The problem of suffering in the world is perhaps the greatest challenge that religion must face. How can religion explain or rationalize suffering – often ostensibly of the innocent?
Judaism has been wrestling with this question since biblical times, but it is a question without a solution, as any authentic answer would mean knowing the mind of God, an impossibility for the finite, human mind.
Yet, question we must, for humans are by nature inquiring and endowed with a searching awareness. Jews in particular are a curious lot, obsessed with questions, regardless of whether or not there is an answer. In fact, given the Jewish genius for questions, it would appear that the questions matter far more than the answer.
In the Bible, God instructs Abraham to “Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home” to the land that He will show him. A midrash compares Abraham’s wanderings to a man who sees a palace in flames: “Is there no owner?” the man asks. The owner of the palace replies, “I am the owner.” The midrash compares this story to Abraham, who asked “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler” to which God replied, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe.”
What does Abraham’s leaving the familiarity of his home for an undesignated place that God will show him have to do with a palace in flames? Maybe the midrashic story is conveying the idea that once Abraham, the first monotheist, who accepted the idea of one God in a world of pagans, left the reassuring cocoon of home and hearth, he was confronted by a world that challenged his belief to the core of his being.
The world is like a burning palace – a stunningly beautiful natural and man-made creation that is constantly in danger of destruction. Whether by natural or human forces, the world seems barely to survive every onslaught. Abraham, like those of us who follow in his footsteps, will wonder if there is any rhyme or reason to it all – if there is an “owner,” someone responsible, in charge.
It is important to note that in this story the palace is in flames, and yet the midrash does not indicate that it is burnt down or lost, nor is God’s reassurance accompanied by any explanation or reason for the palace being so seriously threatened in the first place.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the story rejects the notion that the flames – our woes and suffering – indicate that there is no God and no purpose. However, the idea that there is a Sovereign does not preclude there being flames. God exists, but so does suffering. The one does not negate the other.
Abraham must accept this conundrum if he is to understand the world and represent the painful truth that humanity will always be in danger of disorder and chaos. As Rabbi Sacks states, Judaism
is not a celebration of the world as it is, but a protest that the world is not as it ought to be.
The question really is more important than the answer. As long as people question why things are as they are, protest injustice and heal the suffering, attempt on any level to engage the world to make it a better place, we will be doing what we are intended to do.
Perhaps the major Jewish contribution to civilization, after monotheism itself, is the idea that we have the obligation to question everything, as long as the questions are good and lead to something positive and constructive. The palace will always be in flames and we will never fully comprehend why.
That fact does not mean that there is no God. It does mean that we have the responsibility to recognize our role in preserving the palace and acting decisively and effectively. If that lesson alone were what Judaism has given to the world, it would be a most magnificent and luminous gift. n
Dr. Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo.