There are no words to adequately describe the horror caused by the tsunami. Watching the disaster unfolding on the film taken by an amateur cameraman in Aceh, Indonesia, left me shaking. How quickly the terror struck! People were going about their daily lives one second and drowning the next. Over 100,000 people are now reported to have lost their lives in this exceptional tragedy.

We all have one question on our lips: Why? Why did innocent babies and children have to die such a painful death?

Related Links
Support the Relief Effort
Crisis Updates
Stories & Links

For those of us who believe in G‑d the question is: How could He have done this? (For those who do not, this just seems to reinforce their skepticism.) Many religious people feel guilty asking G‑d these types of questions. But in fact asking "why" is not only acceptable but it is in the best of Jewish tradition.

Just this past Shabbat we read about such a dialogue between Moses and G‑d. Moses had been sent by G‑d to implore Pharaoh to free the Children of Israel; but instead of acquiescing, Pharaoh increased the already too-heavy burden of work upon the Hebrew slaves. Moses poses the million-dollar question to G‑d: "Why have You done evil to this people?" Disappointingly, G‑d seems to evade the question and merely answers, "Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for through a strong hand will he [Pharaoh] send them out, and with a strong hand will he drive them from his land" (Exodus 5:22-6:1). What kind of answer is this? It does not answer the question! Surely G‑d could have caused Pharaoh to free the Israelites without causing them further suffering and misery. Why did G‑d not answer the question as Moses posed it to Him?

According to the Talmud, there was another occasion when Moses posed the "why?" question and again G‑d refused to answer it. On one of Moses' ascents to heaven G‑d showed him how Rabbi Akiva, the great Talmudic sage, would, in the future, expound the intricacies of Torah law. Moses was duly awed by Rabbi Akiva’s brilliance. Moses turned to G‑d and said, "You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward." G‑d showed Moses that Rabbi Akiva would be cruelly murdered by the Romans during the Hadrianic persecution. "L-rd of the Universe," Moses cried, "such is Torah, and such its reward?!" "Quiet," G‑d replied, "These are my thoughts" (Talmud, Menachot 29a). G‑d seems to be totally unreasonable here. Moses poses a perfectly legitimate question, only to be told by G‑d to be silent.

But if one looks below the surface one finds a very profound idea.

When one is the recipient of tremendously good luck, one may lightheartedly ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" However, not having a sufficiently good answer to this question does not usually trigger a crisis of faith in G‑d. When something bad happens – G‑d forbid – one has a need to know why. One will ask, "Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?"

We do not seem to be able to live comfortably without knowing why bad things happen to us. A person came to see me recently after his long-term girlfriend broke up with him without telling him why she did so. He was obviously devastated, but what hurt him the most was that he would never find out why she did not want to be with him any more. This innate human need to know why negative things happen to us is why all religious philosophers and theologians, of all faiths, have throughout the ages tried to explain why G‑d allows bad things happen to good people. According to Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Treatise 9), and Nahamanides (d. 1270), in his Gate of Reward, for example, the concept of a world-to-come explains suffering in this world.

But when G‑d Himself was asked the question, "why?", He never gave a straight answer. Surely if G‑d is going to make us suffer, He should not exacerbate it by not giving us an adequate reason?

This question takes us to the heart of the answer: it is precisely because we have such a powerful need to know the reason for our suffering that we cannot be told the reason. When we are in pain we cannot be objective. For a person who is undergoing severe suffering and pain, no reason can ever be good enough. The suffering individual may feel the need to know why, but deep down s/he will never fully accept any answer. Moses, the loving shepherd of the Jewish people, needed to know why G‑d made his people suffer. Indeed, Moses cried out indignantly to G‑d. Who could blame a parent for crying about the suffering of his children? Who could ever give parents an adequate reason why their children have to suffer?

It is wrong to attempt to legitimize or rationalize human suffering. No justification in the world could console mothers in Asia whose children were drowned last Sunday. Thus, any answer that G‑d would give would not be good enough for us. We humans could never be objective enough to accept it.

Ironically, the answer given by G‑d to Moses, "Quiet, I know best," is the most appropriate for the occasion. It is like a child who is given bitter medicine by her parent: the child may scream because of the bitterness but because she trusts that there is a good reason to swallow the medicine, the ordeal is tolerable for her.

Knowing that there is a good reason for our suffering — a reason that is beyond us at this moment but nonetheless known by a trustworthy power infinitely greater than ourselves, is a source of comfort. At least we know that we do not suffer and die in vain. So, paradoxically, by asking, "why?", we allow ourselves to be comforted by the answer G‑d fails to give us.