Iyov—A Model Servant of Hashem? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This past summer, TABC conducted its eleventh annual Tanach Kollel. More than twenty young men enjoyed studying Sefer Iyov, a vitally important Sefer which most Jews do not have the good fortune to study. This coming June we will, IY”H and B”N, be studying Sefer Ezra-Nechemiah and we look forward to another productive and enjoyable week of Tanach study from June 16 to June 19.

Did Iyov Serve Hashem from Love or Fear?

In this essay, we share the Tanach Kollel’s analysis of the Mishnah (Sotah 5:5), which records a fundamental dispute regarding how to evaluate Iyov’s character:

Rabi Yehoshua ben Hyrkanos taught: "Iyov served Hashem only out of love, as it states (Iyov 13:15), "Though he slays me for Him (‘Lo’- Lamed Vav), I pine." However, the meaning is still not certain, for perhaps it should be understood as, "Though He slays me, I do not pine" (‘Lo’- Lamed Aleph[1])? It is rather the former. Iyov later states, "I shall not lose my integrity until I die" (Iyov 27:5).

The Mishnah records that Rabi Yehoshua ben Hyrkanos made this point on a very distinct day in Tannaitic history—the  day Rabban Gamliel was unseated as Nasi, head, of the Yeshivah and Sanhedrin at Yavneh and replaced by Rabi Elazar ben Azaryah. On that day, Rabban Gamliel’s restrictive admission policy to the Yeshivah was rescinded and many more students entered the Yeshivah (Berachot 28a). The spiritual energy was so great that many breakthrough approaches were developed on that very day, including that of Rabi Yehoshua ben Hyrkanos.

This approach is quite revolutionary as Rabi Yehoshua responds:

Who can remove the dust from your eyes, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (who had died years before)! For you had always interpreted on each of your days of your life that Iyov served Hashem only out of fear, as it states about Iyov that, “He was a man that was whole-hearted and upright, and one that feared God, and shunned evil” (Iyov 1:1). Now Yehoshua, the Talmid of your Talmid, comes and asserts that Iyov served Hashem from love!?

This dispute as to whether Iyov served Hashem out of love or fear is not a trivial matter. All agree that Iyov is a servant of Hashem (Iyov 42:7) and is a God fearing man (Iyov 1:1). However, the question arises of whether Iyov served as a model of piety by serving Hashem from love, or as a model of a servant who served from fear.

Challenging Hashem

It is surprising to present Iyov as one who serves Hashem from love in light of Iyov’s questioning Hashem rather forcefully throughout the Sefer. Iyov challenges Hashem to explain why He has suddenly stripped him of his wealth, family and health. He demands that Hashem explain to him why He targets him and asks (13:3), “Is it good for You to inflict harm?” Later (19:6) Iyov even declares, “Hashem has wronged me!” Does one who has suffered terribly, such as Iyov, enjoy the right to speak this way towards Hashem? Interestingly, towards the conclusion of Sefer Iyov (42:7), Hashem tells Eliphaz that he, Bildad and Tzofar, “have not spoken about Me properly, as My servant Iyov.” This seems to imply that Hashem sanctions the manner in which Iyov complained to Him. Nonetheless, Metzudat David (ad loc. s.v. KeAvdi Iyov), reflecting the opinion of Rava (Bava Batra 16a), understands Hashem as saying that the three friends had spoken improperly just as Iyov had spoken improperly.Does Iyov constitute a legitimate role model for those who suffer intensely? Although Sefer Iyov does not offer a conclusive resolution to our query, nonetheless, a reference to Eichah might present a standard for those who are suffering. In Megillat Eichah, harsh statements are directed towards Hashem such as, “He reared His bow like an enemy” (2:4), “You killed and had no mercy” (2:21) and “He ambushes me like a bear, like a lion in hiding” (3:10). I heard Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explain that normally we follow Chazal’s directive to, “Bless Hashem on the bad as well as the good” (Brachot 9:5). However, on Tishah BeAv, we are allowed to vent our frustration to Hashem. Thus, it would seem appropriate that a speaker, a son of Holocaust survivors, at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on Tisha BeAv in 2005, directed his words to Hashem and asked, “What could we possibly have done to deserve the enormity of the unspeakable suffering of the Holocaust?”

We relate to Hashem as both a King and a Father. As our King, we do not have the right to question Hashem. However, He is also a Father and thus, just as it may be appropriate for a frustrated child to occasionally share his frustration with his father, so too, Hashem sets aside one day for us to express our grievances. Will Schwartz of Teaneck, however, cautions that Megillat Eichah serves as a precedent only to vent frustration over mass communal suffering. Individuals, though, may not enjoy such a license. This issue might hinge on a debate between Rava and Abaye (Bava Batra 16a) as to whether Iyov crossed the line and sinned when speaking to Hashem. It is possible to suggest that Iyov expressed himself too harshly against Hashem, though milder expression might be condoned on Tishah BeAv. One should consult his Rav for guidance regarding this issue.

Understanding Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s limitations on Iyov’s piety may be explained based on Rabban Yochanan’s experiences. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s role as the architect of our recovery from Churban Bayit Sheini may provide a clue as to why he insisted that Iyov does not serve as a role model of a manner of serving Hashem.

The Gemara (Gittin 56a-b) recounts:

The Biryonim (a group of Zealots) were then in the city. The Rabbis said to them: “Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans].” They would not let them, but rather said, “Let us go out and fight them.” The Rabbis said: “You will not succeed.” They [i.e., the Biryonim] then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued [and the Jews would be forced to fight]... Abba Sikra, the leader of the Biryonim of Jerusalem, was the nephew of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. [Rabban Yochanan] sent a message to him, saying, “Come privately to me.” When he came, [Rabban Yochanan] said to him: “How long will you continue this policy and kill everyone with starvation?” He [Abba Sikra] said to him, “What can I do? If I say anything to them [i.e., to the other Biryonim], they will kill me!” He said to him, “Devise some way for me to escape [the besieged city of Jerusalem]; perhaps I shall be able to save a small portion.” [Rabban Yochanan then escaped and met with the Roman general Vespasian.] … [Vespasian] said to [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai]: “I am going now and someone else will come in my place. But you may make a request of me, and I shall grant it.” He replied, “Give me Yavneh and its scholars, and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was forced to reject the Biryonim, who found Torah and Judaism unfathomable without the Beit HaMikdash. For these zealots, it was better to die rather than relinquish Yerushalayim because they felt that in its absence, Judaism could not survive. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, however, understood otherwise, and when he grasped the futility of resisting Rome, he began to prepare for the future of Torah without Yerushalayim.

I suggest that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai rejects Iyov as a role model for coping with a severe crisis such as the Churban. Rabban Yochanan specifically charts a course different than that of Yirmiyahu, whose lamentations and strong language of Hashem in Megillat Eichah are reminiscent of that of Iyov. Rabban Yochanan insists that we focus our spiritual energy on rebuilding Torah and Torah leadership by building Yavneh and saving Rabban Gamliel’s dynasty. Asking for a doctor to heal Rabi Tzadok further symbolizes the focus on creating a renaissance of both Torah and Torah leaders. Rabban Yochanan does not want us to remain in our suffering as Iyov did, but rather, to adjust to the new reality and rebuild.

Two generations later, Rabi Yehoshua ben Hyrkanus restores Iyov as a model for a possible aspect of our relationship with Hashem. Once two generations had passed since the Churban, the Torah was no longer in crisis. Indeed, on the day of the removal of Rabban Gamliel from office, either four hundred or seven hundred benches were added to the Beit Midrash to accommodate the influx of students (Berachot 28a). Thus, as Rabban Yochanan wanted, Torah had been rebuilt. The fact that the rabbis felt sufficiently secure to remove Rabban Gamliel from office demonstrates that Jewish leadership was no longer under threat of destabilization. Thus, on the momentous day of Rabban Gamliel’s ousting, Rabi Yehoshua ben Hyrkanus concluded that it was a suitable time to restore Iyov and Yirmiyahu’s approach as a viable option for those dealing with similar circumstances.

Conclusion—A Question for Our Readers

In the wake of the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik delivered a landmark address on Yom Ha’atzmaut of 1956 that later became the corpus of his classic essay “Kol Dodi Dofeik.” Rav Soloveitchik, much like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, rejected the adoption of an Iyov-esque approach to Hashem’s role in the Holocaust. Instead of philosophizing and complaining as Iyov did for the first thirty-seven chapters of the Sefer, the Rav stressed that post-Holocaust, the Jewish People should focus on rebuilding Torah, the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael.

[1] In our texts, this is presented as a Keri UChetiv – it is written “Lamed Vav Alef,”  “I will not” but it is read “Lamed Vav,” “to Him.”  

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