Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Do Good People Die Young - Part 1

This was posted once before but a comment on a previous post promted me to put this up here for you to read again.

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.


  1. We can't try to understand it...I know that. But why does it seem like it's the good people who die young? Does it only seem that way?

  2. thanks Devorah I read through this a couple times today and it's really on my mind, it is also beautifully written

  3. Thank you for reminding me that I can't understand Hashem's will. It seems so basic, but I needed the reminder!

  4. MW - I guess it depends on who you are looking at. I can tell you that there are people who weren't what we would call good and they did die young. Maybe there's less talk about it but I do remember when someone close to us lost their son due to drug overdose. The family did an amazing thing - they started an organization to help families dealing with all kinds of issues, teens at risk, the whole nine yards...
    So is it only the good ones that are taken away at a young age? I don't know. But when a child who is good dies, it's good to have this kind of answer - to help us realize that we don't understand the whole picture and there's a reason behind it all.

    Sheva-I'm glad this helped somewhat and I'm sorry that so many of us need to hear this. Read it as many times as you need until the message seeps in!



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