When bad is good - a story about Rabbi Zushia



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When Bad is Good

By Avi Lazerson

What is good? What is bad?

These are interesting questions that have bothered mankind for quite a few centuries. Many philosophers have tried to answer these questions. Let us try to understand it in depth, in the light of Jewish sources, and based on a famous Jewish story.

There is a story about the famed Chassidic Rabbi, Zushia of Anapoly who lived about two hundred years ago. Rabbi Zushia was known as living a pious, simple and G-d fearing life.

In a town near to Rabbi Zushia, there was a rabbinical college. The students were studying the Talmud and came to the passage that said: "we must thank G-d for the good as well as the bad." The students were puzzled. Thanking G-d for the good, that's understandable and reasonable; but thanking G-d for the bad? That didn't make any sense.

They brought this question to the attention of the dean of the college. He stroked his long beard and pondered the question. "Yes, this is a question that only Rabbi Zushia can answer. Go to his house and ask him!"

The students decided to go immediately. Rabbi Zushia lived outside of the town. They walked beyond the town's limits and entered into the wooded forest. Following a narrow path, they soon arrived at a run-down shack that was Rabbi Zushia's abode. The windows were broken, the roof looked in need of repair and the walls were badly cracked. As Rabbi Zushia greeted them and led them in, they saw the abject poverty in which Rabbi Zushia lived. The chairs were wobbly and few. The other furnishings were shoddy and in poor repair.

Rabbi Zushia apologized for not having any thing to offer them to eat but perhaps a glass of hot water would be sufficient.

The students explained that they had come to ask him this question. "Why does it say in the Talmud that we must thank G-d for the good as well as the bad?"

Rabbi Zushia asked them, "Why come to me to ask me that question. I also can not understand it. Nothing bad has ever happened to me. Is it possible that G-d does anything bad?"

Let's try to understand that story in depth.

We have two basic understandings of the word "good." One understanding is the notion that "good" is some thing that is pleasing and pleasant. The second concept of "good" is that it is some thing that provides me with some benefit.

Sounds the same?

Well at first glance, it may sound exactly the same, but there is a difference. The concept of "good" being something that is pleasureful is not the same as beneficial. As an example a medicine is considered beneficial but may lack in providing pleasure. Conversely, eating chocolate may be pleasureful, but it may not be beneficial.

When we speak we use the terms rather loosely. We may switch between these two definitions rather indiscriminately. By children, the concept of "good" generally means pleasureful. As a person matures, his mind expands to understand that not everything revolves around him. Indeed, a mature adult may use the word "good" meaning beneficial more than meaning "pleasureful".

Now let us turn our focus to "bad." What is bad? We can use the same concepts of personal "bad" as being something that I personally find painful or something that brings me to some loss. As an example, if I try to take a hot pot off the fire with out a pot holder, I may burn my hand. That can be categorized as being bad. I have a painful burn on my hand. On the other hand, if I my car breaks down and I am forced to take time and money to repair it, I consider that "bad" since I sustained a loss of time and money.

All of the above are concerned with only a subjective view of good and bad. This is the popular view, and it is based on the subject of an event deciding by his personal criterion if an event or occurrence in his life is good or bad, as viewed by his personal gain or loss. However, there is another possible view.

The concept of Heavenly intervention in our lives means that what has befallen us is not a mere chance event. What this means is that every occurrence that come our way is divinely directed. G-d is actively interacting in our lives.

If we accept this notion, then we have a different view point for determining if an occurrence is good or bad. This is based on the principle that all that G-d does is for the good. If we don't understand it, well, that is our difficulty. But by definition we must say that G-d only does good and never bad.

If so, then we now can understand Rabbi Zushia's question. "I can not understand that statement either, since nothing bad has ever happened to me." According to Rabbi Zushia's understanding of good, there is no concept of bad. How can we then thank G-d for something bad? This may be fine for Rabbi Zushia, but what about us mortals who do not see the good in all occurrences?

That's when we must re-understand what is bad. Bad is when something occurs and we can not see the good in it. This is not to say that there is no good in it. This merely states that there is good in this occurrence, however we can't see it.

By accepting the notion of Divine intervention, we have shifted the focus of our judgment from our own personal perspective to that of a detached spectator viewing a melodrama. Certainly we are interested in our own personal successes, however we realize that what is divinely decreed will be done. Not only that, but always for our realization is that the occurrence that we find unpleasant or painful, being that it was Divinely inspired, is for my benefit. That I can't see it, that is my problem. But my acceptance of it permits me to deal with it in a matter which is positive and constructive. We will even to look forward to see what will be the outcome of each event.

Indeed, if we can't have the righteousness of Rabbi Zushia, we can all share in his outlook towards events and thereby benefit by them.

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