Bad Things Happen to Good People
by Harold S. Kushner
FOR ANYONE WHO HAS
EVER BEEN HURT BY LIFE
"I knew that one day I would write this book. I would write
it out of my own need to put into words some of the most important
things I have come to believe and know. And I would write it to
help other people who might one day find themselves in a similar
predicament. I would write it for an those people who wanted to
go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to
hold on to their faith and be comforted by religion. And I would
write it for an those people whose love of God and devotion to Him
led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves
that they deserved it." Harold S. Kushner
Why Do the Righteous Suffer?
There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things
happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually
diverting; somewhat like doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday
paper and feeling very satisfied when you have made the words fit;
but ultimately without the capacity to reach people where they really
care. Virtually every meaningful conversation I have ever had with
people on the subject of God and religion has either started with
this question, or gotten around to it before long. Not only the
troubled man or woman who has just come from a discouraging diagnosis
at the doctor's office, but the college student who tells me that
he has decided there is no God, or the total stranger who comes
up to me at a party just when I am ready to ask the hostess for
my coat, and says, "I hear you're a rabbi; how can you believe that..."
-- they all have one thing in common. They are all troubled by the
unfair distribution of suffering in the world.
The misfortunes of good people are not only a problem to the people
who suffer and to their families. They are a problem to everyone
who wants to believe in a just and fair and livable world. They
inevitably raise questions about the goodness, the kindness, even
the existence of God.
I am the rabbi of a congregation of six hundred families, or about
twenty-five hundred people. I visit them in the hospital, I officiate
at their funerals, I try to help them through the wrenching pain
of their divorces, their business failures, their unhappiness with
their children. I sit and listen to them pour out their stories
of terminally ill husbands or wives, of senile parents for whom
a long life is a curse rather than a blessing, of seeing people
whom they love contorted with pain or buried by frustration. And
I find it very hard to tell them that life is fair, that God gives
people what they deserve and need. Time after time, I have seen
families and even whole communities unite in prayer for the recovery
of a sick person, only to have their hopes and prayers mocked. I
have seen the wrong people get sick, the wrong people be hurt, the
wrong people die young.
Like every reader of this book, I pick up the daily paper and fresh
challenges to the idea of the world's goodness assault my eyes:
senseless murders, fatal practical jokes, young people killed in
automobile accidents on the way to their wedding or coming home
from their high school prom. I add these stories to the personal
tragedies I have known, and I have to ask myself. Can I, in good
faith, continue to teach people that the world is good, and that
a kind and loving God is responsible for what happens in it?
People don't have to be unusual, saintly human beings to make us
confront this problem. We may not often find ourselves wondering,
"why do totally unselfish people suffer, people who never do anything
wrong?" because we come to know very few such individuals. But we
often find ourselves asking why ordinary people, nice friendly neighbors,
neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad, should suddenly
have to face the agony of pain and tragedy. If the world were fair,
they would not seem to deserve it. They are neither very much better
nor very much worse than most people we know; why should their lives
be so much harder? To ask "Why do the righteous suffer?" or "why
do bad things happen to good people?" is not to limit our concern
to the martyrdom of saints and sages, but to try to understand why
ordinary people -- ourselves and people around us -- should have
to bear extraordinary burdens of grief and pain.
I was a young rabbi just starting out in my profession, when I was
called on to try to help a family through an unexpected and almost
unbearable tragedy. This middle-aged couple had one daughter, a
bright nineteen-year-old girl who was in her freshman year at an
out-of-state college. One morning at breakfast, they received a
phone call from the university infirmary. "We have some bad news
for you. Your daughter collapsed while walking to class this morning.
It seems a blood vessel burst in her brain. She died before we could
do anything for her. We're terribly sorry."
Stunned, the parents asked a neighbor to come in to help them decide
what steps to take next. The neighbor notified the synagogue, and
I went over to see them that same day. I entered their home, feeling
very inadequate, not knowing any words that could ease their pain.
I anticipated anger, shock, grief, but I didn't expect to hear the
first words they said to me: "You know, Rabbi, we didn't fast last
Why did they say that? Why did they assume that they were somehow
responsible for this tragedy? Who taught them to believe in a God
who would strike down an attractive, gifted young woman without
warning as punishment for someone else's ritual infraction?
One of the ways in which people have tried to make sense of the
world's suffering in every generation has been by assuming that
we deserve what we get, that somehow our misfortunes come as punishment
for our sins:
Tell the righteous it shall be well with them, for they shall eat
the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked, it shall be ill with
him, for what his hands have done shall be done to him. (Isaiah
But Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord,
and the Lord slew him. (Genesis 38:7)
No ills befall the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.
Consider, what innocent ever perished, or where have the righteous
been destroyed? (Job 14:7)
From When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner.
HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
This Book on Amazon
Above Text ©
2001, HarperCollins Publishers.
is the Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts.
He is the author of five books.
This Book on Amazon