It is an age-old question, asked by people of every faith – and by atheists in an attempt to disprove the existence of G-d. The dominant answer by G-d-fearing people is that we are not party to His plan, and that when bad things happen, it is as often as not meant to be a challenge to our faith. In other words: we cannot know the answer. And even more than this: even presuming to try to answer fundamental questions of this kind betray a profound and dangerous conceit.
As you might imagine, I do not believe that any of these “answers” are correct. If we fail to ask (and in good faith, answer) such important questions, then we are hamstrung in our attempts to really understand the world we inhabit, and more importantly, to develop our relationship with Hashem.
For starters, it is self-evident that the natural world has its own rules, and Hashem, in the normal course of events, does not choose to break those rules. Rambam classified this as something that comes from natural events: if a tree falls on someone in a storm, it is certain to hurt, no matter how righteous the pedestrian may be. Accidents can and do happen.
And the same applies for self-inflicted wrongs. If we jump out of a second-story window or play russian roulette, then the outcome is not likely to be pretty. When we harm ourselves, we are in no position to plead “where was G-d?” This seems obvious enough.
What interests me are the things that people do to other people: the murder of innocents. How can we be religious and still justify the murder of one innocent child, let alone thousands or millions in events like the Holocaust, or ethnic cleansing, or Cultural Revolutions?
This question is often rephrased as the following word play: if G-d was able to prevent the Holocaust and failed to do so, then He is not good,; and if He wanted to prevent it, but could not do so, then not being omnipotent, He is not G-d. The short answer to this is that G-d’s definition of “good” is necessarily different from ours.
Let’s go about answering this question the other way around: What would happen if G-d did NOT allow bad people to act accordingly?
The answer is that such a result would give us an unrecognizable world. If good people were consistently rewarded, and bad people consistently punished, then G-d’s hand at work would become undeniable, and the free choice of humans would thereby be constrained.
Instead, the world we have is one in which a G-d-fearing person sees Hashem’s hand at work – and the atheist sees coincidence, or hard work at play. The classic example is Avraham’s victory in the war of the four kings against the five kings. The kings whom Avraham saves praise Avraham for his great military prowess. And just a few verses later, Malchi Tzedek meets Avraham and praises G-d for the same victory. We see what we choose to see.
Hashem is evident in our world, to those who wish to see him. But as the times of open miracles are far in our past, Hashem will not step over the line, will not commit any act that would convince an avowed atheist that He in fact exists. Such an act would interfere with the core freedom that Hashem gave humanity when He first explained about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the Tree of Life to Adam and Chava: the freedom to choose.
G-d values our freedom, because he ultimately values the choices that we make. It is those choices that allow us to choose to becomes servants of Hashem, to follow in his ways. Without choice, we are not men at all. And unless we can “logically” choose NOT to follow in Hashem’s path, then we are not making a free choice. Unless we have free will, we are not humans.
But wait: don’t we learn in Isaiah (55) that: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.”
And here we answer the original question. G-d’s priorities are different than ours – His Good is not the same as our Good. We value life, because we don’t know what choices will be made, and because Hashem commands us to do so. But Hashem, who knows all possible futures, only values life inasmuch as it leads to people making good choices (including, in the above pasuk, doing teshuvah) and improving the world. His ways are not our ways, because for Hashem, free will is more important than life itself.
After all, life always leads to death: every life born in this world carries with it a certainty of death. The only thing that is not certain at the moment that our lives are created is how we choose to live, what we do with the brief days we are given. We value life, but G-d values what we make of the life we are given: the choices we make and the way we beautify ourselves and the people around us.
And it all comes full circle. Not only do we have free choice, but we can exercise our free will to help others to make good decisions: we have the responsibility to reform or eliminate evil. It is up to us to make the world a better place. And when innocent people die at the hands of evil, it is not because G-d wills it to be so, but because for Hashem to interfere so blatantly in the affairs of our world that evil people are absolutely barred from carrying out their designs, then the entire purpose of the world would be compromised. In other words, the world exists so that mankind can make free choices, for good or ill. Those choices and their outcomes are more important to Hashem than life itself, no matter how innocent, or precious, or loved. “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”