֶ֨ה ׀ מַחְשִׁ֖יךְ עֵצָ֥ה בְמִלִּ֗ין    בְּֽלִי־דָֽעַת׃
ג אֱזָר־נָ֣א כְגֶ֣בֶר חֲלָצֶ֑יךָ    וְ֝אֶשְׁאָֽלְךָ֗ וְהֽוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
ד אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ    הַ֝גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃

38:1 Then Hashem responded to Job from out of the whirlwind, and said:
2 Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge?
3 Gird up please you loins like a man; for I will make demands of you, and you will acknowledge Me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell, if you have the understanding.

And yet on the Mussar level, tragedy provides opportunity for growth, shaking us from our rut, giving us new tools in our avodas Hashem, teaching lessons.

The fact that the two levels differ means a few things:

First, this kind of lesson-taking should not be confused with finding the cause of our suffering. It’s one thing to say that the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash involved much baseless and purposeless hatred (sin’as chinam), and therefore we should learn from it to love our fellow Jew. It is quite another, in fact, to say that we know the Mind of G-d, that we know for certainty that the fall of the Second Temple was a punishment for this one sin in particular.

In fact, every time we find the gemara discuss a tragedy and associate since with it consistently we find a huge variety of opinions. Whether it’s all the various sins associated with the fall of each of the First and Second Temples, the list of sins and middos flaws that are given in the discussion of tzara’as, or the numerous opinions about what the sin was that leads to Dasan  and Aviram’s death.

Another case is the gemara‘s discussion of why a city suffer a tragic fire (Shabbos 118b-120a). The list centers on the burning of Yerushalayim, but discussed in the context of fires in general. It includes: Shabbos desecration (Rav Yehudah berei deRav Shemu’el), neglecting Shema (Rav Avahu), stopping child education (Rav Hamnuna), a loss of shame (Ula), not treating important people with the respect they earned (Rav Yitzchaq), not rebuking each other (Rav Amram), and a loss of honesty (Rava). Two variants on the above: disgracing talmidei chakhamim (R’ Yehudah) and the city not having children learning from their rebbe (Reish Laqish and Ravina).

The gemara appears to be grappling with a problem that they know they won’t fully resolve. Perhaps each amora was finding the lesson that was most useful lesson for their community and its shortcomings.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef spoke to his followers about the fire in the Carmel, and as is usual when he says something controversial, Rav Ovadiah’s words were repeated and spun by the secular media. ROY cites the first opinion in the gemara — a city is afflicted with fire because of a lack of Shabbos observance. I presume Rav Ovadiah’s intent was that the people in the audience work on their own observance. However, in the hands of the media, it was made to sound like the chareidi rabbi (not 100% accurate for a Sepharadic leader) was blaming the tragedy on the seculars.

R’ Moshe Shternbuch, the head of the beis din of the Edah haChareidis, gave a talk on the lessons of the fire. It was summarized by R’ Daniel Yaakov Travis for an anglo chareidi paper — probably Hamodia, but I’m not sure. Then it was put on line by R’ Daniel Eidensohn (whose name might be a little familiar from the book advertisement at the top of his blog).

Interestingly, and in contrast to Rav Ovadiah Yosef, R’ Shternbuch finds an issue that the fire could help us fix, even without any conscious religious or theological analysis — hubris.

There is an Israeli Chanukah song “Mi Yimalel“, which twists a verse that says “Who can tell of the mighty acts of G-d” to “Who can tell of the mighty acts of Israel / Yes, in every generation the hero will arise, the redeemer of the people.” The timing of the fire was on a holiday many Israelis interpret as celebrating a military victory and Jewish might.

The fire taught us that Israel — or any of us — are not capable of responding to every problem. Rather, “ein lanu al mi lehisha’ein, ela al avinu shabashamayim.” (We have no one upon whom to rely, except on our Father in heaven.)

And in practice, Israel was made aware of its unpreparedness. The message of modesty is there even for the most anti-religious to imbibe.

So, he too ties the fire to a sin. The questions I would ask:

  1. Do you (like me) find this less annoying that R’ Ovadiah Yosef’s declaration?
  2. If so, is it because it’s a humanist value rather than a ritual that is being pointed to?
  3. And/or is it because the connection is logical, that he’s effectively spelling out why G-d would choose this tragedy to impress a lesson. Without the need for metaphysics?
  4. And/or was it because he is focusing on tragedy as teaching, rather than punishment. (Not that I think there is a difference between these ideas when speaking of G-d.)

Feel free to answer in the comments section, although my primary point is to get you to think out and realize how you relate to these issues.

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