There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. Seeing evil all around us, it challenges our belief that God is omnipotent and omniscient.
It’s not a problem isolated to philosophers; it’s a question we all find ourselves asking from time to time. 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 actually good or that God is simply beyond our understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.
Anyone who claims to have the one true answer to almost any philosophical question is almost invariably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either don’t lend themselves to a single resolution and sometimes to any resolution at all. The best we can muster 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 answer to the question is how it challenges us to live in response to the existence of the problem – when we see something is wrong, do we try to make it better? While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; it can only prompt us to respond.
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 built a formidable clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing; yet his brother seems to get it all oh-so-easily.
But Avraham never complains that God has been unfair. He just gets on with it.
He could do that because he didn’t live with the expectation or entitlement that life would turn out just the way he wanted if he lived a moral life.
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.
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Good things happen to bad people all the time. Bad things happen to everyone, and good things happen to everyone!
We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes and the struggles they faced in their day to day lives. They did not live with the expectation that life would be fair and appear fair, and we must dispel that notion as well.
Because sometimes it really isn’t fair, and no answer or explanation will do. It just isn’t fair! We’d best make our peace with it, and all we can do is respond in the way we choose to live. Like Avraham, we just have to get on with it and try to live as best we can.