As I continue on into Sefer Iyov, we see how the title character struggles with suffering on the most personal of levels. After passing his first test, the Satan inflicts Iyov with the most extreme bodily pain and discomfort. It’s so intense that Iyov curses the night he was conceived, wishing it never happened.
Despite the pain, he refuses to condemn God. But it does lead him to radically change perspective on his relationship with the Divine. He decides to reject the concept of hashgacha pratis, the belief that God is involved in and cares for the world. Being unable to accept that a righteous person could suffer so terribly, he resolves that God only interacts with people after they die, while leaving them to their own devices during life.
It’s at this point his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Tzofar, who have been sitting and comforting Iyov, break their silence.
Eliphaz’s Worthless Two Cents
His first friend, Eliphaz, has three main points. The first of which is that God doesn’t punish the innocent. So since Iyov is suffering, he must have sinned. By blaming Iyov, Eliphaz breaks the number one rule when comforting a mourner. A person is incapable of receiving criticism when they are suffering. They need time to feel what they are feeling, to process it. Only after space and healing is it possible for someone to try to gain constructive perspective on why they had to go through their pain. And even then it is only if they sincerely ask for such criticism. But when they are suffering, it’s not the time to correct someone.
Secondly, Eliphaz claims to be so sure of himself because he experienced a prophetic dream. He cites his prophecy as proof of his authority. However, the truth is that the dream should have gone to Iyov. A prophet is incapable of receiving prophecy unless they are in a state of joy, which clearly in Iyov’s present situation, isn’t going to happen. The dream went to Eliphaz not because of his merit, but because he was the only person available. The point is, just because we think we’re experts on a subject, doesn’t mean we’re right. This is known as the Appeal to Authority logical fallacy.
Lastly, Eliphaz insists it is impossible for man to understand God’s justice, and that turning from God because one doesn’t understand that justice is heretical. This actually does do some good, bringing Iyov back into accepting God’s haschgacha pratis. But instead of consoling Iyov, it brings him to the next psychological stage of grief: anger.
His other friends Bildad and Tzofar will offer variations on the same theme. Blaming Iyov for some sin for which he must do teshuvah. They continue to use the circular reasoning Eliphaz exercised above. Iyov must have sinned because God is just and only punishes the wicked, so Iyov must be wicked.
Being Content in a Narrow View
In response to this thought process, Iyov finally lashes back calling them “l’ashtos shanan” or content of mind. This criticism my be one of the most important lessons in Sefer Iyov. If we think we understand God and how He runs creation, we are in trouble. The complexities and scope in which Hashem manages and conducts the happenings of our world are so lofty that they eluded the likes of King Solomon, King David, Moses, and Avraham. Trying to understand God’s ways are as essential as they are impossible. So should we bother trying if it is an act of futility? Absolutely!
The fact that we will never be perfect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be our best possible selves. Just because perfection can’t be attained doesn’t nullify the fact that if I just try to be a little better every day, I will be a far better person in 20 years than I am today. However, if I don’t try to be a better person because I’ll never be perfect, then I will either stay the same as I am now, or more likely become a worse person. Because being good, even staying at the level you are currently at, takes work. The same is true for understanding God’s ways.
Iyov’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Tzofar refuse to amend their understanding of God. They have an over simplistic view and when the suffering of their friend contradicts their understanding, they turn on him. Their concept strictly dictates that those who suffer must be sinners. But they have no idea about the deeper calculations of Hashem’s will such as yesurim shel ahavah, the understanding that we are responsible for the merits and sins of the entire community – not just our own actions, or that sometimes we’re given the retribution of others because they won’t be able to handle it themselves. These are just a few examples of reasons why the good may suffer. The point is, Iyov’s friends refuse to stretch or test their nicely packaged views of the world, so they judge.
Serving While Present
You can judge yourself, but you don’t judge others. Especially while they are suffering. The Hebrew word for content of mine, l’ashtos shanan, more literally means a person of strongly held beliefs who is relaxed. In the secular world, the most religious communities can get a bad rap. Obviously strongly religious people will have strongly held beliefs. But when they become relaxed about their beliefs and even start phoning it in, that can lead to problems. So much bad has happened because of blind faith. Judaism demands faith, but open-eyed, searching, deep delving, problem wrestling, faith.
The full content of Iyov’s criticism to his friends is “Direct your burning accusation of shame not at me, but at those who are simplistically content with their view of life.” (Iyov 12: 5)
Living a life of following Hashem should never be easy. And if you think someone else is suffering because they deserve it while you are sitting comfortably because you’ve earned it… you’ve got another thing coming. Because those people do not understand Hashem, and they do not understand their role in this world.
Yaakov attained the name of Yisrael because he wrestled with the Divine. God’s hidden nature in the world should bother you. How do you deal with that? You can blame the world and others, as Iyov’s friends do. You can blame God, as Iyov eventually does. Or, you can search for a deeper understanding while also knowing that you can’t understand everything. This will be the final challenge and ultimate lesson of the whole book. God willing, we’ll get there.