And let's do it from a traditionally Jewish point of view (which is the only legitimate way to do it).
This means the following:
- Hashem sends us signs to prod us in the right direction.
- Judaism acknowledges & faces paradox head-on.
But black-and-white thinking can be remedied by studying Jewish sources, pondering them, and freeing your mind to reach its higher potential, a potential that has been limited by living in Edomite society.
Hanging out with good frum Jews and listening to classes by good frum Jews can also help a lot with expanding a constricted mind.
It’s not your fault if you started out that way, born into that society, but each person has a responsibility to at least start freeing his or her mind at some point.
(Not to mention, a freer mind makes for a happier mind.)
Even one little step at a time, even going at a snail's pace, can accomplish an astonishing amount over time.
Needless to say, I’m not an expert on suffering or all that Chazal has to say. (A talmid chacham is an expert in all this.)
So we're going to address this topic from a much more basic perspective.
And I, too, used to self-righteously splutter stuff like: “But how can AIDS be an onesh for mishkav zachur & pritzus when some babies and hemophiliacs have died of AIDS too?!”—and think I was being oh-so clever and morally superior.
I wasn't being clever; I was being simple-minded. And my self-righteous secularism was definitely NOT morally superior.
Millennia before any of us were born, Judaism already addressed the issue of the innocent getting caught up in the punishment of those who continuously transgress.
So let's take a look at how to attempt to understand Hashem's Messages...
Combing through the Signs
(NOTE: These can also be reasons for any kind of suffering.)
- The person has lived out his or her pre-destined amount of years.
- The person is relatively sin-free, and therefore his or her death (or suffering) is an atonement for the Jewish people. (In other words, Hashem takes this one person, rather than 1000 other people.) This kind of death is often reserved for either an unusually good adult or for an innocent child or baby, and should motivate the rest of to do teshuvah so that the innocent need not suffer.
- The person has completed his or her tikkun (soul rectification), often connected to stuff they didn’t rectify in a previous incarnation.
- The person is a bad person (i.e., death as a punishment).
- The person has not been living life “right” (according to Hashem’s definition) and needs a certain type of death as an atonement in order to avoid Gehinnom. (This often means a martyr’s death, al Kiddush Hashem, a death doing something heroic for the Jewish people, etc.)
- The person is going to end up doing some bad things later on, so Hashem takes him or her out of the world so that person won’t die a sinner and so that the person will inherit a good portion in the Next World rather than burn or be totally cut off. (This is a preventative death.)
- In a mass situation (like a plague), there’s the concept that “the destroyer” has been given permission to cut down the good people along with the bad. (Usually, however, the good people are also dying for reasons stated above AND unfathomable reasons. Hashem is always Just. We just pray for Him to be Merciful too.)
- Other reasons I’m not remembering right now.
But to repeat: All of this is a vast oversimplification of the topic.
The calculations of Hashem are far beyond human understanding, as Hashem Himself explained to Moshe Rabbeinu when asked about seeming unfairness in life.
Yet paradoxically, Hashem expects us to both accept His Judgments AND examine things according to our understanding (by using the Guide—Torah—He gifted us) in order to learn from loss and other painful events in order to take lessons for our own self-improvement.
That's right. It's NOT to finger-point or to luxuriate in our feelings of fake self-righteousness, but to self-introspect and thus self-improve.
So, for example, as you can surmise, a person might die due to a combination of the above factors, not just one factor.
(For example, a person can die as an atonement AND because of completing soul-rectification related to stuff from a past incarnation. AND due to other unfathomable reasons.)
Responding to the Message
(That is ONE reason Judaism offers for the death of a child. There are others - as described above.)
This is also why knowledgeable frum people will look at the sudden death of an anti-Torah person and declare, “Onesh!” (punishment) — the lesson there being that we all need to improve our ways to avoid an untimely death, if Hashem wills it.
(We are also supposed to utilize tact and compassion when dealing with the mourners, regardless of who or why a person died.)
Simplistic Thinking vs. Complex Thinking
“When the Leftist anti-Torah guy was run over by a truck, you frummies said he was being punished. But when the innocent child was run over by a truck, you said it was an atonement and everyone needs to do teshuvah. You’re contradicting yourselves! AND you’re also stuck-up know-it-alls because you’re acting like you KNOW the reason why—when you’re contradicting yourselves! You guys are self-centered hypocrites!”
And this black-and-white thinker considers himself extremely clever & insightful for having made this point.
But Judaism already explained why a child might die and why a rasha might die.
And it’s not for the same reason (or not fully for the same reason) — even if it’s the same type of death.
Again, simplistic minds look at only ONE aspect of the equation and jump to a conclusion based on that.
But a more complex thinker looks at as many aspects as he or she can, looks at what Judaism says about it, and THEN gleans a message or lesson from it. (All the while knowing that he or she cannot understand everything about it. Only Hashem can.)
And we ARE supposed to use the events to propel us toward self-improvement.
Real Goodness vs. Pretend Goodness
For example, a Jew might be part of decimating the Jewish people via intermarriage.
Sure, that’s not his intention. He thinks he's being open-minded and helpful. But the bare-boned fact is that he is destructively misguided and he is doing a truly terrible thing that brings terrible din to the world.
And many times, such a person does have an inkling of it because intermarriage and a shrinking Jewish population is discussed ad naseum even among non-Orthodox Jews.
If he married a non-Jewish woman and brought non-Jewish kids into the world, then there is a Jewish lady out there living without her bashert and Jewish kids who cannot be born — i.e., Jewish souls that were meant to come down via his union with his Jewish bat zug, but cannot because the conduit for these souls simply isn’t there.
And to add fat to the fire, he may actively encourage intermarried couples and help them stay married — in other words, actively assisting or encouraging other Jews to commit one of the most destructive sins.
All this is in addition transgressing Shabbat, kashrus, and much else commanded in the Torah.
Yes, he might observe some commandments, like the commandment to give tzedakah or do chessed, but he is mostly indulging some of the most destructive sins — and doing so consistently for decades.
Yet because he has an appealing personality, many people will label him as “a good person,” and furiously resist any peep that he might have died as (or partly as) a punishment for his many very severe transgressions (whether he meant them or not).
This comes because such people cannot accept that Hashem’s definition of good differs from their own.
(And again, even frum people can fall into this mistake.)
But adopting such an egalitarian attitude leads to spiritual stagnancy and eventually, to bitter din.
Avoiding the Cruel Response
No change, no growth, no self-improvement, no overturning horrific judgments, no preventing atrocities — just feelin’ good and self-satisfied.
And yes, even frum people can get all mushy-brained about this, becoming surprisingly defensive if other frum Jews cast judgement on the untimely death of, say, an appealing yet tragically sinful (whether from ignorance or intent) and completely unremorseful Jew points toward this sinful Jew dying because of, well, his sins (at least as part of the reason).
So if something happens to a sincerely frum person (or a person who is on the journey toward being a sincerely frum person, even if he or she hadn’t yet completed that journey), Hashem is giving us a TOTALLY DIFFERENT message than if the same thing happens to a Jew who consistently, copiously, and unremorsefully transgresses Torah.
And yes, of course, there are certainly situations in which the message seems quite muddled.
At a fundamental level, we simply CANNOT KNOW.
But these things do demand at least some self-introspection. Not finger-pointing, but just figuring out at least a little bit of the message and what it means for the rest of us.
To do otherwise is considered cruel, as discussed in the Torah (Vayikra 26:27-28, for one), Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1, Paragraph 3), and numerous other sources.
What Does This Mean for You Individually?
For example, a person who does not keep Shabbat might want to start from there.
Yet a person who already keeps Shabbat should look into improving shemirat Shabbat or focus on another area of Torah in which there is a weakness, like lashon hara, finding the good in others, expressing gratitude to Hashem, and so on.
It depends…which is why each person needs to invest in personal self-introspection to work out the message and direction for him or her.
Just as another example, Rabbi Alon Anava frequently mentions that after his near-death experience, he worked on doing teshuvah from the inside-out. Meaning, he still looked secular on the outside for 2 or 3 years after his big wake-up call because he was working on his middot, inner refinement, and even Shabbat...but he simply didn't LOOK like he was doing all that.
So self-improvement is an individual process.
Needless to say, I'm talking to myself as much as anyone else. I need to do more serious self-introspection & self-improvement as much as anyone.
There’s a general message for klal Yisrael & a personal message for each individual person too.
Summary of Main Points
- Hashem is behind every single occurrence.
- Hashem's definition of good & bad differ than that of society. Suffering & death should be viewed through Hashem's Eyes, and not those of the surrounding society.
- Suffering demands self-introspection: Brachot 5a - "If a man sees that misfortunes are coming upon him, he shall examine his deeds."
- Judaism offers some guidance on finding the messages. (See list toward beginning of post.)
- Tehillim 25:8: "Yoreh chataim b'derech - Hashem teaches unintentional sinners the way." One way to teach is via suffering.
- Gates of Teshuvah: "When a person accepts mussar, and he'll improve his ways and deeds, he should rejoice over them as over great successes."
- Different types of death mean different things, depending on what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, and when.
- We cannot know for sure the reasons behind death and other suffering, but we are expected to search for some kind of message.
- Attributing suffering to natural causes is cruel because it leads to more suffering. (See HERE for more on this idea.)
- Attribution and searching for messages doesn't mean finger-pointing at others. We need to take the lessons for ourselves.
1) If a sinful person dies an untimely or unusual death, it should be a hint to us to fix our own ways so we don't end up like him.
2) If a pure person dies an untimely or unusual death, it should be a hint to us to fix our own ways because that pure person likely died for the sins of their society (i.e., us).
(Note: There are also OTHER reasons, like the person's own tikkunim and stuff leftover from their past lives. but as far as WE go, we focus on the message for US. Their tikkunim are theirs.)
- Judaism is not simplistic.
- Judaism demands the development of complex thinking.
- Judaism fully acknowledges and works with the reality of paradox: 2 opposing ideas can both be true.
- Regardless of the message or reason for suffering or death, people in pain should still be treated with compassion & empathy.