FAITH AMIDST TRAGEDY

May 16th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

This week, the news of multiple IDF casualties in Gaza came like a gut punch, leaving us breathless with grief. Initially, we were told that there was one casualty and multiple wounded in an attack. Then we learned there were so many wounded soldiers that they had to be medevaced by helicopter to multiple hospitals. Names were sent out for us to pray for, and thousands worldwide recited Tehillim. Eventually, news filtered out that five soldiers had been killed in the tragic incident.

What was particularly difficult for my wife and me is that these young soldiers were all from our son Meir’s unit, Haredim Tzanhanim (“Chetz”), part of Battalion 202 of the Paratroopers Brigade. Their names: Staff Sergeant Betzalel David Shashuah, Sergeant Ilan Cohen, Sergeant Daniel Chemu, Staff Sergeant Gilad Arye Boim, and Captain Roy Beit Yaakov.

Only last week, Meir was asked to switch to Captain Beit Yaakov’s unit as they forged ahead into Gaza, but he opted to stay with his current unit – a decision that may very well have saved his life. This did nothing to soften the blow. The devastating news overwhelmed him. Attending his friends’ funerals was shattering and painfully brought home to him, and us, that war is not a game.

Unlike the youngsters of Western countries, who have the luxury to indulge in idealistic political protests, Israel’s emerging generation faces death and tragedy as they protect their homes, their families, and their country.

But what was particularly devastating about this tragedy is that the source of the artillery was not Hamas terrorists. Rather, it was ‘friendly fire,’ that horrible term meaning the casualties were caused by their own comrades mistakenly targeting them.

This particular incident occurred during a tense confrontation in Jabaliya, where IDF troops were stationed on the first floor of a three-story building. While maintaining their position, an IDF tank spotted a barrel protruding from a window and, despite being outside its designated sector, fired shells in response. Tragically, the incident resulted in the troop casualties.

This tragic event highlights the profound and often painful complexities of understanding and explaining the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Different theological perspectives provide varying interpretations of evil, each attempting to reconcile the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity with the reality of human suffering.

The first, mainstream view, is that of the Rambam (Maimonides), who posits that instead of blaming God for the evils of the world, we should be blaming our fellow man. If someone pulls out a gun and shoots a group of people, that’s a bad person committing murder, not God wreaking havoc.

But what about natural disasters, like earthquakes and tornadoes? The Rambam has an explanation for that too. According to him, these are the unfortunate side effects of a world that operates according to the unwavering laws of nature. For example, our world could not exist without the force of gravity. As a result of that force, a coconut can fall off a palm tree and land on someone’s head, killing them. That chance occurrence is the price we pay for a functioning universe.

But then there is the view of the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the iconoclastic nineteenth-century Hasidic master who often challenged mainstream rabbinic interpretations. His view is radically different from the Rambam’s and is based on the first verse of Parshat Emor (Lev 21:1): אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו – “Speak to the priests, sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for a dead person among his people.”

The priest, explains the Izhbitzer, is the paradigm of an individual who refuses to dismiss anything in life as a chance occurrence. It is God and only God who runs everything. You can’t blame the forces of nature, one’s fellow man, or some random happenstance for what goes wrong, because every detail of anything that happens is under God’s control. Human agency and natural laws are all subject to divine providence, and nothing happens without God’s will.

The trouble is that this heightened faith in God’s all-encompassing power can paradoxically lead to a diminishment of faith. The “kohen” must accept incomprehensible evil as being the handiwork of God. That’s a tough expectation because one might come to think of God as the source of inexplicable evil. Therefore, the Torah warns, “none shall defile himself for a dead person among his people.” Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into the “impurity” of challenging God’s actions. Inevitably, there will be questions about the application of God’s attribute of justice – about death, suffering, and pain – but those questions and objections must not lead to a loss of faith.

The root of the Hebrew word for speech used in the pasuk is A-M-R, which the Zohar interprets to mean “a whisper.” “Where is God’s mercy?” “Where is His compassion?” These are legitimate questions, but they should remain whispers and never become the dominant voice. A faint whisper in the background, softly echoing in your ear, is fine – but ultimately, we must never lose faith.

The problem of evil and suffering is not some kind of lofty theological or philosophical issue; it is a deeply personal and existential one. When confronted with tragic events, such as the loss of five wonderful IDF soldiers in a friendly fire incident in Gaza, people naturally seek explanations and meaning.

The Rambam’s approach offers a way to understand these events as part of a broader human context, where suffering results from human actions and the inherent risks of living in a world governed by natural laws. This perspective can be comforting because it suggests that if we improve our decision-making and our understanding of nature, we can mitigate suffering.

But the Izhbitzer’s perspective is much deeper. It calls for profound faith and trust in divine providence. His view challenges individuals to see God’s hand in every event, even those that seem senseless and cruel. It requires a profound acceptance of the mysteries of God’s will and an unwavering belief that everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is beyond human comprehension.

These two perspectives offer different ways to navigate the complexities of faith in the face of suffering. The Rambam’s approach encourages human responsibility and rational understanding, while the Izhbitzer’s view fosters a deep, sometimes challenging, reliance on divine providence. Both perspectives have their strengths and can provide comfort and guidance depending on one’s faith and understanding.

The tragic loss of the five IDF soldiers in Gaza serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the profound and often painful questions surrounding the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Whether one finds solace in the Rambam’s rational approach or the Izhbitzer’s call for deep faith in divine providence, the search for meaning in the face of tragedy is a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

Indeed, it is via this ongoing search that we can meaningfully grapple with the complexities of faith and justice, and the nature of existence itself. Hopefully, in the process, it can give us the comfort we all need.

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