The deepest existential question we all ask is, if G-d created us and He is all good, then why is there pain and suffering? We are born without having chosen it and forced into a life that contains difficulties and setbacks that are unwanted and undeserved, and that makes it cruel.
Some of us ask the question straight up, and some of us know that the question is there but never find the words to ask it. Either way, until a person resolves it, he will not be at peace with G-d. He will fight Him or deny Him or suffer in silence, but peace he will not have. People used to ask the question why bad things happen to good people. We’ve either become oblivious to bad people or we really are all basically good people, so our question is why do bad things happen to people, period? We all suffer. Some more, some much more, but we all do. Where is the all-good G-d?
Personally I try to live on two levels.
I try to live on the level of faith. My teacher is Rebbe Akiva: “Everything the Merciful One does is for the good.” It’s all good. Most of the time I cannot grasp how, but my faith calms me. I’m at peace with G-d — my loving Father in heaven is in charge, it is coming from Him, it’s all good.
This isn’t a blind leap of faith at all. It makes good sense. G-d has a plan way beyond what I can understand, and pain and suffering are a part of it. Everything, including the pain, is all leading up to something so good and worthwhile, which will make it all worthwhile.
I also try to live on the level of understanding. I toss and turn trying to understand and explain my pain, others pain, all pain.
The most satisfactory answer I have come up with is this, and no doubt it is incomplete. G-d is all good, man is not. At least he has the choice not to be. G-d made us with free choice. There are two paths in front of us, and we decide which path to follow. The choices we make are real, they have real consequences.
For every choice there is a consequence and it is the consequence that defines the choice. A good choice is the one that leads down the path of good and the bad to bad. The world is a perfect giant matrix that contains every possible choice and its corresponding consequence. There is no injustice whatsoever, it’s perfectly fair.
The Torah is the matrix. In this week’s parshah, we have a perfect example: “You shall perform My decrees, and observe My ordinances and perform them; then you shall dwell securely on the land.”
Adam, the father of mankind, was born into a world of no pain. He had one choice. He made a terribly badchoice and went down the path of pain and suffering for himself and his children. We are where we are because of the millions of decisions made before us and those we have made on our own. Our mission is to take the path that leads us back to a place in G-d’s matrix, where there is no more pain. The pain we suffer is either because we keep on making choices that lead us that way or, even if we make choices that lead us in the right direction, we are still in the part of the matrix that has pain in almost every part of it.
If you can identify a bad choice that explains the bad consequence you experience, you are fortunate; otherwise you must try your best to identify an aspect of character or behavior where the pain challenges you as a message about where you need to improve.
For now, pain and suffering are part of our reality, but it need not be this way. We have the choice.
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.