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Aka, why ‘bad’ things don’t really happen to ‘good’ people.

In the Gemara, Tractate Brachot 5b, we find the following:

Rav Huna had four hundred barrels of wine that soured, i.e. they turned into vinegar. Rav Yehuda, the brother of Rav Salla Chasida, as well as other Sages, went in to visit him…They said to him: “Let master [Rav Huna] examine his affairs to determine the cause of this loss. He said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes? They said to him:

Is the Holy One, Blessed is He, suspect of punishing without justice?

He said to them: “If there is anyone who heard something about me that I must rectify, let him speak!”

They responded to him: “This is what we heard about you: Master did not give branches to his sharecropper.” He said to them: “Did he leave me any of them?! He stole all of them from me!” That is, he took far more than his rightful share.

They said to him, “This is an example of the popular adage: Steal from a thief and feel the taste of stealing!”

He said to them: “I accept upon myself to give him his share of the remaining branches.”

Some say that then, a miracle occurred and the vinegar reverted to wine. And others say that the price of vinegar rose, and [his vinegar] sold at the price of wine.

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Rav Huna was a massive Sage who could do open miracles and revive the dead.

When Rav Huna’s vinegar soured, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to start throwing around his ‘tzaddik’ credentials, and to avoid examining his deeds.

“I’m such a big tzaddik!! I don’t deserve this!! Why is Hashem punishing me for nothing (God forbid)?! Why is Hashem doing such a bad thing to such a good person, like me?”

We all do this, at certain times. It’s understandable.

But there’s a massive problem (or 8…) with this approach, and that is:

That it makes Hashem out to be the bad guy.

It’s basically saying, “Nothing wrong with me, or my deeds, bub. This is a totally unjustified punishment. God has somehow got this wrong, He’s picking on the wrong guy…”

This is the polar opposite of how a Jew with emuna is meant to approach things. A Jew with emuna doesn’t throw all the problem on God, and start flashing their ‘tzaddik’ credentials all over the place.

A Jew with emuna takes a deep breath, a long spiritual pause, and tries to apply the three rules of emuna, namely:

  • God is doing everything.
  • Everything God is doing is ultimately for my benefit, even though right now I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t causing me a lot of pain, suffering and heartache.
  • God is trying to send me a message, here, that this is something I need to work on or fix or change or tikkun.

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Unlike us, Rav Huna really was a bona fide tzaddik.

He wasn’t a secret member of the local Freemasons lodge; he wasn’t sucking up to corrupt politicians for ‘donations’ to his yeshiva, or firebombing buses, or working for the Mossad or the FBI on the side.

Rav Huna wasn’t flirting with women he wasn’t married to. He wasn’t speaking lashon hara all over the place (like yours truly…) He wasn’t angrily raging at his poor wife and children behind closed doors after a bad day at the beit midrash; or harshly criticizing everybody else on Youtube; or dancing for the Pope; or being paid by Big Pharma to sign on to a psak din trying to force everyone to vaccinate their children.

He was a bona fide tzaddik.

And yet, his vinegar still turned sour.

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Having emuna doesn’t mean that we pretend the hard things in our life don’t hurt us, or bother us.

Before we get to the story of Rav Huna, we have the stories of Rav Yochanan (who lost 10 children) and Rav Elazar (who was seriously ill) – and in both instances, the Gemara makes it very clear that these tzaddikim were feeling their pain and sorrow acutely.

They weren’t robotic, emotionless ‘super-tzaddikim’, who could go through awful suffering and just keep telling everyone how great it all was. They suffered, they admitted they were suffering, and that they felt sad and pained – and then, they pulled themselves together and got on with life.

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Just to confuse matters, there is also  such a thing as being sent a ‘suffering from love’.

If we examine our deeds, and we truly find there is absolutely nothing we can think of that we need to fix, acknowledge or work on, that would somehow explain why God was sending us our harsh circumstances, then we’re dealing with a ‘suffering from love’.

In our generation, there are a lot of loose ends, a lot of tikkunim from previous lives that need to be paid down. Maybe, we were sacrificing our children to Moloch in temple times, or snitching on our fellow Jew for money to the Sultan or the Czar, or cheating on our spouse, or cheating on our taxes…

Who knows?

And now, God is cleaning that stuff off our souls by sending us some hard experiences to go through.

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I learned from the experience with my father-in-law being a Freemason that the sins of the fathers really are visited on the sons up until the third or fourth generation, exactly as it says in the Torah.

When my husband’s left foot refused to heal up for four months, it could have been tempting to pretend my husband is a tzaddik[1], and God is just punishing him, stam, because Hashem is mean and sadistic (God forbid a million times!!!).

But that’s not the path of emuna.

The path of emuna is to keep praying about our suffering, to keep justifying Hashem, and to know that He’s totally righteous, kind and good, and to keep searching for what the heck is going on here?!

It took us 4 months of effort, many long hours of praying, much soul-searching, and eventually a big pidyon with the Rav to start to uncover the real spiritual source of my husband’s dodgy left foot. But thank God, probably all in the Rav’s zchut, eventually we got there.

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Rav Huna was a massive tzaddik.

And even Rav Huna’s vinegar went sour.

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The last thing to take from the story of Rav Huna is that as soon as he got the message, everything turned around for the good. Sephardim say, his vinegar miraculously turned back into wine! Ashkenazim say, the price of vinegar suddenly shot up, and overtook the price of a good cabernet sauvignon!

Either way, the suffering was sweetened once Rav Huna took the steps required to fix the problem.

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What’s the tachlis, to take away from this?

  • We need to justify Hashem, and stop pretending He’s got the wrong guy when He sends us suffering or difficulties.
  • We need to do our best to figure out what we need to correct and fix, in order for the problem to go away. That usually means spending an hour a day doing hitbodedut, or at least a good, solid chunk of time where we sit and just take an honest look at ourselves.
  • If it’s still not clearing up, we need to bite the bullet and do a pidyon with the Rav, which is effectively a short-cut to getting out of the suffering, or even avoiding it in the first place. Money instead of blood.

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May Hashem help us all to do this, as it’s sometimes really, really hard.

And may this piece be for the refuah of Menachem Mendel Shlomo ben Chaya Rachel, who needs to raise money for a pidyon with the Rav urgently. You can donate for the pidyon HERE, and please say it’s for him in the message section.

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FOOTNOTE:

[1] The fact that my husband has put up with me for 23 years clearly gives credence to the idea that he could actually be a tzaddik, at least in theory.

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Time and again in my research about what makes people feel ‘alive’ and what makes them feel the opposite, God-forbid, having a well-defined sense of purpose comes pretty close to the top of the list.

If a person really understands why they’re alive, if they really get what’s the point of being down here, then that knowledge by itself can transform their life in so many good ways. I was musing on this while I was reading Viktor Frankl’s classic work, Man’s search for meaning, where he writes about his experiences in the holocaust, and the conclusions he drew as a result.

Frankl was a secular Viennese psychotherapist who lost his parents, wife and all of his siblings bar one sister during the war. In the book, he describes how his ‘professional interest’ in how his fellow prisoners were handling the indescribable suffering of being in Auschwitz and other death camps was a big reason why he survived the war.

As soon as he could take a ‘professional interest’ and start to ponder the psychological implications of what he was witnessing and experiencing, Frankl explains that the experiences themselves became easier to manage in some way.

In one particular poignant passage, he describes how imagining he would share his new insights into human nature kept him going when he was enduring a particularly hard day of forced labour outside in the freezing Polish winter.

Another popular tactic he employed was talking to his wife in his head, and escaping into those imaginary conversations. And thus, he survived the war, and went on to develop Logotherapy, his own brand of psychotherapy where the emphasis was firmly put on encouraging his patients to find some sort of meaning to life, in order to heal their emotional problems.

While Frankl is not ‘anti-religion’, he’s clearly wasn’t an observant Jew – and that’s a real shame, because Judaism would’ve have furnished a clear-cut ‘meaning to life’ that would have prevented him from trying to re-invent the wheel.

Let me give an example I was pondering on recently:

The more I read and learn and experience, the more I realize that it’s almost impossible to raise our children without causing them some sort of severe psychological damage, with far-reaching consequences for their sense of wellbeing, emotional and physical health, and spiritual connection.

For years, I thought that if you were a healthy, well-adjusted, emotionally-balanced person, then your kids would turn out OK (just for the record, I haven’t actually ever met someone like this, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend they exist.) But God’s been showing me recently that EVEN the most well-meaning, spiritually-connected, tuned-in, compassionate parents are STILL messing their kids up.

How can we not? Is it up to us to decide if we have to experience huge financial pressures, for example? Or severe illnesses? Or traumatic moves to different cities or different countries? Can we help it if we get depressed sometimes, or super-stressed, or overwhelmed by the difficult experiences each of us has to face? We don’t pick for our kids to have horrible teachers, or nasty bullies, or traumatic experiences with terrorists every few days.

And all this stuff leaves an indelible mark on the soul, and causes things like anxiety, fear, anger, panic, despair, and a whole bunch of other things, too.

So I was pondering: Why?

Why does God set things up that it’s impossible to raise our kids as completely whole, emotionally-healthy human beings who don’t have anxiety, panic, worry, sadness and all the rest of it?

As usual, Rav Arush gave me the answer. I was reading his new book about saying thank you and seeing miracles when he explained that our difficulties are what brings us closer to God. We suffer, we hurt, we get overwhelm, and then we actually turn around and have probably the first honest conversation of our lives with our Creator.

We realize we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need Him to help us out, pronto. And that’s the whole point of being alive.

It’s so easy to get so caught up in the secular view of the world, which sees everything as being somehow in human control and ‘solve-able’. Depressed? Take a pill! Anxious? Take a pill! Stressed? Take a pill! (You get the idea…)

But I realized that I’ve also fallen into that trap a bit, by blaming myself for all of my kids issues. Now, here’s where we hit the fine line: OF COURSE I’m to blame for my kids issues, if I take God out of the picture. I mean, I made aliya, I ran out of money, I keep moving, I’m the one who got angry, stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and who all too frequently took it out on them.

But I’ve been working on all that stuff as much as I can, and the more I clear away, the more God shows me that something had to mess them up, as that’s the whole point. It’s only in their brokenness that they’re going to get closer to God, and build their relationship with Him. So yes, God used my bad middot to do the job for a while, but now they’re receding, I see He’s still piling the pressure on my kids: terrorists are scary; ulpana is challenging and sometimes lonely; friends are frequently unpredictable and draining etc etc.

And that’s the way it’s meant to be.

To put it another way, our suffering is what gives our life meaning, and what ultimately makes it worthwhile. I know that’s a bizarre idea on many levels, but recently, it’s been coming into clearer and clearer focus.

The meaning of life, what gives our lives purpose, is to get closer to God. Full stop. That’s why God fills the world with pain and suffering, and doesn’t give us all mansions, yachts and perfect health. At some point, hopefully the equation will change, and people will want to get closer to God even amidst their bounty – I think that’s the promise of Moshiach.

But we’re not quite there yet (at least, I’m not). Which means that each day still has its measure of pain, and its share of challenges. But I’m no longer wondering why it has to be that way.