The Miami Tower disaster and those who find meaning in suffering

Miami Beach, Florida, where I grew up, has had a new lease of life with the coronavirus. As New York went through the hell of infection last March and the governments of blue states like California and New Jersey shut everything down, Governor Ron DeSantis – whom our organization The World Values ​​Network honored ago has three years as a grand champion of Israel – declared Florida a free and open state. Dozens of people have sold their homes in New York and moved to Miami. The Sunshine State has been a breath of fresh air throughout the pandemic as life seemed almost normal. As New Yorkers froze in their homes during lockdown, Miami residents laughed and lived in outdoor restaurants.

This was especially true of the Orthodox Jewish community. Practicing Jews left their homes in New Jersey, Los Angeles, and especially New York City, and settled in Surfside, Bal Harbor, and Miami Beach. And the horrific tax burden of the Blue States has made Florida all the more desirable.

Then last week at Surfside, hundreds of people collapsed in the horrors of the Champlain Tower disaster which is so horrific it is beyond imagination. As of this writing, more than 150 people are still missing.

And suddenly people saw that death was everywhere and inevitable. You didn’t have to be a Jew living in Sderot or Ashkelon with Hamas rockets hitting your head to face mortal danger. You could be in sunny Miami Beach and terror could strike.

We pray for all who are still missing and yes, God does and will do miracles.

But as soon as I heard of the terrible events in my childhood hometown, I knew it would lead to a widespread call from rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community to do some soul-searching. Such terrible events that have decimated the Jewish community over the past year – from a global pandemic that particularly affected the Hasidic community, to the Mount Meron disaster, to a Jewish family killed in Italy on a cable car, to the Rockets launched by terrorists in Israel, then the Champlain Tower disaster – would undoubtedly get many people to tell us that God was sending us a message. We must repent. We must unite. We need to be less materialistic, more loving, more spiritual.

All of these things are true for themselves. But I hate it when you relate them to disaster. The people fighting for their lives deep in the rubble of Florida condominiums deserve better than the rest of us to pontificate on why they were hit by disaster. They deserve our prayers. They deserve our hope. Their families deserve our love and comfort. But what they don’t deserve are our admonitions of how we can be better people while they fight for air.

Once and for all, we must stop defiling religion by making it a dogma that justifies human suffering. The belief that God is punishing us for being bad people, when in fact most of us are decent enough even though we are imperfect, must finally end.

I have written several books addressing the question of why a good Lord allows the innocent to suffer, including The Man Fed up with Faith and Struggling with the Divine.

I am always amazed when people come to me to discuss the contents of the books, which express the Jewish idea that we should challenge God in the face of human suffering and never make peace with it and only accept assimilation. Jewish led to the Holocaust or some other nonsense.

Why do so many religious like to present God as the chief executioner and still find reasons to justify human suffering?

The Holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews had been punished for mixed marriages and that they wanted to be secular. But others had a much more Jewish response: They rejected any theological justification or self-accusation and set to work even harder for the creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide.

The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God end it.

People are looking for a reason as to why people are suffering. They want to redeem the tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the mind, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s important in life.

I would say that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempt to infuse it with rich meaning is deeply flawed.

Of course, suffering can ultimately lead to a positive outcome. The rich man who despised the poor and suddenly lost his money may become more empathetic when he struggles with himself. The arrogant executive who treats subordinates like dirt can soften up when told that she, God forbid, has breast cancer.

But does it have to happen that way? Is suffering the only way to learn good?

Jewish values ​​hold that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come by more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humble that they devote a huge portion to charity. A rock star like Bono grows rich and famous and dedicates her fame to poverty alleviation.

Yes, the Holocaust led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations that have come into being without having been preceded by gas chambers and tens of thousands of bullets to the head in a Ukrainian ravine.

THIS IS another way in which Jewish values ​​differ so strongly from other value systems. Many religions believe that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone must die for the sins of mankind to be blotted out.

Suffering is therefore exalted in the New Testament. Saint Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging nascent Christians to “share suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus”.

But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect Messianic future where there is no death or pain, ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemption narrative. Suffering is not a blessing. It’s a curse.

Save a better and safer building code and more condominium towers checked for possible corrosion, there is nothing good that will come from the Champlain Tower collapse. The only good is that, God willing, the missing people are found alive. Period.

The Jews are obliged to relieve all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, marked rather than humble. Few are those who endure suffering without severe and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured mind and a pessimistic outlook. It frightens our psyche and creates a cynical conscience devoid of and devoid of hope.

Suffering pushes us to dig the lack of sincerity in the hearts of our fellow human beings and to envy the happiness of others. If people become better people because of their suffering, it is in spite of the fact that they have suffered and not because of it. Ennobling character comes through the triumph of suffering rather than endurance.

I loved listening to speeches from my mentor Elie Wiesel. What came out of his haunting words was that the only thing resulting from suffering was loneliness, grief and outrage. Certainly, the Holocaust taught us the infinite value of every human life and the sublime quality of human companionship. But these lessons could easily be learned from rewarding experiences like a family summer vacation rather than parents gathered in front of a collapsed apartment tower with rivers of tears streaming down their cheeks.

I believe my parents’ divorce led me to a deeper understanding of life and a greater adherence to my Judaism. Yet I know people who have led completely privileged lives and who have much deeper philosophies of life and who are even more devoted to their religion than I am. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical or pessimistic like I can sometimes be because of the pain of my early childhood.

Whatever good we, as individuals, or the world in general, receive from suffering can be brought about in a painless and joyful way. And it is especially up to believers to stop once and for all justifying the death of innocent people and instead rush to comfort and help survivors. I pray for the missing from the Champlain Tower. May God grant them life.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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