The God Squad: Are blessings fair?
Let me ask you to join me in prayers of thankfulness that no hostages lost their lives in the attack on The Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. This was not the case in 2018 when 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was not the case when one woman was murdered and several worshipers injured at the Chabad of Poway, California in 2019 and it was not the case when six Jewish shoppers and one Jersey City cop were murdered at a Kosher Market in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 2019.
I have written this column with Father Tom Hartman and now by myself for over 20 years and the one and only single message we wanted to convey was this; We know enough about how we are different, but not enough yet about how we are all the same.
These antisemitic attacks, as well as other attacks and other murders of innocent people from other religions and races and sexual orientations are abominations to God. They are proof that we do not know yet how we are all the same. I do not know why people hate, but I do know that such hatred is a test of our communal will to love and protect each other. I do know that the good in us will win. What I do not know is when. The rabbis taught, “Why did God make one person to begin with? So that in the time to come no one would be able to say, ‘My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’” May we all learn the lesson of Adam.
Q: Why am I so blessed, and others have a life of sadness, starvation, pain and torture? -- D
A: Thank, you dear D, for your brief but deeply profound question. Let me share with you with equal spiritual brevity all the possible answers to your questioning of your blessings:
“I deserve my blessings and others deserve their misery.” This is the response of people who believe that the evil that befalls us is caused by our own sins and our blessings are caused by our own virtues. The refutation of this arrogant belief is the Book of Job which describes the suffering of a totally innocent man.
“I don’t deserve my blessings, but I am chosen by God who has showered me with blessings as a sign of God’s love for me.”
This is the belief in predestination found in the writings of Calvinism. Some believe that the Jewish belief in being the chosen people is like this. The refutation of this equally arrogant belief is the suffering of the supposedly chosen people.
“It’s all luck.” This is the belief of those who claim no religious beliefs. For them there is no justice in the world and no fairness in the bestowal of blessings. Good and bad things happen to people who do not deserve them. It is all just random luck. No God, no justice. Life is just not fair. The refutation of this despairing view are the lives lived by good people among us. They have friends and they have joy and they are generous. Those for whom luck has replaced hope live lives of despair. Good people can be hurt but good people cannot be defeated.
And now … my choice…
“The reward for a good deed is the good deed itself.” This was the choice of Rabbi Ben Azzai and it was the choice of Immanuel Kant. The rewards for good deeds are the good deeds themselves, not some other kind of spiritual payoff. We do not necessarily become rich by doing good, but we become good and that is enough. If we were rewarded for our virtues, then our virtues would just be a means to an end (the rewards). If, however, goodness is its own reward then we have suddenly severed the mistaken connection between doing good and doing well. The blessings you speak of, dear D, are blessings that have nothing to do with material success which comes to people for many reasons. Diligence, sacrifice, honesty, curiosity, hard work, healthy eating, exercise, and the luck of having parents who valued such virtues and who had the resources to provide you with a good education — these are the reasons people have success and sadly some of the prerequisites for such success are not available to all people. We all need to work hard to create a society where the fruits of success are equally available to all people. However, the blessings of faith and courage, of hope and kindness — these blessings we can all achieve by loving a God who loves us back and wants us to love each other. This is what I believe and what I know. Everything else about God’s management of the universe is simply above my pay grade.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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