The past two weeks we have discussed Sefer Iyov whose message is vital to every Jew, especially in our generation. More than twenty TABC students studied Sefer Iyov in the Tanach Kollel this past summer and this coming June 14-17 we will iy”H and b”n be learning Sefer Ezra-Nechemia, and we look forward to a week of productive and enjoyable learning.
Last week we analyzed the tumultuous debate between Iyov and his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Tzofar regarding how to understand Hashem’s role in Iyov’s suffering. The friends strongly argued that Iyov suffered as punishment for his sins whereas Iyov swore to his innocence and even expressed anger at Hashem for visiting such suffering upon him. Iyov even demanded that Hashem explain what he did wrong to deserve such a miserable fate.
Elihu – Perakim 32-37
The debate ends in a stalemate but one in which Iyov twice expresses in a concluding soliloquy (28:12 and 28:20) his desire for wisdom. Iyov realizes that there is a need for a new voice to emerge that will explain his suffering in a manner that will differ from both his approach and that of his friends. Iyov understands that he and his friends have reached the limits of their wisdom and knowledge and thus a new approach is sorely needed.
Elihu is the young man who appears and articulates the anticipated third approach to Iyov’s sufferings in Perakim thirty two to thirty seven. Although there is great debate as to the role of Elihu (summarized in Da’at Mikra pg. 287-288), we shall present the Ramban and Da’at Mikra’s approach that Elihu’s four speeches prepare Iyov for the two speeches Hashem will deliver to him. The fact that Iyov does not respond negatively to Elihu’s talks (in contrast to his reaction to those of his friends) and the fact that Hashem does not criticize Elihu (unlike Iyov’s three friends) in 42:7 clearly distinguishes Elihu from the simplistic and counterproductive approach of Iyov’s friends.
Elihu both rejects the simplistic approach of Eliphaz, Bildad and Tzofar that suffering is always explained by sin and Iyov’s strident words to Hashem. He begins by noting that Hashem does communicate with us through dreams (33:15) and with suffering (33:19). In 34:10 he notes that Hashem is just and that sometimes we see evidence of this, such as when He topples extremely powerful evil leaders (34:24; examples would include the fall of Paroh, the Assyrian emperor Sancheirev, and the Babylonian empire). Elihu does not deny Iyov’s complaint that sometimes evil individuals prosper (at least temporarily). However, the fact that seemingly invincible leaders fall demonstrates that there is justice in this world.
In 35:6-7 Elihu states that Hashem is not influenced by man’s good or evil acts. This is a vitally important point as it explains that when Hashem rewards or punishes, He does so not out of personal vengeance or remuneration. Yeshayahu (55:6) expresses this exact point when he states that Hashem’s thoughts and actions fundamentally and qualitatively differ from those of human beings. Elihu thus introduces Iyov to the paradigm shift he must experience in regard to his relationship with and understanding of Hashem. In 36:22-37:13, Elihu furthers this point by instructing Iyov to ponder the greatness of Hashem’s actions. Most importantly, he notes in 37:14-15 that we do not know how Hashem creates the wonders of this world. This teaches the essential lesson that we cannot understand everything that Hashem does. Elihu teaches that just as we are content to live without understanding how Hashem created the world, so too we should make peace with the notion that while Hashem is just, we cannot always comprehend Hashem’s justice.
Hashem’s Two Speeches
Although Iyov does not react negatively to Elihu’s speeches, he does not express his agreement either. Ramban (38:1) explains that at this point Iyov is ambivalent and needs the words of Hashem to finally change his attitude. Hashem subsequently makes (Perakim 38-41) two long speeches (characteristic of Sefer Iyov), whose message is straightforward and relatively simple. A human being does not understand much of how the world operates. Iyov eventually accepts this message (42:5-6) and is content with accepting that he cannot understand all of Hashem’s judgments and decisions. Elihu foreshadows Hashem’s message that a paradigm shift is necessary in terms of our relationship with Hashem. Instead of assuming a simple quid pro quo relationship as a slave expects from his master, our relationship with Hashem includes awe and admiration of Hashem’s greatness and our accepting the manner in which He conducts the world.
Thus, one who suffers should not engage in a pointless exploration of why Hashem has afflicted him, as Iyov and his friends do. Rather, one should accept Hashem’s judgment and make peace with the fact that understanding the divine judgment is often beyond human comprehension. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik is quoted as saying that full knowledge of why people suffer would detract from our humanity. For example, if we knew why others suffer we would simply regard them as receiving their due justice rather than empathizing with them as we should. The hurtful behavior of Iyov’s well-meaning three friends exemplifies the inhumanity that would emerge if we would completely grasp Hashem’s judgments, as Iyov’s three friends believe they do.
After Hashem’s Speeches
After Hashem criticizes Eliphaz, Bildad and Tzofar, He states that they must offer sacrifices as atonement and that Iyov would pray for them. In an astonishing Pasuk (42:10), Iyov’s health, wealth, and family (see Ramban to 42:10) are restored when Iyov prays for his friends. This seems to establish a causal connection between Iyov’s sufferings and his failure to adequately empathize with and pray for others’ needs. Indeed, in 1:5 he offers Korbanot (sacrifices) exclusively for his family members and not on behalf of others. Indeed, one can view Iyov in his struggles with his friends in Perakim 3-31 as being inappropriately self-centered. Nonetheless, it is quite astonishing that Sefer Iyov at its conclusion seems to present an explanation for Iyov’s misery, since it seemed quite clear from Perakim 38-41 that we cannot grasp Hashem’s judgment!
Rav Soloveitchik’s Explanation of Sefer Iyov
Rav Soloveitchik addresses this problem in his celebrated essay Kol Dodi Dofeik. Rav Soloveitchik explains that once Hashem has established that a human being cannot completely comprehend the divine will, He proceeds to teach Iyov a lesson regarding suffering. Although this does not explain the reason for suffering, nonetheless affliction is a message from Hashem telling us that we must improve. This is precisely the message Chazal (Berachot 5a) seek to convey when they state, “One who is confronted with affliction should examine his deeds.” Chazal are instructing us to avoid engaging in a fruitless exercise of trying to determine why Hashem sent afflictions, as Iyov does with his three friends. Instead, we should use the suffering as an opportunity to propel ourselves towards spiritual improvement.
When Iyov changes his focus from attempting to figure out why he is suffering to instead using the suffering as a springboard to improve and move beyond his self-centered attitude, he flourishes. The conclusion of Sefer Iyov, which records how Iyov greatly prospers for the remainder of his long life, emphasizes the great benefit that one accrues if he, instead of passively reflecting, actively seeks to improve himself in the wake of tragedy and affliction.
The Holocaust and the State of Israel
Rav Soloveitchik asserts that the same applies to the reaction we should have to the Holocaust. He urges us not to repeat the mistake of Iyov and his friends but rather to muster up the courage to accept the fact that we cannot explain why Hashem allowed the Holocaust to be perpetrated on His special nation. Instead, we should view our collective and individual suffering as a call to action to do all we can to improve ourselves.
Indeed, many Jews heeded this call instead of wasting time trying to analyze where Hashem was in Auschwitz. Many Jews after the war married and raised large families. Many Jews devoted an enormous amount of energy to create the State of Israel. Many Jews channeled their efforts to recreate in Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere the Yeshivot that existed before the war. The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented that Hitler (Yimach Shemo) sought to eradicate Jews everywhere in the world, so the Rebbe in turn resolved to establish centers of Torah and Judaism in every corner of the globe.
The story of Iyov is the story of our people in the last seventy-five years. After World War II, the Jewish People stood at the brink of both physical and spiritual destruction. Yet through the heroism of hundreds of thousands of Jews, we have succeeded in rebuilding in our nation. Just as Iyov prospered after he shifted his approach to his affliction, so too we have succeeded in rebuilding Jewish families, Yeshivot, Torah centers throughout the world, and the State of Israel.
Unfortunately, our suffering has not ended. We remain, however, steadfast in our commitment to grow as individuals, families, communities, and a People. The story is told of a young rabbi whose cousin was murdered in the Palestinian attacks that occurred in the year 2000. Instead of wasting his time philosophizing about his cousin’s death, the young rabbi used the tragedy as a powerful motivator to establish the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization that facilitates the Aliyah of thousands of Jews to Eretz Yisrael.
As we stated in the outset of this series, the message of Sefer Iyov is rather straightforward, despite its very difficult language and long-winded speeches. Indeed, the message of this Sefer is critically important for every Jew in every generation, but especially for recent generations in which Jews have suffered untold afflictions. It is thus incumbent upon every Jew to study Sefer Iyov and internalize its vitally important messages. Our success both as individuals and a people depends to a great extent on our adhering to the lessons of Sefer Iyov. We ignore Sefer Iyov and its lessons at our own peril!