Day Two: 18 Tammuz
Fighting Job’s Demons
Torah study is regarded as a pleasure of high order. Consequently, its study is forbidden on Tisha B’Av precisely because of the mental enjoyment it confers. And yet, there are certain texts that we are permitted to learn on this mournful day, and the book of Job is among them. Tucked deep in the Tanakh, the Job narrative is one of the premier texts of the Three Weeks with which few of us are personally acquainted.
Job, regarded by some traditional commentators as a fictitious character17In addition to medieval commentators like Joseph Kaspi who treated Job as a fiction, the historicity of Job as a real character is argued as early as the Talmud: Bava Batra 15a, where an anonymous rabbi argues against R. Shmuel bar Naĥmani that Job “never was and never existed.” Resh Lakish supports this view in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sota 20c and Bereshit Raba 57:4. An excellent discussion of this issue is found in Robert Eisen’s The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). created to teach us profound lessons in faith and loyalty, was sorely tested. He was a man who had everything: a loving family, financial success, friendship and respect within his community. Satan challenged God on the grounds of belief. People are God-fearing when luck travels their way. It is easy to be faithful and grateful when God’s bounty is felt as a daily presence. But what would happen, Satan goaded God, if everything that was wonderful about Job’s life was incrementally taken away? Would Job remain a faithful servant?
As readers, aware as Job is not of Satan’s ruse, we watch sadly as Job undergoes profound loss. He is struck at every turn with sickness and death. He gradually loses everything that comprises personal identity. We hear Job’s anguish. It is great poetry, and we feel strange savoring the way he articulates anguish as one of the finest in the face of loss:
Job began to speak and cursed the day of his birth. Job spoke up and said:
Perish the day I was born and the night it was announced
that a male had been conceived.
May that day be darkness;
May God above have no concern for it;
May light not shine on it;
May darkness and deep gloom reclaim it;
May a pall lie over it;
May what blackens the day terrify it.
May obscurity carry off that night;
May it not be counted among the days of the year;
May it not appear in any of its months;
May that night be desolate;
May no sound of joy be heard upon it. (Job 3:1–7)
Job begs the heavens to eliminate him, to erase all thoughts of him, undoing his very creation and any mention of it. The day should be erased from history so that it can be as naught. And yet, despite Job’s wish to vanquish himself and rewrite his story, he does not for a moment question God’s existence. He questions his own. One thing remains a constant that Job never loses – his faith in God. Satan tries, but Satan fails. Job continues to believe in his Maker even when his Maker seems to reject him. Elie Wiesel, another person who could easily have lost his faith, writes, “I am not at peace. I never said I lost my faith in God. I was angry. I still don’t understand God’s ways.”18Elie Wiesel commenting in 1995 on his ongoing personal struggle with making sense of the Holocaust. As cited in Alfred J. Kolatch, Great Jewish Quotations (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1996), p. 489.
Job struggles to understand why his life has taken such a catastrophic downfall.
Summon me and I will respond.
Or I will speak and You will reply to me.
How many are my iniquities and sins?
Advise me of my transgression and sin.
Why do You hide Your face
And treat me like an enemy?…
Man wastes away like a rotten thing,
Like a garment eaten by moths. (Job 13: 22–28)
We sense the enormity of Job’s despair. He tries desperately to understand, and implores God to explain his change of circumstances – to show Job his own accountability. He does not run away from the brutal truths about his own transgressions. He invites God to list them so that he can make sense of his world.
Eliphaz, Job’s supposed friend, magnifies Job’s anguish by telling him that he must have done something to deserve what is happening to him:
Think now what innocent man ever perished?
Where have the upright been destroyed?
As I have seen, those who plow evil
And sow mischief reap the same.
They perish by a blast from God,
Are gone at the breath of His nostrils. (Job 4:7–9)
For Eliphaz, it is simply inconceivable that Job would suffer without being the cause of his own suffering. Innocent men never perish in Eliphaz’s theology. Only those who deserve it experience pain. Those who “plow evil” will feel the consequences of their behavior.
Eliphaz touches a raw nerve in Job. When life is hard, we search for reasons. With heartbreaking effort, we grasp for explanations that are rarely forthcoming. We ask questions that dissipate into the ether. Humans are interpretive beings; we strive to understand our world even when it seems incomprehensible.
Sometimes, we find purpose in our suffering. Finding purpose is not the same as explaining the cause of a problem, although the two are often confused. A mother may never understand the loss of a child, but by creating a non-profit organization in the child’s memory, may be able to create goodness from her pain. It will never bring her child back, but may redeem some of the tragic sadness.
Our need to interpret experience can also lead us to a more potentially problematic arena – the place of Eliphaz, interpreting the pain and difficulty of others. This transgresses the biblical prohibition of ona’at devarim, oppressing someone with words. In Leviticus, we read “Do not wrong one another, but fear your Lord, for I am God your Lord” (25:17). The Talmud offers a number of ways to interpret this verse in a specific manner, offering examples of how we can persecute others with our words. Oppression with words takes many forms, from asking the price of an object with no intention of purchasing it, to inviting someone to an event while knowing that that individual cannot attend, or paying with credit when one has the money. From what seem like relatively minor transgressions, the Talmud enters the emotional minefield of truly oppressive words. When we fabricate reasons for someone else’s suffering, we not only take an arrogant and smug stance about another’s experience, we also deem that person culpable in some way. Nothing could be more oppressive than heaping guilt or blame on top of a victim’s pain.
In the remarkable story of Job, it is not only God who causes Job’s suffering, it is his friends who augment his anguish by attributing Job’s suffering to his own misdeeds. They rhetorically suggest that people never suffer without deserving it. Each of Job’s three friends digs deeper into Job’s emotional psyche, mapping out a way to understand the world that makes Job the central cause of his own pain.
Job finally wrests the conversation back to his control, delivering his anguished response:
How long will you vex my soul and break me in pieces with words? These ten times have you reproached me; you are not ashamed that you slight me. And be it indeed that I have been mistaken, my error remains with myself. (Job 19:1–3)
Job then offers a review of how God has lashed out against him, an implicit suggestion to his visitors that they need not reproach him: God has chastised him enough. And then he poses more ultimate questions to the very people who sit in judgment over him:
All my trusted friends abhor me, and they whom I love are turned against me…Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O my friends, for the hand of God has touched me. Why do you, like God, persecute me…? (Job 19:19–22)
In comparing his friends to God, he also suggests how brazen and inappropriate their judgment is – and how little it is needed, given all the calamity he must negotiate. Instead, Job tells them what he truly needs: pity. He asks the compassion of his friends, not their scorn. Imagine the loneliness of a person who confesses that his friends now hate him, and that those who loved him have left him simply because bad things have happened. Compounding the emotional pain is the alienation and isolation instigated by the responses of others.
The Talmud has no tolerance for such individuals as Job’s friends, with their moral self-righteousness. It lets us know in unambiguous terms the exact nature of the prohibition to interpret the suffering of others. We are prohibited from reminding someone who has become religiously observant about his or her past; we cannot ask a convert about his parents; we are forbidden to interpret the calamities that have befallen others. Each of these acts exposes another human being’s vulnerability in a gaping, painful and raw way. While others may choose to share the past with us, that is to be an act of their personal choice. We are not allowed to open the portals into another’s secrets, personal transformation or heartache. Each of the Talmud’s prohibitions reveals another element of the multi-layered nature of selfhood.
Verbal oppression gets at the heart of another person’s identity. It is an attack on the essential self – on the choices a person has made about how he conducts his life or how he responds to events beyond his control. We must leave that to the dignity of he who has made these choices.
Indeed, the Talmud even suggests that bringing up any aspect of another’s past that would cause offense or jog bad emotions is forbidden. We may find ourselves constantly bringing up the past in a debate with a parent, friend, sibling or spouse. We identify patterns in their behavior and then, in a moment of perceived weakness, we throw the pattern at them: “You can never be trusted…You always do that…You did the same thing last week.” Last month. Last year. In making these pernicious observations we are minimizing the ability of an individual to change, to renew each day, and locking him into past behaviors and responses.
Job offers us a unique window into the interior of the sufferer, not only so that we can face our own difficulties with a measure of faith, but so that we can be better friends to those who suffer.
Kavana for the Day
Think about a way that you oppressed someone with your words. Just one incident. Now search for a way you can find a tikkun, reparation, for that hurt. Heal it by using your words with that same individual today. Oppression is overcome through redemption; one redeeming act at a time. Ask an open-ended question and become a patient, active listener. Become an emotional sounding board in this encounter, not offering judgment, even if asked. Allow silence to hover without feeling the need to punctuate it with talk. Silence is often the most noble, honest and understandable response to suffering. Experience silence together.