One of the most basic foundations of Judaism is expressed in this week’s Parsha. It is the idea that G-d’s judgements are just.
The Rock [G-d] — perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice… (32:4)
This concept is mentioned in the Jewish mourning process when the mourners are required to recite the verse above at the funeral to remove from their hearts and minds any doubts they may have about whether G-d has been fair.
In Jewish law, it states that when one goes to console a mourner (s)he may not say, “What can we do, G-d runs the world. He is the Boss and He does as He sees fit.” This is forbidden because the inference is G-d was unjust but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s as if one is saying, “if I ran the show, I wouldn’t have done such a terrible thing as taking away your loved one.”
It is a state of mind: either G-d knows what He’s doing or He’s incompetent. Jews for centuries have consciously chosen the first option. The Talmud relates the following story.
Rav Huna had 400 barrels of wine that went sour and turned into vinegar. He decided to come before Rav Yehuda – the brother of Rav Sala Chasida – and the Rabbis to ask for advice. They responded: “You should look into your business affairs [and contemplate if there is anything you are doing that is forbidden, which may have caused the Almighty to punish you.]. Rav Huna responded: “Am I really suspect in your eyes?” The Rabbis responded: “Is G-d suspect in our eyes, that He would punish you without just cause?”
Humans do not have the capacity to carry out perfect justice because we can’t judge every facet of a person. For example, even a convicted felon, who has wronged society, will cause unnecessary suffering to his wife, mother, and children. They are true victims because they have done nothing wrong but must now live without the man who was perhaps supporting and loving them. A society needs a penal code but in G-d’s world all factors are considered-either when something we perceive as good or bad happens. When G-d renders justice, we believe, although we don’t always understand how, that He gives fair judgment to all parties involved.
Yet, most people are bothered when seeing a decent person who seems to have been given a rough life; is this fair? The Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933) answered with a parable.
The only child of a wealthy woman fell deathly ill. A medical professor was brought in to treat the boy and he was successful. The doctor told the mother her son must never eat fatty meat if she wants to prevent a relapse. Once, when no one was looking, the son ate some fatty meat and became deathly ill. The medical expert was brought back and was successful in saving this child’s life.
Sometime later the mother hosted a party at which she sent her son out of the dining room. The guests were shocked at the callous actions of this apparently cruel mother but only she knew that it was an act of love.
Sometimes the Almighty has to remove a person from the “dining room” for his or her own benefit-even though it appears unfair to everyone else. These thoughts are not meant to be merely for the pious, it’s the most logical way to think for anyone who believes in G-d. If not, He is incompetent. Everything that the Almighty does is for our ultimate good even though we don’t always understand it.
I saw a fascinating story in the book Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, written by the late Professor Yaffa Eliach. She documented stories of concentration camp survivors she personally interviewed. In one story, there was a brother and sister whose family had perished. The sister was caught by the Nazis and was brought to Gestapo headquarters. The brother couldn’t bear to lose his beloved sister and acted without thinking. He walked into Gestapo headquarters and demanded his sister’s return. The Nazi on duty looked at him in disbelief. He was ready to shoot him on the spot when he had a strange thought. “Jew”, he said, “When you grow hair on the palm of your hand, I will let you take your sister”. The Jew opened his hand and to the Nazi’s shock, there was hair on his palm. With a terrified scream, the Nazi shouted,” Jewish devil! Take your sister and leave, quickly!” The brother and sister ran into the forest and survived the war.
What happened? A few years earlier, the brother was in an accident in which his hand had gotten caught in a piece of machinery. During surgery, the doctors grafted a piece of skin from his leg onto his palm. The grafted piece of skin grew some hair on it, which was a very unusual occurrence. At that time, the brother wasn’t very happy about this aberration he would have to bear for life. It was only years later, when this seemingly cruel act of nature proved to be the means of his sister’s survival that the brother could appreciate the past “accident.”
The next time you see something you don’t understand, use it as a teaching moment. It’s humbling to think, “I can’t figure everything out; I don’t have all the answers.” If I did, I would be G-d.