Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy

Q. Do you agree with Harold Kushner’s thesis in his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"?

A. This famous book was published over 40 years ago after the author’s son died from a terrible wasting disease.

Kushner recognised as a fact of life that good people suffer unjustly whilst bad people (at least sometimes or more often) seem to get off scot free.

The way the Talmud puts it is, "tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo" ("The righteous for whom things are not good, the wicked for whom things are good").

One of the classical explanations is that this is the way it appears to our here-and-now human perception, but in the long sweep of history, including the World to Come, the reality may be different.

The argument that Kushner put forward was that we may be asking the wrong question. Instead of measuring a person’s destiny against their moral worth, maybe we should see things in terms of the physical laws of the Creation.

The way the world was made, God has contracted Himself to make room for His creation. The resultant world operates according to parameters which He cannot adjust or interfere with.

It is not that He lacks goodness or morality, but other principles function in Creation and in the final analysis God can only lament when the result seems morally unfair. What He does is to sit on the ground with us and share our pain.

An interesting argument, but as I pointed out in a radio broadcast at the time the book was published, it neither accords with nor satisfies the tradition of Judaism.

What Judaism has to say is that God knows what He is doing, and though we are often surprised and even disturbed at what we see, we trust that in the larger scope of things everything has its place.


Q. Which makes you a better person, sorrow or joy?

A. It depends on the joy and the sorrow. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev says there are two kinds of each.

When you obsess about the misfortunes that have befallen you and you feel lost, alone and unwanted, that is a bad kind of sorrow. But the sorrow that comes from realising what you have lost can help you work through the trauma and handle it constructively.

Joy also has two versions. If you pursue empty pleasures and fail to see that they lack substance you are a fool. But if you have a task to perform and you sing as you work, you know real joy.

Which is better, sorrow or joy? Both can be good; both can be bad.


Pinhas Peli reminds us that one little word has sometimes lost or won an empire. Kipling says something similar.

An example is at the beginning of B’chukkotai, which commences with the word "If", which in Hebrew is "Im". *If* we do the right thing it will make all the difference. *If* we obey the will of God we will enjoy His blessing.

Ibn Ezra remarks that if there is peace amongst us there will be peace all around. *If* we have moral strength we will enjoy the Psalmist’s assurance, "The Lord will give His people strength, the Lord will bless His people with peace" (Psalm 29:11).


This Shabbat we come to the end of the Book of Vayikra. Did we have any guarantee when we started Vayikra a number of weeks ago that we would be able to finish the task?

There is never a guarantee of anything – indeed, as we all know that the Ethics of the Fathers say, "It is not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it" (Avot 2:16).

The verb which we translate "to complete" might have a connection with a similar verb which means "to learn" (as in the noun "gemara"). This suggests that a person must not only carry out the routine tasks in an unthinking way but must also learn from every task, every action and every moment.

We can learn wisdom from teachers and books, but also from life’s experiences. As Shakespeare says, "There are sermons in stones".