One of the big complaints against God is when bad things happen to good people. I don't mean like a nice guy getting a parking ticket because he was late getting to his car. I mean really bad things and really good people like kids getting cancer or elderly widows getting robbed and beaten. The usual refrain is "How could God let this happen?" followed by some conclusion that He must not be out there, chalilah or otherwise uncaring or impotent when it comes to daily affairs.
Does anyone else out there get the impression that this kind of statement betrays an infantile understand of God and His role in the big scheme of things?
It seems to me that there are two main kinds of bad events - those that are caused by other people and those that seem to occur at random. Let me first discuss the former.
Consider first the Jewish principle of free will. As we all know it is an underlying foundation of our faith. It's what makes our behaviours and the observance of mitzvos so valuable. Without free will we are automatons who do what we're supposed to but there's really no point to it all. If I keep kosher despite my lusting for a good meal at McDonald's it's a lot different than if I keep kosher simply because I know of no other way to eat because a treif meal has never occurred to me. Free will is essential.
So should there be limits on that free will? If the thug about the home invade the little old lady's condo knows for certain that lightning will strike him the minute he goes to kick in the door will he still attempt the robbery? Or has he lost a bit of his free will because he decides he'd rather not be a sizzling pile of goo on the floor? If free will is an absolute value how could God decide to abrogate it in this case? If He does then where is His red line?
After all it's easy to pick up the extreme cases but after those it gets trickier. Yes, fry all the home invaders because they're about to commit violence and theft, two things God abhors. Well according to the Torah God abhors lots of other things. Most of Wall Street and every Pride Parade would also be legitimate targets if Heavenly fire was a regular occurrence. While the atheoskeptic crowd might applaud the untimely and spectacular demise of the Lehman brothers they would be enraged when the queer crowd gets zapped.
Consider it in even more banal terms. You're a Jew about to eat a cheeseburger at McDonalds and a large spectral hand comes down and flicks your Happy Meal into the garbage. Might that not annoy you? Might not "Mind Your own business!" flick through your head?
In short, when it comes to person-on-person injustice we're okay with God interfering when we feel He should and outraged when we feel He shouldn't. We are quite ready to sacrifice someone else's free will when it suits us, but only when it suits us.
But let's move on to the second category because the implications here are a bit deeper.
A 2 year old presents to the local emergency room with intractable vomiting. After various investigations an MRI is done which shows a brain tumour. Despite excellent medical care part of the tumour survives the operation. Another one can't be done without causing significant brain damage which means the child is slowly doomed to death as the cancer regrows.
Who wouldn't be heartbroken by such a scenario? Who wouldn't be moved to tears and want to move Heaven and Earth to help this child and its familiy? Who wouldn't ask "Why God? Why did You let this happen?" All that is understandable.
Now take a second look at the scenario. Look at the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. In many ways this is one of the evils the ecofascist crowd has committed with its obsession with climate change. Most global warming deniers will readily agree there is way too much pollution in our environment and that it is posing risks to humanity but the ecofascists only want to talk about it if the conclusion has something to do with climate change. As a result we miss other things.
Did this child's family live not so far from a chemical plant that was caught last year illegally disposing of waste into the local river which serves as the city's source of drinking water? What about all the chemical preservatives in all the food we exposed it to? What about the ever increasing types of radio waves and radiation we shoot through our environment? Did mom smoke during pregnancy? Did she do drugs? Seriously, do you know how toxic it is out there?
In short, what are the odds that humanity and the push for modern society caused this tumour?
From my vantage point and professional experience, 95% of what ails people in North America is self-inflicted. Heart attacks, strokes, cancers, emphysema, arthritis, chronic pain, you name it and without much effort you can trace each sufferer's complain back to his lifestyle. We eat too much prepared food and fruits coated in pesticide. We don't exercise enough. We breathe polluted air, smoke and drink to excess. Why does anyone wonder why our hospitals are all so full?
In short we need to look at ourselves. Everything we do to ourselves and our environment is done by our free will. To save any of us from the consequences of this poisoning, God would either have to change the rules of nature, something He said He would never do, or perform outright miracles, something we know He's not inclined towards. We cannot create a toxic environment and then blame God when the weakest among us suffer as a result.
A child is hit by a drunk driver. A woman is assaulted walking home from work at night. God's not at fault and if He prevented the driver from hitting the child or stopped the rapist He would have interfered with free will. God's not at fault, the drunk driver and the rapist (and possibly the parole board that gave him early release from his previous jail stint) are. And as I noted above, once He does that there's no real red line. Suddenly that same God we cheered for saving the little boy would interfere elsewhere and we'd cry foul because we didn't agree.
To conclude, we have to think deeper than the superficial "Something bad happened and God didn't prevent it so He's either bad or just not there,chalilah." Thinking like that leads nowhere because it absolves us of any responsibility for dealing with the probem. Such deeper consideration would certainly allow us to see the responsibility for our own suffering and lead to constructive approaches to alleviating it.