Q. Why does God make people sick?

A. This question provides you, the parents, with a unique opportunity -- to begin to talk with your son or daughter about what is perhaps the most important question that human beings struggle with.

If there is a God and if He's supposed to be just, then why is there so much pain, why do innocents suffer? Contained therein are the big questions (such as, "How can one believe in God after the Holocaust?") and the personal ones (such as, "Why did my child suffer and die?"), but all of them have the same root.

Many parents are afraid of this question. Don't be.

Many parents are afraid of this question. Don't be. In fact, tell your child how proud you are of him/her. It's an excellent question and it shows that he or she is really thinking about ideas that are important. Let your child know that all questions are okay and that you grapple with the very same issues.

KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE

As in all painful topics, it is incredibly important for the adults to have some sense of what it is they believe, before giving answers to their children.

What do you believe? How do you understand pain and suffering, national holocausts and personal ones? How do you struggle with your own pain? Your child will be greatly influenced by your approach.

My parents are Holocaust survivors, and it is their trust in God, and their struggle with that trust, that I carry with me. While I can't possibly do justice to this very important topic in the format of an article, the following is a very brief summary of the fundamentals of this issue from the perspective of observant Judaism:

  1. Nothing in this world occurs without the will and input of God. There is no random suffering.

  2. All suffering has meaning and that meaning, in some way, is of benefit to the individual in pain.

  3. God loves each one of us no matter what, unconditionally. It makes no difference whether we have sinned many times or just a few times, the love is constant and without limitations. And therefore it is wrong to assume that God must be angry at the sufferer. Judaism teaches that God loves us, period.

  4. We are not expected to understand or to feel this love when we are in pain, and it is human, and legitimate, and certainly permissible, to feel anger with God at times. Our anger though, does not change the reality of God's love, in the same way that when our children are angry at us, we love them anyway.

  5. While Judaism does teach about rewards and punishments, you have to know that suffering is not always a punishment. It always has meaning and it is always about growth, though that growth may be difficult, and sometimes incredibly difficult to discern.



DEALING WITH THE UNEXPLAINABLE

Once, when one of my children was about a year old, I took him to the doctor because he was due for an immunization. I remember sitting in the examination room waiting for the nurse to get the shot ready, holding my young son and thinking that there is absolutely nothing I can say to him to explain the pain that he was about to experience, nothing. No talks about biology and immune systems, no intellectual rationale at all.

The look on his face, the look that he gave me while receiving the immunization, will stay with me for always. It was an image of betrayal -- not only did I not protect him, I conspired with the ones who hurt him by actually holding him still.

It was an image of betrayal -- I had conspired with the ones who hurt him.

And again, there were no words to be spoken to my son. The only thing I could do was hold him. Afterwards, I remember thinking about God and reflecting that this is how God must feel. When the pain is necessary and yet cannot be explained in any terms understandable to the human intellect, He still loves us and hopes that we will continue to trust Him. He hopes too that we can feel His arms around us, holding us.

COMPONENTS OF A GOOD ANSWER

None of the above actually justifies individual events and individual sufferings, but should rather be taken as an approach to this painful subject. Every child is different in intellect and sophistication, and of course, age is a factor.

It is essential that your response to this question reflects these differences. Obviously, an eight-year-old should not receive the same answer as a 14-year-old. But all children should come away knowing:

        that they asked a good question,

        that it is a difficult one with no easy answers,

        that you grapple with the issue yourself,

        that suffering has meaning, and

        that God loves them always.