There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. We believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, yet we see evil all around us. It’s not just for philosophers; it’s a question we all ask ourselves:
Why do bad things happen to good people?
The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is somehow actually good, or that God is simply beyond understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.
Anyone who claims to have “the” answer to almost any philosophical question is undoubtedly obnoxious, and is probably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either have no single resolution or no resolution at all. The best we can say is that different approaches work for different people.
We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.
R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the response to the question is how we live in reaction to the existence of the problem. We ought to respond in kind when we see something is wrong and try to make it better. While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; at best, it can only spur a practical response in us.
After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had formed quite a clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight for everything he has; yet his brother seems to get everything from life easily.
But Avraham does not complain that God has been unfair. Because sometimes we just need to get on with it.
Imagine a world where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer?
Everyone would be good all the time.
The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important, or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.
We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes, but also the struggles they faced in their day to day lives.
Sometimes it just isn’t fair, and sometimes there is no answer good enough. All we can do is respond in the way we choose to live; we just have to get on with it and do the right thing.