I would guess that the most popular book among non-Jews by a contemporary rabbi is Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In this 1981 book, Rabbi Kushner describes his struggle to develop a theology that would help him cope when his young son was diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease. However, almost everyone who mentions the book refers to it as “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
That’s a question that neither Rabbi Kushner nor any other rabbi can answer with any certainty. The best any of us can do is to find an explanation that works for us right now.
But that’s the answer people want — why? Why is my child going to suffer and die in his early teens? Why was my friend killed in a terrorist attack? Why does my father have Alzheimer’s? Why was our house destroyed by a fire? Why do I have cancer?
Why, why, why? It’s not fair — I don’t deserve this — why me?
None of us has a definitive answer, and none of the suggested answers is without problems of its own. Why do bad things happen to good people? You can say that God is cruel or indifferent. You can say that God is not all-powerful. You can say that the suffering is not undeserved — it’s punishment for sins. Or you can say, as does the Book of Job, that there is no reason we can discern — and God doesn’t owe us an answer.
Still, what is significant is that people typically question why bad things happen to people who have done nothing to deserve them. You almost never hear anyone question why good things happen to people who have done nothing to deserve them. Why did I deserve a promotion and a big raise when other people are unemployed? Why do my children deserve to be healthy, bright, and well-adjusted? It’s not fair that my mother is 85 and in great health except for a touch of arthritis.
We are all too willing to accept undeserved good as our due even when there is no objective reason that we should be favored. We are typically quick to complain and slow to express gratitude. We see it in parashat Ha’azinu, in Moses’ final song: So Yeshurun grew fat and kicked — You grew fat and gross and coarse — He forsook the God who made him — And spurned the Rock of his support.
The song is a prophecy. When Israel has settled in their land and they have begun to achieve a measure of prosperity, they will forget that what they have is a gift from God. In their arrogance, they will believe that the good that comes their way is solely the result of their own efforts and merits.
I suppose it’s natural that we want to take full credit for our successes and triumphs and find someone else to blame for our faults and failures, but ingratitude is an ugly thing.
Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser wrote:
I did not make the air I breathe
Nor the sun that warms me…
I did not make the muscles
Of hand and brain
With the strength
To plough and plant and harvest…
I am not
A self-made man.
None of us is a self-made man or woman. When good things happen we have an obligation to express our gratitude to everyone who has contributed to providing us with more than we deserve — parents, teachers, spouse, doctors, co-workers, friends, the letter carrier who brings the good news, and the waitress who serves the celebratory meal. And, of course, to the Holy Blessed One who had made us all.