My daughter called me before the Sabbath in terrible pain. Beyond trying to process the deaths of 45 religious Jews at Mount Meron during Lag B’Omer celebrations, she was in an argument on a chat group with a woman who said that the deaths had a reason. This woman prophesized that God sent these 45 men to their deaths in order to teach the rest of us Jews a lesson. God hates the current divisions within the Jewish community and the political polarization in Israel. So he sent this tragedy as a wake-up call to the rest of us. I should mention that the woman in question — religious herself — wrote all this when the bodies had not yet been buried. My daughter told me the woman’s comments made her sick. I told her they made me want to puke as well.
That was only the beginning. Over the next few days, I witnessed countless media columnists analyze thedeaths of 45 Haredim in other ways. Some said that the Haredim had it coming, as they so often flaunt the police and the rules. Others said that this just proves that the Haredim, many of whom didn’t abide by all the rules of the coronavirus, have now learned that self-governance comes with a price. Left unsaid through all this stomach-turning justification was that these 45 completely innocent people were parents, husbands and children of many people who loved them.
It is true that Mount Meron was a turning point in Israeli history. Not because of how many people died. That was shocking and horrible beyond words, a truly unspeakable tragedy. Rather, what made it a turning point was that it was the first time I actually witnessed the Jewish community trivializing the deaths of fellow Jews with insensitive nonsense — without consequences.
Imagine if someone had written something similar about the Holocaust: “Sure, six million is a terrible price. But it serves them right. They should have known to be Zionists and emigrate to Palestine. Did two thousand years of European anti-Semitism teach them nothing?” Or, imagine if someone had written the same of the 11 Israeli athletes who were slaughtered in Munich: “Truly, a terrible tragedy. But what did they expect, returning to Germany just 25 years after the Holocaust?”
Let’s at least agree that any columnist writing such things would probably have experienced severe censure. But telling 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews that they should have known better somehow became acceptable, even as the grief-stricken families were scrambling just to bury their loved ones before the Sabbath.
Let me be absolutely clear: What happened in Meron was one of the worst tragedies to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust. It is an unmitigated tragedy. There is no reason and no justification for their deaths. There is no good that came from their deaths. No lesson for the collective Jewish people. No celestial or cosmic redemption to be earned from their loss. They should be alive. We mourn, along with their families and the entire House of Israel. I am so sorry for their families. The pain must be beyond excruciating. May none of us ever know any such tragedy, God forbid.
The fact that there should have been greater police oversight? The fact that the Haredim need more civic rules to govern their gatherings? There will be time for all of those investigations and ruminations. They are, of course, necessary and essential. But not now. Not during the Shiva. Let the families grieve without our insensitive commentary.
Let the families grieve without our insensitive commentary.
Eleven years ago I visited Haiti with my daughter Mushki, just days after the earthquake that decimated the island and killed hundreds of thousands of people. We brought food and supplies with a Christian relief organization. I witnessed suffering beyond human imagination. The stench of death was quite literally all around us.
When I returned I spoke publicly of why a good God allows the innocent to suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in idol worship.
“Surely you don’t mean to say that the morgue filled with the babies that I witnessed, the stench so bad that I was gagging, deserved to die? Or that the discarded bodies I saw being eaten by dogs, deserved their fate?” I asked.
I have always been puzzled why many religious people enjoy portraying God as executioner-in-chief and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering. The Holocaust, for example, produced two camps of Jews. One camp decided that the Jews had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But the other camp had a much more Jewish response; they rejected any theological justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the creating a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide.
The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God put an end to it. The very name “Israel” translates as, “He who wrestles with God.” We argue with God over the loss of every innocent human life. We never justify suffering.
So many of us search for a reason why people die. They want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s important in life. But I argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply immoral.
Of course, suffering can lead ultimately to positive outcomes. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly goes bankrupt can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats his subordinates poorly can soften when he is told that he, God forbid, has a challenging health issue.
But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?
Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through a more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge portion to charity. A rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and consecrates his celebrity to the relief of African poverty.
Yes, the Holocaust led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations that came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers.
Here is another way that Jewish values strongly differ from other value systems. Many religions believe that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of humankind through his own torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die so that the sins of mankind are erased.
But Judaism, which prophesizes a perfect Messianic future where there is no death or pain, ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse. Jews, therefore, are obligated to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical consciousness, devoid and bereft of hope.
Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and envy other people’s happiness. If individuals become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering rather than its endurance.
Speak to Holocaust survivors and ask them what they gathered from their suffering, aside from loneliness, heartbreak and outrage. Sure, they also learned the value of life and the sublime quality of human companionship. But these lessons could easily have been learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of one’s relatives as ash.
I believe that my parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper appreciation of family and a greater embrace of religion. Yet I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical or pessimistic the way children of divorce can sometimes be.
Whatever good individuals, or the world in general, receive from suffering can be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faiths to cease justifying the deaths of innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors.
The Meron 45 are deeply missed. May their memory be an unmitigated blessing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the best-selling author of 30 books and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has just published “Lust For Love” with the actress Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.