Iyov’s Sufferings, The Holocaust and Medinat Yisrael – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This past summer TABC conducted its seventh annual Tanach Kollel. More than twenty young men enjoyed studying Sefer Iyov, a vitally important Sefer which unfortunately is rarely studied in Yeshivot. This coming June 14-17 we will iy”H and b”n be studying Sefer Ezra-Nechemia and look forward to another productive and enjoyable week of Tanach study.

Most people have only a vague idea of what Sefer Iyov discusses. The primary barrier to achieving even a semblance of understanding the Sefer, is the difficult language it employs, a phenomenon that even the Ibn Ezra (Iyov 2:11) notes. However, as Rav Yoel Bin Nun observes, the basic messages of Sefer Iyov are relatively simple and straightforward (in contrast, he notes, to Megillat Kohelet which employs relatively simple words but it is exceedingly difficult to discern the message it is seeking to convey). Moreover, it is a shame to be unaware of the critically important lessons of Sefer Iyov, which seeks to guide us to a paradigm shift in our relationship with Hashem. It is especially relevant for our generation to grasp and internalize the teachings of Sefer Iyov because during the Holocaust the Jewish People collectively experienced the sufferings of Iyov.

With the help of the Da’at Mikra commentary to Sefer Iyov (which renders this Sefer comprehensible to the broader community), we will present the basic messages of Sefer Iyov as well as Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s applications of these messages to the Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel, which appear in his influential essay entitled Kol Dodi Dofeik. I acknowledge impact of the insights of my TABC students and those who attended my Shiur on Sefer Iyov delivered at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Tammuz 5769, on this presentation. I also acknowledge the influence of the notes of Rav Mordechai Cohen’s Shiurim on Sefer Iyov delivered at Yeshiva University.

Iyov’s Sufferings

The beginning of the Sefer introduces us to Iyov, a righteous man who is financially and socially successful, and is blessed with ten children. The Sefer thus begins with the paradigm of Tzaddik V’Tov Lo, a righteous man receives the reward he justly deserves. Interestingly, Iyov (1:5) offers sacrifices for his children after they assembled to feast, lest they have insulted Hashem in their hearts.

Satan (1:6-11), however, issues a challenge to Hashem, arguing that Iyov serves Hashem solely for reward. If the rewards are withdrawn, he argues, Iyov will insult Hashem.  Hashem (1:12) responds that Satan may remove these rewards but not harm Iyov. Satan proceeds to expeditiously eliminate Iyov’s wealth and children, to which he (1:21) reacts with equanimity to these dreadful incidents and states “Hashem has given, Hashem has taken, may Hashem’s name (i.e. reputation) be blessed.”


The interactions between Hashem and Satan are stunning and astonishing. In order to explain this phenomenon, we must first clarify that Sefer Iyov clearly establishes that Satan does not operate beyond the authority of Hashem, as we see that Hashem restricts Satan’s mandate. Chazal (Bava Batra 16a) emphasize this point when they describe the immense difficulty experienced by Satan in his having to restrain himself not to kill Iyov. This stands in great contrast with other nations’ philosophies that, LeHavdil, regard Satan as a force operating independently of Hashem.

 The Ramban (commentary to Iyov 1:8 and 2:3; Ramban’s commentary to Iyov is indispensable in interpreting this Sefer) explains “Hashem opened the mouth of Satan in the manner of a king and his servants”. In other words, Hashem entirely controls the situation. Satan is not a sort of “gadfly angel” or a “loose cannon” in the heavens who starts trouble. Rather, Satan plays the role of what we would refer to as the “attorney general” or “prosecutor general” of the world. Hashem employs Malachim (angels) to play this role since it is a way for Hashem’s deliberations to be graspable to us, or as the Ramban puts it, “Lashon Bnei Adam”, in the language that people employ.

Satan is another manner of referring to the strict side of Hashem in His decision-making process, or what we call Middat HaDin. Most interestingly, Shmuel II 24:1 and Divrei HaYamim I 21:1 use Hashem and Satan interchangeably. This is because Satan simply represents Middat HaDin and not a mean-spirited angel who manipulates Hashem into harming people. For this reason, when Hashem appears to Iyov at the conclusion of the Sefer, Hashem does not simply explain that He was manipulated by Satan to treat Iyov poorly. Indeed, Satan is not even mentioned when Hashem reveals himself to Iyov and offers insight as to how one deals with suffering in this world. Thus, as noted in the Da’at Mikra introduction to Sefer Iyov, Satan is absolutely not the explanation for Iyov’s suffering.

In this instance, Satan communicates two vitally important messages. First, in Hashem’s conversations with Satan it emerges that Iyov is an unparalleled Tzaddik. As the Ramban (Iyov 1:9) notes, this stands in sharp contrast to Iyov’s three friends, who argue that Iyov’s suffering emerges from sins he must have committed either publicly or in private.

Moreover, Satan’s criticism of Iyov sheds light into a fundamental truth. If the world functioned in a manner where every Tzaddik is rewarded immediately and visibly and that every Rasha (wicked individual) was punished in an equally transparent fashion, righteousness would be inauthentic. In such a world one’s serving of G-d would stem from promise of reward; proper righteousness emerges from genuine awe and devotion towards our Creator.

Indeed, Iyov’s wife precisely represents shallow righteousness. After Iyov is struck with a miserable case of boils, she instructs Iyov (2:9) to curse God and die. Ramban (ad. loc.) explains that Iyov’s wife believed that one worships Hashem simply for the reward. Once Hashem has eliminated the reward, she reasoned that there is no purpose to continue in the service of Him.

Iyov’s Crisis

In the second chapter, Satan argues that if Iyov’s body will be harmed then he will be motivated to insult Hashem. Hashem permits Satan to afflict Iyov but not to harm him. When Iyov is afflicted with a hideous case of boils he tells his wife (2:10) “The good we will accept from Hashem, but not the bad”. Although Iyov does not curse Hashem, he does not bless him either. In this phrase of ostensibly neither blessing or cursing, the Pasuk (ibid.) records that “Iyov did not sin with his lips”. Some (see Bava Batra 16a), however, interpret this to imply that Iyov did in fact do sin in his heart.

When Iyov was faced with the tragic loss of his ten children, he could make sense of it; as the Ramban (1:21) explains, Iyov was suspicious that perhaps his children sinned in their hearts, to which he could therefore attribute their deaths. However, when Iyov’s body is afflicted suddenly Iyov is thrust into a theological crisis. At this point he could no longer explain the justice of Hashem’s actions, since he knew that he did not sin. Thus, although Iyov exercises restraint and does not curse Hashem, he cannot bless Hashem either, because his entire understanding of how Hashem operates has been shaken and undermined. 

In fact, in the third Perek, Iyov curses the day he was born. Iyov again restrains himself from actually cursing Hashem but he comes very close. In the imagery of the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:8), Iyov figuratively speaking stoned the statue of the king.

It is important to note that Iyov’s cursing the day he was born is expressed in an excruciatingly long (twenty-four-Pasuk-long) soliloquy. This stands in stark contrast to Yirmiyahu’s (20:14-18) relatively brief expression of cursing the day he was born. In fact, painfully long speeches very prominently characterize Sefer Iyov. Furthermore, the economy of words we are so accustomed to in the rest of Tanach (and the writings of Chazal) is completely abandoned in Sefer Iyov.

Such elongated and unusually worded dialogue exists because Sefer Iyov is not (as many largely unfamiliar with the Sefer suppose) simply a philosophical analysis of why bad things happen to good people. It is also a Sefer that offers profound psychological insight into the experience of suffering, both by those afflicted and by the friends and families of the victims. The long-winded speeches of Sefer Iyov are intended to not only teach us philosophy but also to help bring us into the passionate emotional life of the characters of the Sefer.

Iyov’s Three Friends

Iyov’s spiritual turmoil shocks his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Tzofar, who have come to comfort him. The Pasuk (2:12) records that the three friends did not recognize Iyov when they came to see him after all the tragedies that had befallen him. Rashi explains that Iyov’s face changed due to his suffering. Da’at Mikra adds that the sickness of boils is especially prone to change the appearance of one’s skin. However, we may suggest that they not only did not recognize Iyov because of his change in physical appearance but also because of his major Hashkafic (theological) shifts. This shocks the three friends and draws them into the theological maelstrom experienced by Iyov. He and his three friends have now become partners in navigating this religious upheaval.

In our next issue, iy”H and b”n, we will analyze the incredibly lengthy dialogues between Iyov and his three friends which occupy no less than twenty-eight Perakim (Chapters Four through Thirty-one).

Iyov’s Sufferings, the Holocaust and Medinat Yisrael – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Great Opportunities: Ten Conversations with Rav Soloveitchik by Rabbi Chaim Jachter