Why are we all made so uneven? Some are born into affluence and some into poverty. Some are born into health some into misery. Some are born in America, with all its advantages, some into primitive tribes.
Well you get the idea. Some people believe this unevenness can be blamed on some evil thing the infant does. This doesn’t seem right to me. Some believe this can be blamed on what some ancestor did. This doesn’t seem right either. How can all this be the result of a benevolent and omnipotent Creator?
Your questions plagues most thinking people at one point or another as they mature and recognize that, “Life isn’t fair.” It is not a new question, yet each era brings its own challenges, and one of the trials of our particular time is the difficulty we have in acknowledging that we cannot understand God’s ways. Humility comes hard to us.
It is difficult for our human minds to reconcile, “Life isn’t fair,” with the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent Creator. That is one of the challenges of faith. From our limited perspective, life certainly isn’t fair, but there actually isn’t a word for ‘fair’ in Hebrew, which implies that the concept doesn’t exist. The word ‘just’ however, can be frequently found – TSeDeK. God is a God of justice and one of our tasks is to work on bringing justice to His world.
According to ancient Jewish wisdom, babies are born with pure souls and we can only sin once we are capable of making choices. A baby cannot, by definition, sin. Nonetheless, the reality is that some babies are born ill or into awful families or situations. It needs to be enough for us that God understands the reasons for this even when we do not.
One analogy related in Jewish tradition is the way that the underside of a needlepoint tapestry looks. It is a messy mixture of colored threads with no discernible pattern. Yet, when you turn the needlepoint over, a beautiful picture emerges. Our perspective comes from the vantage of the underside. God sees the magnificent final picture.
We are not enormous fans of John Rawls, a famous American political philosopher, but he did come up with an interesting idea: Suppose a genie came to you twenty four hours before you were born and offered you the opportunity to design the political, cultural, and economic system into which you would be born. The only snag is that you have no idea whether you’ll be born to a rich family or a poor one, or whether you’ll be born male or female, black or white, super smart or below average. Now you would want to choose some system that would give the best shot to the most people for the longest time.
What is helpful about this little thought experiment is the context of your question—how lucky to be born in America rather than to a primitive tribe in New Guinea. However, God’s point is that nobody, yes, nobody needed to be born to primitive tribes or into repressive and horrible regimes. He gave us a blueprint for the best societal living called the Bible. Those countries that came closest to following it developed medicine, science, extended life, travel and exploration, and affluence. As some of those cultures traveled the world promoting a Biblical vision, the standard of living in many countries rose. However, so called ‘colonization’ became politically demonized, and so many countries were plunged back into barbarism. Many other countries have yet to see the light and make it out.
Ample evidence already exists to make the case that what separates successful countries from dismal failures is not geography, race, or weather. It is nothing but culture—another word for the transcendent idea people gain for their existence from whomever they worship.
God is saying, “Look, I have given you proof and proof again that the Bible guides everyone to a better life. It is horrible that anyone has to be born into a cruel tribal life but it doesn’t have to be that way. I just need you all, Jews and Christians, to show the way to the light.”
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
(This is a reprint of one of our most popular questions found in the Dear Rabbi and Susan book)
Let Me Go: How to Overcome Life’s Challenges and Escape Your Own Egypt
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