Beyond Rebuke

Beyond Rebuke My cholesterol is sky high, the boss is unhappy with my performance, my wife thinks our marriage is a mess and now the lousy car broke down. For G‑d's sake, why does everything happen to me? Do I deserve this? Am I really such a terrible person? Sound familiar?

As a rabbi, I have certainly heard this and similar questions asked many times over the years. Implicit in the question is the assumption that any suffering or misfortune that befalls us must be some form of divine retribution; surely, it must be a punishment from G‑d. But if I'm such a good guy why then should I deserve such punishment? And, if on top of that, we also believe that G‑d is good, then this is really too mind-boggling for a mere mortal like me to work out. So what if I told you that divine punishment is only one of many possible scenarios to explain your predicament? There are a great many possible explanations and interpretations for human suffering. In fact, it might not be a punishment at all. So don't be in such a hurry to make all these assumptions.

The Torah reading of Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) includes a section known as the Rebuke. It is an ominous warning of the troubles that will befall Israel should we stray from the G‑dly path. The mystics teach that even those frightening punishments are, in reality, hidden blessings that cannot be perceived at face value.

I remember hearing an interesting analogy on this theme from the well-known author Rabbi Dr A.J. Twerski. A mother takes her toddler to the doctor. The doctor prepares to give the child a vaccination by injection. The kid isn't stupid. He sees trouble coming, so he doesn't make it easy for the doctor. In fact, mom must hold the child down while the doctor administers the injection, and throughout, the kid is screaming and shouting. Not a minute later the child is suddenly burying his face in mom's shoulder, desperately seeking solace in his mother's embrace. And the question is why? Was mom not an accomplice to the crime when she held him down while the doctor attacked him? Why is this child suddenly finding comfort on mom's shoulder? She is the enemy!

The answer is that every child knows intuitively that his mother loves him and wants only the best for her child. Even if there seems to be a momentary lapse, he knows it will be short-lived. After the fleeting test of faith, the innate and essential bond of love between mother and child is quickly re-established.

And so it is with our Father in Heaven. Sometimes we may feel angry; it seems as if He has joined forces with Satan. Why does He allow all these terrible misfortunes to befall us? And yet, we know that he really and truly does love us. After all is said and done, we are His children. Does the mother in the clinic hate her child? Is she punishing him? G‑d forbid. Does the doctor want to hurt the child? Of course not (unless he is a dentist or a physiotherapist!). So, just as a child is comforted by his mother, so is the Jew comforted by the knowledge and conviction that G‑d loves us.

To us it may remain a mystery but to G‑d there is a cosmic, eternal plan. The child doesn't understand or appreciate an injection and neither can we fathom the divine "vaccinations" we must put up with from time to time. Nevertheless, we accept in good faith that somehow there is a reason - and even a good reason - behind all our problems. It may not be revealed to us in this world, only in the next. So we do need a fair amount of patience. Personally, I'm prepared to handle living in suspense. In our moments of misery and days of distress, let us remember that our loving Father in Heaven is surely no less caring than the mother in the doctor's rooms.

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