A student of mine perished in a tragedy. What is the rationale for this?

It’s very difficult to conceive of the tragedy of your student, and about the sorrow and hardship which his family now faces. Of course you and they have very deep questions about how G-d could have allowed this, and how much more so, how could He have caused this thing to happen.

These essential questions have been addressed by great tzaddikim (righteous Sages) over the generations, who bring us the perspective of their inner vision which comes from their Ruakh HaKodesh, Divine inspiration.

The Torah of Truth testifies that in some respects, a single individual is equivalent to the whole world. This means that we can apply some lessons that are learned from large-scale tragedies, which nearly everyone is familiar with, to tragedies that happen in a limited locale or only on a personal level. These same questions have been asked, for example, about the many millions of civilians – men, women and children – who were systematically and horrifically exterminated by the Nazis in World War II. The majority of these people were Jews. Many Jews lost their faith in G-d as a result of this, or lived out their lives with anger toward G-d. Others tried to “defend” G-d’s actions by claiming that in some way the Jews of Europe in that generation “deserved” it as a result of some shortcomings in their religious observance (G-d forbid to consider such an absurd idea!).

Just before the Gulf War, a prominent non-chassidic Rabbi stated that the Jews in Israel were “deserving” of the threat of mass fatalities from Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks, just as (he said) the Jews of Europe were “deserving” of the Holocaust (G-d forbid to consider such ideas!). The Lubavitcher Rebbe responded to that suggestion with righteous anger and indignation, and expounded on the inner dimension of the attempted genocide which G-d brought about. From the Rebbe’s words about the Jewish national Holocaust, you can apply his insights to the case of an individual’s “holocaust”, G-d forbid. Here are some excerpts from that sicha (talk) by the Rebbe, as translated by Sichos In English (of course this does not do justice to the Rebbe’s emotions which those present witnessed):

Can any mortal presume to be capable of assessing a colleague’s ultimate spiritual worth “according to the wisdom of the All-Knowing G-d”? This is particularly true in the present generation…

Accordingly, to say that those very people were deserving of what transpired, that it was a punishment for their sins, heaven forbid, is unthinkable. We cannot explain the Holocaust, for we are limited by the earthbound perspective of mortal understanding. As G-d says, in a prophecy of Isaiah, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts.”[Isaiah 55:8] No scales of judgment could ever condemn a people to such horrors.[15]

On the contrary, G-d is “the Master of mercy.” It is blasphemous to picture Him as a cruel king who punishes His people for their disobedience and then waits until it mounts again to the point at which it is fitting to punish them again.

Footnote:

[15] In general, when we confront undesirable events, we must realize that “the Holy One, blessed be He, does not render judgment without a reason” (Tractate Berachot 5b). Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this rule… Thus, our Sages relate (Tractate Menachot 29b) that when Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses our Teacher] protested the cruel death which he saw (with prophetic foresight) was to be inflicted upon Rabbi Akiva, G-d told him, “Be silent. This is what has arisen in My thought.” In the classic instance of such suffering, G-d told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. Far from being a result of their sins, this exile had already been ordained when G-d first initiated His covenant with Abraham, as an unfathomable Divine decree (cf. Midrash Shemot Rabbah 5:22). The same applies to the Holocaust. So awesome was the cruelty to which our people were subjected that Satan himself could not find sins to justify such suffering. The only explanation is, “This is what arose in My thought.”

On a more general level, as much as some modernist authors would have us believe to the contrary, from a correct Torah perspective there is no way to deny G-d’s individual Divine providence (hashgakhah pratit) over everything that happens in the world. This inner truth was brought to the forefront of Jewish popular knowledge by the Baal Shem Tov.

After all that, a few points remain to be noted. One is that we humans do not have G-d’s advantage of seeing into the future, for all generations, to see how an apparent good today can lead to a great evil in the future, G-d forbid, or how an apparent evil today can lead to a great good in the future. In hindsight, we can easily identify past events which went in either of these categories. Since G-d’s attributes of kindness and mercy override His attributes of strict judgment and punishment (may G-d have mercy!), it is axiomatic that many possible evils and horrors of great scope, G-d forbid, have been cancelled by G-d’s mercy through individual events in individual lives.

For example, the entire Jewish nation was redeemed from cruel slavery and the covenant of Torah was able to be given to them by G-d in open revelation at Mount Sinai through His speaking the Ten Commandments, which paved the way for the future Messianic Era, the Resurrection of the Dead and the ultimate eternal World to Come, because a Pharaoh executed his chief baker and left the body hanging for the birds (Genesis 40:22 and 41:13). Why did this happen? Because a pebble was found in a loaf of Pharaoh’s bread (Rashi on Genesis 40:1). That started a chain of events which brought about the fulfillment of G-d’s purpose for the creation. What an undeserved (in our eyes) tragedy for the baker and his family, but what a boundless future good for all mankind!

Of course spiritual giants, to whom we do not compare at all, have also questioned G-d’s ways. For example in Egypt, Moses protested to G-d on behalf of the Israelite children who were being killed by the Egyptians so their bodies could be used to fill cracks in the buildings which their parents were forced to build. G-d said to Moses, “Are you questioning My ways? You may save one of the children, and you will see what his destiny would have been.” So Moses was allowed to miraculously pull one of the children, Micha, out alive. Later it was that same Micha who, through sorcery, brought the enlivened form of the Golden Calf out from the pot of gold.

From these examples, which are just a few of many we know of (which in turn is only a small fraction), you can have insight into G-d’s providence over every individual soul and its atonement throughout the generations in which it is reincarnated. But again, that only touches upon the realm which is somewhat accessible to the limited understanding of the human mind, and it is axiomatic that there is infinitely more G-dly purpose beyond that, as the Rebbe explained in his talk that is quoted above.

I hope that this message has gone at least a little way toward giving you some authentic Torah perspectives as you grapple with the sad event that touched you personally. My condolences are extended to your student’s family, even though we have not met. At an appropriate time in the future, perhaps you could tell them about the AskNoah.org web site, and the spiritual insights they can find here.

[This response to one of our web-site visitors was originally posted in 2010.]

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