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Why do bad things happen?

אמר אביי לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שחללו בה את השבת…
אמר ר’ אבהו לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביטלו ק”ש שחרית וערבית…
אמר רב המנונא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביטלו בה תינוקות של בית רבן…
אמר עולא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא מפני שלא היה להם בושת פנים זה מזה…
אמר ר’ יצחק לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שהושוו קטן וגדול…
אמר רב עמרם בריה דר”ש בר אבא א”ר שמעון בר אבא א”ר חנינא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שלא הוכיחו זה את זה…
א”ר יהודה לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביזו בה ת”ח…
ואמר רבא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שפסקו ממנה אנשי אמנה…

Abayei said: Jerusalem would not have been destroyed but for they desecrated Shabbos in it…
Rav Avohu said: Jerusalem would not have been destroyed but for their neglecting reciting Shema morning and evening…
Rav Hamnuna said: … in it they neglected [the teaching of] children in their rabbis’ schools…
Ula sai: … they had no embarrassment, one of the other…
Rav Yitzchaq said: … they equated the small [ie the unaccomplished] and the great…
Rav Amram the son of Rabbi Shim’on bar Abba said that [his father] Rabbi Shim’on bar Abba said that Rabbi Chanina said: … they didn’t give tokhachah one to the other
Rav Yehudah said: … in it, they embarassed sages…
Rava said: … there ceased to be honest people in it…

Eight different answers (although there is strong similarity between not treating those who are great with the proper respect and embarrassing sages), each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.

So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?

אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא: אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו… פשפש ולא מצא, יתלה בבטול תורה….  ואם תלה ולא מצא, בידוע שיסורין של אהבה הם….

Rava said, and some posit [it was] Rav Chisda:

If a person sees that suffering is coming to him, he should inspect his deeds…. If he inspected and didn’t find [a flaw in his deeds], he shall attribute [the suffering] to wasting Torah [ie by wasting time from immersion in it]…. And if he [tried] to attribute it [thus] and didn’t find [any time wasted that could have been spent on Torah], it is known that they are tribulations of love….

– Berakhos 5a

(More on this gemara, here. And the next piece is from here.)

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Qol 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 halachah, 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.

The gemara in Berakhos calls upon us to inspect our deeds, to take a lesson from the event. Hashem shakes us out of our routines, gives us motivation to leave the status quo, and we are obligated to channel it into abandoning a sin or doing some mitzvah we’re neglecting. This is very different different than finding the cause of a tragic event.

With this idea in mind, we must take the various amoraim‘s statements in Shabbos as exhortations, not actual statements about the past.  Each tries to find some element of the pre-destruction generation that was being echoed in their and their followers’ lives. Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.

Thus, the loss of one of our greatest poseqim must be utilized as inspiration for our own change. One can’t simple say that it is normal for 102 year olds to pass away. That would be a cause, but we aren’t seeking causes, we’re seeking lessons. (Besides, even knowing the physical cause would only explain how Hashem did something, not why.) The emotions the event generates can motivate, and it’s only the callous who would waste such opportunity.

When Jews die in a bus bombing in Bulgaria, it is irrelevent which mitzvos they did or didn’t keep. Nor what some other observant community, nor the Israeli government is doing wrong. The gemara says yefashpeish bema’asav, each person takes that moment to inspect their own deeds. And each of us might find very different answers to that question, as did the eight amoraim in our gemara.

And your thoughts...?

  1. Alternatively, we can say that events have multiple causes, some of which may be intelligible to us, and that the variety of explanations we collectively develop on reflection testifies to this. The sum total of all the explanations of an event (taking into account that some may contradict each other) adds to our knowledge of that event even though that knowledge is still incomplete.

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