Most of us are not surrounded by death.
It makes it easier to pretend.
To pretend that we won’t die.
In our part of the world, a child dying is a tragedy that is made even more poignant by the fact that most people live to a ripe old age.
In other places in space and time, places that we try not to think about too often, a child dying is an everyday occurrence. In such places, parents simply don’t expect that all of their children will survive.
In our part of the world, a woman who goes into labour, despite the agony and the terror, expects to come out of the other side alive.
In other places in space and time, women routinely die in child birth.
Some people, in different places in space and time, are surrounded by death. Death is, for them, a part of their everyday life. For them, it’s harder to pretend.
The Rabbis of the Talmud lived in the midst of death. They couldn’t escape its stench. How many of them lost children? It would have been the norm. Rabbi Meir and Bruria lost two sons on the same Shabbat. Bruria didn’t mention it to him until after havdala, for the Torah commands us to rejoice on the Sabbath day. How many of them lost their wives in labour? They lived amidst the stench of death.
And it led them to say the most horrifying things. Children and wives die because you didn’t fulfill your vows? Women die in labour because they weren’t stringent in certain rituals? Children die in their youth because their parents didn’t buy or take care of their mezuzot?
These things seem hideous. How callous to blame the woman for the death that befalls her in labour, when it was you who made her pregnant. How dare you justify the suffering of the child because a scribe missed out a letter on your mezuzah?
A rabbi told me a true story. He went to a tragic shiva. A friend of his had lost a child. His friend, in the midst of his grief, was angry that people had told him to check his mezuzot. As if God would be so cruel to kill a child for such a thing. As if the absurd injustice of child mortality has some easy justification. And then somebody at the shiva had the audacity to argue back. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you really should check your mezuzot.’ My Rabbi, at this shiva, was incensed by the insensitivity. He told the man in question that it was ridiculous to think that mezuzot had anything to do with the senseless loss of a child. At that point, the grieving father told my Rabbi to be quiet. Later, the grieving father explained that the man who my rabbi was arguing with had also lost a child. Subsequently, that man had found that some of his mezuzot weren’t kosher. And, somehow, though it was an offensive suggestion in the ears of this grieving father, it had helped that man with his grief.
But what about the people it doesn’t help? What about the people that it hurts? The people that it accuses of murder and suicide?
I have no answer.
I love the Talmud and I subject myself to its halakhic authority. But this isn’t halakha. This is philosophy, or theology. It’s theodicy. And I can just say, no.
But there are two ways to read these words of the Rabbis. You could read it as an explanation. Person A died for reason X. And now all is explained.
Or you can accept that there is no explanation.
But then, in certain places in time and space, you just have live with the stench of death permanently in your nostrils.
Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, in the wake of the holocaust, that evil exists and cannot be explained. It is a mystery never to be unraveled. Person A didn’t die for reason X, because evil is something that we can never claim to understand.
In his words: ‘We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose, but, rather, about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions.’
I think Rabbi Soloveitchik would have to argue that the Rabbis didn’t really think that a faulty mezuzah was an explanation of a child’s premature death; that the Rabbis didn’t really think that not taking enough dough out of the mixture so as to satisfy the ritual requirement of challa was an adequate explanation of a woman’s dying in childbirth.
But, in the face of evil, and these people lived in the constant presence of death, if we don’t have anything to say, by way of explanation, then at least give me something to do; give me mezuzot to fix, and challa to take. Give me a response to all of this misery.
When Rabbis today blame evil upon certain sins, they blaspheme. They assume that they know God’s inscrutable ways. But today, most of us live hidden from death.
The Talmud was written in the midst of death. And perhaps it can be read with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s eyes. In the face of inexplicable evil, don’t ask why. Ask, what now?