This Sunday we’ll observe the fast of Tammuz, kicking off the mourning period known as the 3 Weeks. The ritual culminates with Tisha B’Av which remembers the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. On that final day, there is 25 hours of fasting, restrictions of bathing and washing, and even a prohibition of learning Torah. However, there are a few topics you are allowed to learn, one of which is Sefer Iyov aka The Book of Job.
Iyov tries to address (but not answer) the question of why bad things happen to good people. It isn’t an easy read, nor does it actually offer much solace if read superficially. It is particularly difficult to study as many of its Hebrew words appear nowhere else in Tanakh, making it exceptionally challenging to fully decipher. But the Vilna Goan suggests, “Just as one would buy merchandise that is now inexpensive to be sold later at a higher price, so is it with a subject of Torah which is not widely learned. Study it in depth, learn it well, develop it, for eventually it will be sought from you.”
So given the nature of the three weeks, I thought it might be a good time to try to find some understanding of this book.
Today’s post is a bit of an introduction to over-arching concepts before I delve into the book itself. In brief, Iyov is considered a tzaddik or righteous individual who has everything anyone could ever want. Ten children, abundant livestock, plenty of riches, and he’s very grateful to God for it. So one day the Satan (yes Judaism does believe in a Satan, but not as an opposing force to God, but one of his angels. Read here for more.) comes to God saying that Iyov is only such a tzaddik because God has showered him with so much blessing. Take that away and Iyov will surely forsake God.
God accepts the challenge and lets the Satan kill all of Iyov’s children, kills all his livestock, and takes all his money. Though heartbroken, Iyov keeps his positive attitude saying “God giveth and God taketh away.” Refusing to accept defeat, the Satan then says that he didn’t do enough and that if Iyov was cursed with physical pain, he would forsake God. So God allows the Satan to inflict crippling pain and bodily sores onto Iyov. After this Iyov starts to lose his resilience.
From here the book gets very philosophical as his friends both try to comfort Iyov but also insist that he has done some sin which deserves the horrible suffering. Iyov rejects this, knowing he has been righteous and is troubled most with the ultimate question of WHY?! Towards the end of the 40 something chapters God eventually comes to Iyov and reveals the nature of creation (though this is done through very metaphorical and cryptic description) after which Iyov is comforted. Finally Iyov rebuilds his life with newfound health, family, and fortune.
This is a very superficial accounting of the events and may even be incorrect, depending on interpretation.
Who was Iyov?
We don’t know when Iyov lived or who he was. Talmudic rabbi Reish Lakish believed he was a contemporary of Avraham. R’ Levi bar Lachma held that he lived during the time of Moses. But R’ Yochanan and R’ Elazar placed him more recently as a Torah scholar who studied in Babylon during the first exile. Most rabbinic authorities regard Moses as the author of the book, so it’s more likely that if he was in fact a real person it was much earlier (or maybe not and Moses wrote it as a prophecy.)
Regardless of whether Iyov was real or not, Jew or gentile, the story is meant to be universal. Everyone struggles with the mysteries of suffering and its justification if God is indeed all loving and all powerful. However, how Iyov deals with the difficulty is starkly different than how Avraham (the Akeidas Yitzchak and the destruction of Sodom) and Moses (when he asks to see Hashem’s Glory after the sin of the Golden Calf) deal with it. How Iyov’s reaction differers from theirs is something I hope to discuss in a future post. The point is, Iyov is the ultimate everyman character and is meant for us to identify with vis-a-vis our personal struggles.
Iyov is also compared to two other tzaddikim, Noah and Daniel. Noah experienced the eradication of the entire world and then its rebuilding. Daniel was present for the destruction of the first Temple and then returned to Jerusalem after a 70 year exile. The destruction and rebirth which Iyov witnesses is of a personal nature. So from these three figures we have a perspective of how to deal with the destruction of the world, of the community, and of one’s own life. However, Iyov spends far more time wrestling with the questions as to the cause of suffering far more than Noah or Daniel. Where the causes of the destructions in Noah and Daniel are explicitly stated.
I believe the idea that Iyov is hinting at is that for historical destructions, we can look back and find probable causes. But when it comes to personal suffering, that is something that you probably won’t find an answer to in this life, and certainly not without tremendous soul searching that only you can honestly answer.
The Council of Pharaoh
According to a Midrash (Sanhedrin 106a and Sotah 11a) Iyov lived during the years of the Jewish slavery in Egypt. Sourced from the verse in Shemos 1:10, “Let us outsmart them”, this declaration from Pharaoh leads to the Jewish people’s enslavement and oppression. According to the Midrash, Pharaoh held council with three wise men, Bilam, the prophet of the non-Jewish world, (featured in parshas Balak), Yisro, Moses’s future father-in-law and eventual convert to Judaism, and Iyov. When Pharaoh announced his plan, Bilam offered advice on how to implement it, Yisro fled in protest, and Iyov kept silent. The Midrash continues with their fates, “Bilam’s punishment was that he was killed in battle. Iyov was punished with pain and suffering for his silence. While Yisro merited having his children’s children sit [in the Sanhedrin (aka the Jewish supreme court)].
It is interesting that while Iyov struggled to find his sin to explain his suffering he didn’t reflect on this event. Perhaps because he believed that by remaining silent, he didn’t do anything wrong. Surely, speaking up against Pharaoh might have led to imprisonment or death, hence why Yisro fled. However, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits comments that to remain silent is inhuman. “A facet of life worth pondering is that it affords the possibilities for man to relate to his fellow human being, sharing his joy, help shoulder his sorrow, and most of all this world affords one the opportunity to give one’s self to one’s fellow man.”
Even if Iyov’s voice wasn’t used to condemn, he still should have cried out in pain for the suffering of the Jewish people. But he didn’t even do that. And so I think this is an important message to ponder while going into the three weeks. We may find it difficult to connect to a Jerusalem of two thousand years ago and a Temple that performed animal sacrifices that many of us may find abhorrent. So if you can’t connect to that, fine. However, there is plenty of other suffering in the world to mourn. How much of that have we allowed ourselves to become numb to?
We may feel powerless to stop it. We may not even know where to begin if we wanted to do something. But we can at least cry.
During the three weeks we lessen our joy. God doesn’t want us to distract ourselves from the pain of the world, but instead try to become sensitive to it. Whether that is reading personal accounts from Ukraine, listening to the recorded talks from the Shoah Foundation, researching the history of the Kingdom of Israel, or wrestling with the intimate pain of an ultimate everyman going through the suffering while desperately searching for the answer to the question of, “Why would God make a world that makes it difficult to connect with Him?” Because if we can’t find a way to share the pain of others, chances are we won’t be able to share in their joy either.