Why Things Happen: Reward & Punishment Response on Ask the Rabbi
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Why Things Happen

I've been thinking about the whole idea of "why we are here," and it seems to me that the Darwinian attitude of "everything is by random chance" does not lend itself to a meaningful life. How does Judaism view the reason why things happen?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Unfortunately, the way a lot of Jews relate to punishment has been heavily influenced by Christianity, which views God as acting with "fire and brimstone." No offense, but the Jewish idea is much different. God is our merciful Father. He's an infinite being that has no needs. Punishment cannot mean that He's "getting something." And this is the key to understanding the concept of chastisement.

When you think about it, all relationships are based on reward and punishment. When I bring my wife flowers, she smiles. If it's her birthday and I don't bring her flowers, I get punished - either by a burnt dinner, cold shoulder, etc. Relationships that are based on love always play themselves out in terms of reward and punishment. When I do what's right, I receive positive reinforcement; when I do what's wrong I get a "punishment."

What happens if my wife would always react the same regardless of whether or not I bring her flowers? That's the worst possible thing in a relationship - indifference.

Judaism says that punishment exists because God is reacting to the fact that I've done something wrong, and He wants me to change. Hopefully I'll hear the message and learn from that. God is not out for revenge. He's doing this for my own good.

If God wouldn't react to my negative behavior that would be the worst punishment of all - because that would mean indifference. This is why King David says in Psalms (23:4): "Your rod and your staff comfort me." Even though I may get "hit" once in a while, I know it is ultimately for my own good.

I would like to share a personal example.

I attended a prominent university, and one of my prized possessions was a coffee mug that bore the school's insignia. Years later, while working at an office, I would proudly carry my mug each day to get coffee. Then one day, a huge gust of wind blew through the window near my desk, knocking my mug to the floor and shattering it into a hundred pieces. My first thought was: "I'll call my old roommate and ask him to send me a new mug."

But then I forced myself to ask a deeper question: Why did this happen? Did this contain a message for my spiritual growth?

Through introspection, I realized that every day, while carrying my mug through the office, I would hold it proudly aloft, smugly aware that I was just a little better than everyone else -- because this school was my alma mater and not theirs. Now I knew why the cup broke. I needed to rid myself of this foolish arrogance. And it took shattering shards to wake me up.

Sometimes the connection is not so obvious, and we have to work hard to discover it. We may not even always be successful in making the connection. But whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: We cannot lose. The process of introspection is bound to reveal tremendous insight and growth.

Which reminds me of a story:

A man was running to catch a bus, but he arrived a moment too late, only to see the bus pulling away. Despondent, he turned to a sagely looking man and asked him, "Why did this happen to me?!"

"I don't know," replied the man, "but you've got another 15 minutes to think about it."

More Questions

Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.