Suffering

QUESTION #2: Why do bad things happen to good people?

By Rabbi Tully Bryks

For an audio recording of a related topic, you can listen to my class on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

The basic answer to this question is that, without the aid of prophets, we can no longer know why any particular tragedy or suffering occurs. That being said, we do know of several possibilities. When something bad happens, we can try to apply some of the various possibilities and speculate as to which option applies to a particular case.

From a Jewish perspective, we believe that G-d is all-knowing,[1] all-powerful,[2] all-good[3] and completely and totally loves us.[4] While it would be easier to explain suffering by ignoring any one of these definitions (if G-d were not all-powerful, blame it on nature or the Devil; if G-d were not all-knowing, blame it on ignorance), it is quite comforting to know that suffering is not just “bad luck,” “random” or “coincidence.” Rather, it always falls into some sort of Divine plan.[5]

Here are some of the many possibilities:

1.     Everything that Happens is for the Best[6] – A person whose car broke down on the way to the World Trade Center on the morning Sep. 11, 2001 may have initially felt that G-d did not care about him or did not even exist. But an hour later, he would have realized that G-d had actually saved his life – that his apparent “suffering” really was for the best (this clearly would not address the question regarding those who did perish on that day). Even though we believe that everything that happens is for the best, we won’t always see the Divine plan the same day. It can sometimes take days, weeks, or even years. Often, a person won’t fully understand the big picture until after he dies or until the Messianic age, when he can see the world from G-d’s perspective.[7] At that point, he will truly understand how everything that happens is for the best. This approach does require some humility to recognize that we are not all-knowing and that we can’t possibly understand every benefit behind every seemingly bad thing that happens in our lives. But maintaining this bitachon (trust) in G-d can lead to a more enjoyable and meaningful life.

2.     Reincarnation[8] – Let’s say someone lives a mostly good life, but commits an act that causes someone else tremendous pain. This person then dies and looks forward to eternal pleasure in the World to Come. However, he is informed that he cannot be admitted due to the pain he caused someone. He asks G-d for another chance. G-d agrees, and the person’s task in his 2nd life is to give someone else great happiness – to make up for the pain he had caused.  The challenge of reincarnation is that a person does not remember anything from a previous life until after he dies (this also presents a fairer test).[9] In order to protect himself from messing up, he asks G-d to send him back as a blind, deaf and emotionally disabled person. This reincarnated “deformed” child is now born. At the age of 7, he causes someone else tremendous happiness and then dies. To the outsider, the life of this child may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. But knowing that this soul just earned itself eternal pleasure, through a shortened 2nd life with challenges he may have even chosen, we would certainly have a more positive perspective.

3.     Free Will – One of the many great gifts that G-d has given us is the ability to choose between right and wrong, even if our choice is against G-d’s wishes.[10] But what if one person chooses to harm another? Once we accept that we have the ability to make moral decisions, and that sometimes we will make bad decisions, there will most definitely need to be suffering in the world. That being said, G-d can still use His powers to help mitigate, channel and manage the damage caused by free will.[11]

4.     Teaching / Redirection – G-d is often referred to as our parent.[12] Parents sometimes need to teach their child a tough or painful lesson, despite the tremendous love they have for their child (or maybe precisely because of that love). Similarly, G-d will sometimes allow us (or even cause us) to suffer in order to protect us from a painful spiritual mistake.[13] He willingly allows us to suffer if He knows that we would suffer far worse (in perhaps other ways) if He did not intervene.[14] This principle is so well established in Judaism that if a person experiences any form of suffering, even something as minor as pulling the wrong coin out of one’s pocket to buy something, we are directed to examine our actions.[15] In theory, if one’s mouth is hurting, reasonable conclusions about spiritual areas to improve upon might include, avoiding lashon hora (gossip), profanity or insults to others. It may also include the need to improve proactive commandments such as prayer or blessings. As mentioned earlier, now that prophecy no longer exists, we cannot know for certain that we drew the proper conclusion and correctly learned the lesson that G-d was trying to teach us. But just like parents will increase their effort and resolve if their child misses the lesson or continues with harmful behavior, G-d is the same way[16] (even though G-d suffers when we suffer[17]). Hopefully we will learn the lessons more quickly and avoid potentially more painful experiences that might be necessary to teach us major life lessons.

5.     Staurway to heaven 2 900X563The World to Come – The soul lives on after death for eternity. One moment of pleasure or suffering in the World to Come is greater than a whole lifetime of pleasure or suffering in this world.[18] The reality is that no one is perfectly good or perfectly bad. As such, we will reap the rewards for our good deeds and we will need to answer for our mistakes. For very righteous individuals, G-d will sometimes allow them to answer for their limited number of transgressions in this world, thereby giving them an even greater eternal life![19] Conversely, for very wicked individuals, G-d will sometimes cause them to reap the rewards for their limited number of good deeds in this world, thereby limiting their eternal pleasure in the World to Come.[20]

Conclusion: Whenever someone suffers, it may be caused by any of the five ideas listed above, any combination thereof, or some of the other options not even listed here. When it comes to our own personal suffering, we should always use approach number four by analyzing and trying to improve upon our actions. We should try to turn every tragedy into an opportunity for making ourselves and the world into a better place.[21] However, when our friend or neighbor is suffering, we should never use approach number four to tell them that G-d wants them to change.[22] Rather, we have an obligation to support them – financially,[23] medically,[24] emotionally or however else we can help. In terms of why they are suffering, we should always assume it is one of the many other approaches, such as G-d allowing them to suffer in this world to preserve their eternal life, because He loves them so much.

To learn more about the Jewish approach to suffering, click on any of the items below:

Book Life is a Test
Book Making Sense of Suffering
Book The Other Side of the Story
Book All for the Best

To comment on this article or to see more recommended reading about this topic, scroll down to after the footnotes.


[1] Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), 23:24; Ramban (Nachmonides), Introduction to the book of Iyov (Job); Rambam, Talmud Sanhedrin 10:1 (10th Principle of Faith); Kuzari, 3:11

[2] Bereishis (Genesis), 18:4; Maharal, Nesiv Haemunah, 1:2; Rav Chaim Vital, Sha’arei Kedushah 2:4; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 1:5:8

[3] Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), 31:3; Tehilim (Psalms), 34:9 and 106:1; Meiri, Talmud Brachos, 7A; Meiri, Talmud Sanhedrin, 39B

[4] Devarim (Deuteronomy), 7:8; Rashi, Bamidbar (Numbers), 1:1

[5] Rambam (Maimonides), Letter on Astrology

[6] Talmud Brachos, 60A-B; Kuzari, 3:11; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 230:5

[7] Yishayahu (Isaiah), 11:9; Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Melachim (Kings), 12:5

[8] Iyov (Job), 33:29-30; Ramban (Nachmonides) on Koheles (Eclisastes), Zohar, Volume 1, p. 186B and Volume 3, p. 215B; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:3:10; Vilna Gaon on the Book of Yonah (Jonah); Chafetz Chaim in his Sha’ar Hatzion, 622:6; For a minority dissenting view on reincarnation, see Rav Sa’adya Gaon, Emmunot v’Deos, 6:8

[9] Sefer Chareidim, 7:57

[10] Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hichos Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 5:1; Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), 3:17; Netziv, Bereishis (Genesis), 37:13; Meshech Chochma, Devarim (Deuteronomy), 17:15; Ohr Hachaim, Bereishis (Genesis), 37:21; http://rabbiwithanswers.com/free-will/

[11] Derech Hashem (Way of G-d) 2:8:1; Ohr Hachaim, Bereishis (Genisis), 37:21; Rashi, Shemos (Exodus), 21:13

[12] Tehilim (Psalms), 103:13 and 68:6; Iyov (Job), 29:16; Mishlei (Proverbs), 3:12; Malachi, 2:10; Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 3:24; Ahava Rabah Prayer; Avinu Malkeinu Prayer; Shemone Esrei Prayer

[13] Talmud Brachos, 5A; Ramban (Nachmonides), Sha’ar Hagmul, 117; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:3:5

[14] Shloh, Ma’amar #5

[15] Talmud Erchin, 16B

[16] Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Ta’anis (Fasting), 1:3

[17] Talmud Sanhedrin, 46A; Talmud Ta’anis, 16A

[18] Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 4:17

[19] Rashi, Talmud Brachos, 5A; Pnei Yehoshua, Brachos 5A; Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 1:140; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:2:3

[20] Devarim (Deuteronomy), 7:10; Talmud Kiddushin, 39A; Talmud Sanhedrin, 111A; Bereishis Rabbah, 27:1; Sha’aray Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), 3:122

[21] Talmud Brachos, 5A; Ramban (Nachmonides), Sha’ar Hagmul, 117; Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), 2:3:5

[22] Talmud Bava Metzia, 58B; Maharal, Bava Metzia, 58B

[23] Vayikra (Leviticus), 25:35; Devarim (Deuteronomy), 15:7-8; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Yoreh Deah, 248:1

[24] Vayikra (Leviticus), 19:16; Talmud Yoma, 84B

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    2 Comments

  1. Thankyou, it is all very practical and helpful

    • Rabbi Tully Bryks

      Thank you for the feedback! I’m so happy that to hear that the article was helpful!

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