Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Do Good People Die Young? Part 1

Someone asked the following question: Stories like those you write of your brother do the opposite of inspiring me. they frustrate me to no end. its the very picture of tzaddik v'ra lo. there are times i read stories like these and i feel almost sure that being too good,too holy is a sure way to shorten your life. you read the obituaries in the papers and they are full of young righteous people. your brother did everything right. i'm sure he earned arichut yamim, so why didn't he get too see 16? i don't find any peace in hearing its hashem's will. that kind of answer reminds me of when i was a kid and my mother would tell me "because i said so, thats why" . its a throw away answer and leaves me no wiser than before i asked. if a boy like this didn't have the zechutim to save him, if the couple in dubai didn't have the zechutim to save them, if talia applebaum didn't have the zechuyot to save her, what hope is there for us regular folks? why should God grant me life and not them? I'm sorry if this rubs salt on a wound but i need to know.

I thought it would be important for me to ask this question to someone a little bit more knowledgeable than myself, even though I do have what to say to answer this question from my own perspective. The following is what R' Dovid Levine wrote to me but I just want to explain something before posting his answer.

It is difficult to answer this question without knowing the background of the person asking it. There is know way to know what her circumstances are, the level she is on right now and where she is holding hashkafically. Even so, I will post the answer that is somewhat universal and everyone can relate to. (I would recommend reading it a second time because I think there is a lot to gain from rereading all of it.)

Having said all that, here is the first part, a more general answer that he gave me.

I am hesitant answering such questions in writing. You don’t know who the person is, what their background is, their degree of religious practice and knowledge, what pain they are feeling, what their sensitive spots are, in what terms to couch the answer...And much more. Still, you probably must answer since it was asked.

The underlying assumption of this question is that G-d and I are equals, on the same page, able to “understand each other”. Just as I assume I can understand another person, I can understand G-d. If I find fault in my friends actions and choices, I lay the blame at his or her feet. I don’t infer that my reasoning is faulty. This is less than gracious when it comes to my friend (I never have a hard time justifying my own choices, so why don’t I assume my friend has valid reason for his or her decisions?). It is invalid about G-d. My G-d created heaven and earth, and all that is in it. I was not there when He formed earth, and I could never measure the heavens. I don’t know how He made the enormous subterranean force that grinds tectonic plates into one another, raising mountains. I don’t know how those plates float on the liquid core. I don’t know how He made the lava boiling up from under the plates enable life to exist by creating a balance of oxygen and carbon in the atmosphere. And I don’t know why He brings earthquakes that cause massive destruction.

I don’t know how He gathered the seas, or how He keeps them from overflowing the land. I don’t know how He powers tidal flow that is essential for life. I don’t know how He made ice the only substance that expands when it freezes, protecting water-bound life in the winter. And I don’t know why He make tidal waves that sweep away masses of life and beauty.

I don’t know how He makes the sun rises and sets every day. I don’t know how He changes the seasons, and how He gets the animals and plants to match the rhythm of seasonal pattern. I don’t know how He makes the wind blow or the rain fall. And I don’t know why He makes droughts or monsoons or hurricanes or tornadoes that wreck people’s lives.

I have never been to the depths of the sea or even visited all the continents. I didn’t know when I would be born and I don’t know how long I will live.

I couldn’t rotate the earth, much less spin the solar system around the sun, and certainly not swirl this Milky Way galaxy with its hundred-billion stars. (A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is...32 YEARS! To count the stars in our galaxy would take over 3000 years – almost since Matan Torah. And that is just one out of over 200 billion galaxies!) And I can’t coordinate the events of someone’s life.

I don’t know how my heart or liver or kidney work. I can’t scratch the surface of the complexity of DNA. And I don’t know why these systems stop functioning or cause suffering through cancer and break down.

I can’t hunt for a lion or supply food for the birds or cause deer to give birth. I don’t know why some birds sing beautifully and some birds have stunning plumage. I don’t understand why some animals care for their young and some young fend for themselves. I couldn’t decide which animals should eat their offspring, and which animals should feed on their parent’s bodies.

I didn’t make the horse fast or the snail slow. I didn’t make the tiger brave and the sloth timid. I couldn’t make a bird that flies or a fish that swims.

My G-d is greater and wiser than my understanding or yours. If you understand why your G-d decides something and how He carries it out, he is not my G-d. A G-d who always needs to act according to my understanding is not much of a G-d.

This is G-d’s answer to Iyov’s question (which is in essence your question), all the way at the end of the sefer in chapters 38-40.

I don’t accept what G-d does in blind faith. It makes perfect sense to me that a G-d is beyond my grasp, that I should not be able to explain what He does. I don’t believe that is what He wants me to do with my life – spend it pondering the imponderables.

I do know this: G-d has no pleasure from the life or death of the righteous or wicked. If He needs my service, He is not G-d. He gives me life for me, not for him. I don’t know why or how, but since He is infinite and unchanging, it must be for me. I might try to apply some superficial understanding to make going on easier for me to accept, but I must never confuse those flavorings for real reasons or causes. Still, I know it is not for Him, so it must be for my benefit.

My brother was a good boy and he also died at 16. I might try to make it more palatable by saying he was a good person so G-d took him away in place of many others. Maybe yes, maybe no. But I can’t expect to understand why he dies any more than I understand why or how I am alive! I know it was not for G-d’s benefit, so it must have been for us. Good people die and bad people die. And they all die for a good reason – for them to reach their goals and for us to reach our goals. This does not mean I am happy or joyous when they die because I know it is good. That would be cruel and insensitive. It is good because it fulfills G-d’s will, which is finally for the benefit of creation and me. It still hurts. And that too is for the benefit of the purpose of the world. I need to use that pain as well to be successful in my mission. Part of that mission is to increase my knowledge of G-d’s control, unity, and greatness.

Some young people die. Most of us live much longer. Everyone is so confused and tortured by the short life of the few, but no one is too concerned or wonders too much about the long life of the many. I want to know why someone did not wake up on the 5475th day of his life, but they took 5474 mornings until then for granted. Both are for the same purpose – to know G-d.

You can be good and live long or short, you can be bad and live long or short. I don’t do good because I want to have zechusim to bribe G-d into giving me lots of goodies, whatever I think those goodies might be. I am good because that it the best thing to be. Good happens to good people – that does not mean they have lives of fun and candy. It means they have all the tools to do what they want most – to fulfill their mission in life. Sometimes it is through having a short life. Sometimes it is through living until an old age. Wicked people also get the tools to do what they want – to destroy themselves and others. And they lose the tools to do what they need to do, which is to do good. The Rambam explains all this in the ninth chapter of Hilchos Teshuva.

Our problems begin when we lose site of G-d’s greatness and our deficiency. We want to sit G-d on a couch and psychoanalyze Him and diagnose Him with some human frailty. And them we get angry with Him for acting so badly! G-d is too big for any couch. And he has no needs at all, ever, in any way. Finished. So why do these things happen? For us. For us to accept His judgment and serve Him with. For us to grow with. For us to use for good. That is what Nochum Ish Gamzu meant when he said “Gam zu letovah” – this too is for good – for the perfect good of creation – to know and serve our Great, Mighty, and Awesome G-d.

Read part two by clicking over here.


  1. I am mamash wowed by this answer. It really does have much depth and insight! I want to add s/t small, but first wanted to tell Devoiry and Chaya Sara that I wrote a note under "anonymous" in the past sefiras haomer post. I don't think that you read it, so I will just tell you now (b/c I have a feeling it will be read under this post:) that I'm new to this site and amazed how you answer and give over such complex ideas in a way that is palatable and understandable. Anyone can ask and answer anything anonymously, which is so important. Since I browsed some of your postings, I have put your site on my "favorites" and search it regrularly. Thank you:)

    I wanted to add one small change of perspective from R. Kirzner in his series of suffering (in my own words). He says that people use the words "good" and "bad" to describe the events that are happening in this world. This is where people might get this sort of question of tzadik vra lo, because, if something feels "bad" to me, then how can it be "good"? He says to replace the words "good" and "bad" with the words "purposeful" and "not purposeful". This way, you can understand that although something may seem "bad" to you, it can still be "purposeful". Purposeful, as this answer so well states, to fulfill your mission in life, to do ratzon Hashem...etc. (you also read the answer:)
    This change of wordings has helped me...hope it helps you too :)

  2. I also to thank you, Chaya Sara and Devoiry, for the time that you put into this site. I'm sure that you sit and think on how to write and explain certain things. You have to think/find/ask on how to answer the questions you receive, or just what to write for a post. I see that some of these posts were put up at even 2,3 in the morning!! thank you and may your efforts be a huge zechus for both of you. And may you continue to have the strength to inpire people ;)

  3. Such a powerful message! Thank you so much!

  4. Is the bottom line that we cannot begin to fathom Hashem's ways, so we just must accept and try our best to build our relationship with Him?

  5. So Ive been having trouble with this for a while: usually understanding is a core necessity in any relationship. But the more I grow, the more Im realizing that there is very little about the way G-d runs His world tht i understand. And i accept this wholeheartedly and trust tht Hashems taking care of me regardless of if i see it or not, but i feel like like its so so hard to get to know Hashem and build a relationship with Him, when i cant begin to make sense of the things i see in His world! Thanks so much, there is really nothing quite like getting answers. :)))

  6. So, practically speaking, what are concrete tools that I can use to connect to Hashem (which is our whole purpose on this planet) if I can't fathom his actions, and I can't question...I want that emuna peshuta soo badly...but how do I get there in my mind and in my heart?

  7. wowed-thanks for your comments. I did read your other comments you left on the other posts (all comments get sent to my email address) and I really appreciate that you like what you read and let us know about it! It means a lot to both of us when people come back and comment to let us know that this blog is serving its purpose, so thanks! And the posts put up at 2 or 3 in the morning are probably not mine-they are more likely to be Chaya Sara's and yes, she does deserve a great big thank you for this blog cuz it was all her idea!!

    I really like that thought from R' Kirzner a lot! Thanks so much for adding that! It's such a good way of looking at life and the things that happen to us!

    And amen to your bracha! Keep coming back to read and comment!!


    Anon-I think the point is that if we were able to understand each and every detail of what Hashem does, we would be unable to relate to Him as a G-d. Because a G-d has to be someone who is way above our understanding! We can try to understand a person and the reasons why they do specific things but Hashem needs to be way above and beyond our understanding in order for Him to be a G-d. Does that explain it?

    *shnooky* Thanks! And you can read the next comment.

    Yearning-About getting closer to Hashem, I think a big part of it is making yourself aware of all the good things Hashem does for you and acknowledging and thanking Him for everything He does. It's about being more aware of His presence in your life. If someone is able to do that, they are already on the road to building a relationship with Him and getting closer to Him.
    You can read through this post called Bringing Hashem Into Your Everyday Life and another post called One Thank You about appreciation and noticing the good things Hashem does for you. I hope this helps!

  8. Firstly a huge thank you!bein that u get posts to ur email evn if I'm a bit late I hope u cld answer me I'm sort of on the same page as "yearning" and many other teens for tht matter - I find tht teens from frum orthodox homes hav It hard in this area self included were brought up to do by default so bH at this point I try extra hard to be positive and constant hakaras hatov and using Hashems name all the time to mark His presence in my life (Baruch Hashem , I'm yirtze Hashem...) And I like to alwayz kiss mezuzas.. Little things as constant reminders but I still x feel tht connection tht I'm lookin for and I knw it x com ez but... I feel I would b a happier better mor spiritual if I was closer to Hashem and really felt a father child relationshi p with Him is there another Idea u hav for me to feel connected there's somethin missin in the equation I jst x knw exactly wat - I knw its my heart but I x knw how to get my heart in it

  9. Anon-Another way to get closely connected to Hashem and build a relationship with Him is through His Torah. This is the way He communicated His will and by learning something spiritual, you will find yourself coming closer to Hashem. You will also find yourself loving yiddishkeit more when you realize that the things you learn relate to you on a day-to-day basis. One suggestion is to learn pirkei avos which talks about many different topics and includes middos and how they can be improved. Learning these things will help you connect to Hashem-it's automatic because through learning His torah, you are getting to know Him better!

    Let me know if this helps!


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