December 23, 2010

Review: When Bad Things Happen To Good People


For the past month I’ve been slogging away reading When Bad Things Happen To Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Why, during this joyous time of Hanukkah, Christmas and the upcoming New Year would I read such a book? One that seems to focus on how to uplift someone who is feeling low. A book that the average person wouldn’t run out to get. A book that deals with bad things happening. Who wants to read a book like that unless they’re feeling the suckitude of life and want someone to tell them that it’s going to be OK?

Well, I didn’t really want to read this book. It’s more that I felt compelled to read it. I felt that if I was going to meet Rabbi Harold Kushner, then I probably should at least read his zillion-selling international best seller.  Not that he’d probably care, but I’d feel better.  I mean, after all, I am one of those ‘good people’.  And why, you ask, would I be meeting Rabbi Kushner? He was here for a program with my synagogue.

Back in October, I wrote about how sometimes we speak before you think. And when I say we, I mean me. But it makes me feel better, because I’m sure you’ve never done that. But, well, I did. And to none other than my Rabbi, who happens to be friends with Rabbi Kushner. Incase you don’t remember, yah, I told him that I received a copy of this book a few years ago and once out of sight from the giver I threw it in the trash. Classy, huh?

But having read it now, I can say that I don’t think I’d have gotten out of it what I needed if I had read it back then.  There are still many parts of the book I don’t get. Basically, most of the parts about the biblical character JOB. In talking to my Rabbi, he assured me that I got what I needed and we’ll discuss the rest in due time.

Here’s the thing, the book was not what I had imagined it to be. If you’re not familiar with the bible (and when I say bible I really mean Old Testament and its commentaries) most of the book will be worthless to you. Rabbi Kushner discusses the fact that JOB had this series of unfortunate events and what his response was as well as the response of his friends and those G-D sent to comfort him.

The book goes on to talk about the often stated human view that G-D has everything planned. That these so-called bad things are as much an act of G-D as are the good things in our lives. Rabbi Kushner disagrees with that premise. Kushner believes that G-D is good but can not change the laws of nature, suspend reality, make magic, or force humans into doing only good. It is not G-D that does good or bad through people. Rather, it is because we were given free will that we can choose to do things that may cause a negative impact on others. For as much as G-D does not create the good things people do, HE does not create or control the bad things.

G-D can’t stop the person from drinking, getting in their car and driving. Nor can G-D make you drive slower, missing the intersection when the drunk driver runs the red light. It’s not G-D that causes the accident. Its not G-D punishing you for doing something wrong by having this person crash into you.

I tell you, I get it. But at the same time I’m not solidly grasping it. I think of that phrase ‘G-D will never give you more than you are capable of handling’ and I wince. What? How does G-D know what I can and can not do? If G-D did, then it would be really nice to know this in advance.

Toward the end, Rabbi Kushner states what should be put in bold and underlined. It’s not a matter of ‘Why me?’, but rather ‘Now what?’

When tragedy struck my family about 3-and-a-half years ago I tried to figure out why. Why me. Why my daughter. Why my family. I tried to come to grips with maybe G-D knew something I didn’t. I’ve been searching. I’ve been trying to explain the unexplainable. Other than the fact that some asshat made a choice, a bad choice from my perspective and that of the court, how do I explain what happened? Question after question.

And now I know.  Ok, I don’t really know, but I’m starting to understand why I responded like I did.  The ‘Why me?’ set in but the ‘Now what?’ took over. I did everything I could to make the law kick in and take over and bring judgement upon the perpetrator. On earth, G-D does not judge. We do. Judges do. People do. This ‘bad thing’ didn’t happen to my family because WE had done something wrong. Some jerk decided that he was making a choice. G-D did not make him do it. G-D is not evil! G-D doesn’t reign down bad or terrible or evil or horrible any more than HE can make you win the lottery, make you pregnant or not pregnant, save you from fire or prevent suffering.

If you’ve gotten to this point in your life and have never had anything bad happen, that’s great. Most of us haven’t. At some time we’ve all faced difficulties, challenges, events we view as bad. It’s not a matter of ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why not me?’. The final decision is, instead, ‘What am I going to do now?’ We’re all capable of overcoming bad things, and some people do it more easily, gracefully and effortlessly than others.

Few people know the tragedy that befell my family. I’ve only told about 10 people. All of whom, if I could capture their reaction on film, are horrified. Most of whom look at me and wonder how I’m still doing what I do. I’ll tell you, it’s not easy some days. But what was easy was I knew part of the answer to the ‘Now what?’ question.

Rabbi Kushner doesn’t discuss the guilt part in depth. He brushes up against it. It’s basically something we all just need to come to terms with like all other aspects of the ‘bad thing’. Sometimes we’re impacted by this bad thing not directly but rather because it happens to our child, our spouse, our sibling, our friend in the car. Yet, we’re riddled with guilt over what happened to someone we care about. It’s part of the fall-out, I think. It’s part of the fact that we’re connected to other people. Often we even say ‘If only it was me and not them.’ As with other aspects of dealing with tragedy, Kushner believes the recovery is in how we respond. And I’d have to agree.

Some people seem to snap back, others are never the same. Why is that? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a very interesting and deep book. I also know it’s not for everyone. It’s definitely not one of those ‘Girls Book of the Month Club’ books. While I highly recommend it, I think you have to be in the right mindset to fully get what Rabbi Kushner is talking about. Just as I wasn’t ready to read this book before, only you will know if you’re ready to digest what Rabbi Kushner has to say.

I’d also like to add, this isn’t a Jewish book. There are references to the Old Testament and a few other Jewish scholars and scholarly works. However, it’s written by a Rabbi for anyone who is wondering ‘Why Me?’



Cycleguy December 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

I think you “got it”. I think sometimes we look for answers, and its not really that simple. What’s next is a good place to be….love ya!

Ariana December 23, 2010 at 11:39 am

love, loved that book, I read it a long time ago, need to re-visit and pray to G-d for being blessed.

Laura (@chambanalaura) December 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I haven’t read this book but I know it is on my parent’s book shelf. I will have to get it out. I have read some of Rabbi Kushner’s writings and he is inspiring to me.

The Stiletto Mom December 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Wow. Best post I’ve read in a while and I think I need this book. I’ve had “one of those years”. I will gladly set flames to 2010 at midnight on 12/31. I haven’t lost anyone, nor has anything tragic on a physical level happened to me personally but I’ve watched my friends lose children and suffer life altering injuries. Mine problems are far more superficial. Combined though, I’ve been asking a lot of “Why me? Why them?” questions this year with no answers.

I have no idea what happened to your daughter, but having met you, you are an amazingly strong and smart woman. I’m always amazed at the strength of people, and especially women, to move forward in the face of the unthinkable.

See you at Bliss in a few weeks, and thanks for the great recommendation, going to pull it up on Kindle right now!

Kim P. December 24, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Wow. I think this was a book you needed to read it when you did. I read your post and thought you are getting to a better place. Recovery is a good place to reach for. More like moving forward. It’s so hard to move forward but I fear more if we don’t. I’m always here if you need me.

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