Jul 10, 2008

Thanking God for "Bad" Things?

See this interesting
article on theodicy in the Jerusalem Post.

World of the Sages: Blessings for the bad
By Levi Cooper

While it is natural to thank the Almighty when we are favored with good luck, it is more difficult to acknowledge God's hand after a mishap. Our sages tell us that just as a person blesses God for the good, thus a person is obligated to bless God for the bad (M. Brachot 9:5). The source for this idea is the biblical verse, "And you shall love the God, your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). Playing on the alliteration of the Hebrew word me'odecha (all your might), our sages expound: Whatever measure (midda) the Almighty metes (moded) out to you, whether it be good or bad, you are to be modeh (give thanks).

Thus a blessing is mandated for good tidings - "Blessed are You... who is good and does good" - as well as for bad news - "Blessed are You... the true judge" (M. Brachot 9:2). The Talmud clarifies that though the blessings are different, we are expected to accept both the good and the evil with pleasure, for both are the Almighty's will (B. Brachot 60b).

This may indeed be a tall order: Can we truly expect someone to joyfully give thanks to God for the bad just as for the good?

Hassidic lore recounts the attitude of the beloved Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (1718?-1800). His teacher Reb Dov Ber, known as the Maggid (preacher) of Mezhirichi (1704?-1772) was once asked: How is it possible to accept the good and the bad with true equanimity, thanking the Almighty for both equally?

The Maggid responded: "Go and ask my student, Reb Zusha." The questioners sought Reb Zusha and found him sitting in a corner, in torn rags, a picture of pain and suffering: "Reb Zusha, the Maggid sent us to you. How is it possible to accept the good and the bad with true equanimity?"

Hearing the question, Reb Zusha was surprised: "You must be mistaken; I am not the person to ask, for I - thank God - have never experienced any bad!"

Reb Zusha was able to wholly see the divine hand in everything. From God's perspective all is good; bad fortune is only a human assessment. Reb Zusha was able to see past the temporal perspective and recognize everything as the Almighty's will.

The level of Reb Zusha is truly lofty; perhaps out of reach for those faced with the vicissitudes of life. A later hassidic master, Rabbi Yitzhak Friedman of Bohush, Romania (1835-1896) suggested a more attainable goal: The Talmud offers further prooftexts for the mishnaic tenet. One sage recalled the verse, "Distress and grief I will find and I will invoke the name of God" (Psalms 116:3-4). Further in the same chapter we find, "I will raise the cup of salvations and I will invoke the name of God" (Psalms 116:13). The name of the Almighty is invoked in periods of distress and grief as well as in times of salvation.

The Bohusher Rebbe noticed a subtle difference between the cited verses. The first quote is made from two biblical verses - "Distress and grief I will find" (verse 3) "and I will invoke the name of God" (verse 4), while the second quote is a complete verse.

When we bless for good tidings we do so without hesitation. When we are called to bless the Almighty in the wake of bad fortune, it is understandable that we have reason to pause while we digest the event. Once that stage has passed, we must acknowledge the divine will. A hiatus for consideration and meditation - as indicated by the structure of the biblical verse - is reasonable. The Bohusher Rebbe explained that this interval ensures that the thanks given for the bad is heartfelt, not merely an empty statement.

Another hassidic master took this idea further, not only granting a license to mull over misfortune, but seeing the gloom as an important and necessary stage. In 1882, Rabbi Mordechai Dov Twersky of Hornistopol, Ukraine (1839-1903) - a descendant of Reb Zusha - was traveling when word arrived that a great fire ravaged his hometown. His home and his beit midrash (study hall) had gone up in flames, and his precious library with a number of valuable manuscripts was destroyed. Perhaps most painfully, a manuscript on the laws of divorce that Rabbi Mordechai Dov himself had penned was lost.

Hearing about the calamity, Rabbi Mordechai Dov sank into a depression. Suddenly his sullen look gave way to a smile and he turned to his disciples: "Our sages taught us that we must bless over the bad as we do over the good. Had I been presented with good news that I had just earned a fortune we would drink l'haim (to life) together; why do we not drink l'haim now?

The students hastily gathered to drink l'haim, but one pupil queried: "Master, it is true that we now fulfill the directive of our sages who required us to bless over bad tidings like over good news. Alas, at first you were saddened by the news of the fire; were you to hear about a wealth, you would not be cheerless for even a moment?!"

The teacher explained: "We are commanded to bless; we are not commanded to ignore. Indeed we should taste the bitterness of the misfortune that has befallen us, for the tribulation has been sent by the Almighty. Just as on Pessah we are enjoined to chew the bitter herbs not swallow them whole (B. Pessahim 115b), so to we must taste the disaster that God has sent and ponder why this is the divine will. After this stage, as we realize that it is the Almighty's will, we offer a blessing even for the calamity."

Bad things happen in our lives, and while we are instructed to bless God even in the face of adversity, it is legitimate and perhaps even imperative to pause before uttering the blessing. This temporary halt, gives us the opportunity to contemplate the blow before acknowledging the divine hand.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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