Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
It’s a question that has probably never stopped since the beginning of time: Why do bad things happen to good people? There are so many people in life who we would cast as bad, yet nothing horrible seems to happen to them. In the meantime, there are decent, kind, good people out there who seem to be like Job, where every bad thing seems to be put upon their shoulders.
Most people are not aware of my mother’s illness just by looking at my face. I have told some people and others aren’t privy to the information. But her diagnosis, along with my 60-pound pink suitcase, was another piece of baggage that I was carrying around with me through the Holy Land. It weighed heavily on my mind as I called her as much as I could and wrote her long emails: My mother was sick, and I was 7,000 miles away from her.
As Hannah and I returned to the hostel that Shabbat afternoon in Tzfat, we could already hear the banging in the Kabbalah Cave in the courtyard of the hostel. About 50 or so people ranging in age and religiosity were lined up at a table, starting to pass around salads and slices of challah. We settled at the far end of the table as hummus was dropped onto our plates. It was a whirlwind of song and noise echoed off the light tan walls of the cave.
Eli started walking around the table with bottles of wine. “Who has some words of wisdom?” he asked pouring the red jeweled wine into our glasses. “Would anyone like to share?”
The younger girls giggled to themselves, and I was shocked that an Orthodox man would offer a chance for me, a woman, to be able to share my words of wisdom to the crowd. Of course, before he could change his mind about asking me I said yes (I don’t really need an excuse to talk in front of a big group of people). What words could I give to these people? What could I say?
Then I thought about an old Hasidic custom I saw in the past. Whenever someone is ill or someone has died, any words of wisdom can be dedicated in their honor or memory. I realized what mine would be for: My mother needed these words I was about to say. I needed them too, but I hoped that while she was sleeping on the other side of the world these words could become her medicine.
Shortly after one of the boys stood up, I was asked to stand up afterwards with a smile. Smile for the courage.
“Hi, I’m Reina…”
“Gino! Gino! Gino!” they chanted back, banging on tables. I guess this was my song now, and I began to laugh. But no, I had to concentrate.
“I’m from Los Angeles, California…”
“Gino! Gino! Gino!” I laughed again. But the laughter gave me bravery, too. It was my shield. It was time.
“And before I begin my words, I want to dedicate them to my mother, Yaakova bat Malka. She is very sick, and may my words be her comfort.”
The crowd fell silent. No one expected this. I don’t tend to sensor myself and have absolutely zero filter when it comes to my life. But I didn’t care.
“In her diagnosis, I wondered to myself that old question why do bad things happen to good people,” I said. “I wondered it before when horrible things happened to me and I was led to question my faith. Why do these things happen? Why are these trials given to us?”
I looked at the long table, that table that was once banging with song that now could have a mouse squeak and it would cut through me. I glanced over at the window pane over the doorway, covered in blue, and thought about it as I was talking.
“Imagine if you were blind, and never saw the color blue before,” I said. “Can you picture what would happen if you were given sight and now could appreciate it? The struggle you faced when you couldn’t see blue, and now how glorious blue is because you never had it?”
It seemed like my entire life had encircled on me to teach this, from my mom about to fight for her very existence to my divorce several years before. How did I know then the glory I would experience now while I was trying to get food in my stomach? I was in Israel, a place that I had given up hope of ever seeing again. I was free and joyful, living on my own in Los Angeles. The beauty of this moment was breathtaking. From that moment, I understood the concept between intelligence and wisdom: Intelligence is knowledge from outside sources, but wisdom is knowledge from your own personal experience. That’s why it’s so rare and valuable.
“Sometimes, we need to learn to fight despite everything,” I told the crowd. “We can’t learn to fight without struggle. And you can’t learn how beautiful life can be without seeing the more difficult parts of it. Life isn’t always going to work out the way you want it to. But sometimes you need to see the dark, experience the dark, in order to really appreciate the light.”
I reached for my glass of wine and held it high.
“And for all of you, and for my mother,” I said. “L’chaim.”
“L’chaim!” The call of “to life!” echoed through the cave as we all drank together. The words of wisdom continued, but I felt like somehow I was given a divine quest through this town. I brought the souls of my family with me: My father, sister, younger cousin and mother. We were all meant to heal and we were all going to come out stronger from this, for better or worse. And I would carry them on my shoulders.
And as I sat down, I helped myself to some schnitzel and fed my stomach as my words seemed to absorb into others’ souls. Words of wisdom can often make you hungry.