Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q: I am a big fan of Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I recommended it to my brother and told him that we can’t blame God when bad things happen to us. He came back with, “Well, is it proper to give thanks to God for the good things that happen to us?” I hope you can help me with this question.
— D from Raleigh, N.C.
A: In the ancient tradition of rabbinic humor a man comes to a rabbi and asks a difficult question like yours. The rabbi answers, “You are right.” Then another man like your brother offers an alternative and conflicting view. The rabbi replies to him, “You are right.” Then a third man who overheard the arguments says, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” To which the rabbi responded, “You are right, too.” So both you and your brother are right. Here’s how:
You are right that we have neither rational nor theological reasons to blame God for the evil that befalls us.
The first reason is that some evil is the result of our own sin. When we smoke or abuse drugs or overeat, we are poisoning our own bodies. Our illnesses in this regard are self-inflicted acts of ignorance or addiction. God wants us to choose life, but when we choose death, it is simply not God’s fault. Our freedom makes us human and makes us able to love, but our freedom also makes us able to stray from the path God has set before us to lead a happy, healthful life. It is easier to claim to be a victim of a cruel God, but it is simply not true.
The second reason is that some evil that befalls us is not really evil at all, even though it can hurt us or kill us. Natural disasters like earthquakes and storms are the result of us living on a living planet. These natural evils happen when we get in the way of planet Earth’s cracking and shifting and breathing around its molten core. God gave us a living planet, not a safe planet. The same is true with diseases. Some diseases are the consequence of our releasing poisons into the environment. God does not release those poisons, we do. We are also a genetically evolving species and some of our diseases are the natural result of genetic mutations that are not adaptive to our life in this world now, but some mutations will produce over time physical transformations of homo sapiens that will help us to survive and adapt.
So evil is either our fault or nature’s fault, not God’s fault — even though God made both us and nature. Any other decision by God to make our world and ourselves any different would be less good. We were made to take responsibility for our world and we were given the freedom to do it and a moral code to help us do it right. I know it is tempting to blame God for not giving us perfect lives, but when you stop and prayerfully consider things, it is a childish expectation and unworthy of a God who is our creator, not our puppeteer.
Your brother is also right that we have an obligation to thank God for our blessings despite our burdens. Once we realize the massive scope and goodness of our gift of life on this living planet, the question then naturally arises, “Are thanks due for this gift?” I believe so, and this is why I pray prayers of thankfulness to God for my life. Of course some folks see all this as a lucky accident and they may well be correct, but I cannot breathe in life and blessing without breathing out thanks to God.