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The Talmud tells us not to tell someone who is suffering that his troubles are caused by his sins:

If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him: “...whoever perished, being innocent?” [Job 4:6–7]. [Bava Metzia 58b] [See also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:4]

But commentators are telling us that all the time. Some even tell us that the ONLY reason bad things happen to us is because we sinned. The destruction of the first Temple? Because of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. The destruction of the second Temple? Because of senseless hatred. [Yoma 9b] Maalot, Israel, 1974, when Palestinian terrorists machine-gunned 25 children to death? Because 25 mezuzot on the school doors did not have kosher scrolls in them.

So how do we reconcile the two teachings? Perhaps the first refers to the victims while they are suffering, and the second refers to long after the events. But still, why should there be a difference? If the purpose of telling a victim it's his fault is to get him to look to the future and improve his behavior, when is the best time to do that?

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    Berachot 5b story with Rav Huna’s wine.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:55
  • @Alex -- What does it add? Rav Huna was told his misfortune was due to his sins. When he repented, his misfortune was undone. So? Would that this should always be the case! Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 0:04
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    Which commentaries say that the only reason for a person to suffer is because he sinned?! I don't see how you can infer this from your examples
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 1:29
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    'Perhaps the first refers to the victims while they are suffering, and the second refers to long after the events. But still, why should there be a difference?' There should be a difference because it is insensitive and inappropriate to give a suffering person explanations for his suffering.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 1:35
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    There seems to be a difference between attributing communal suffering to cummunal sin and telling an individual that his suffering is because of his sins.
    – Schmerel
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 13:20

4 Answers 4

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As with so many words of Chazal, a judgment call is involved here. First (as you mentioned) there is the issue of timing. When the person is in mourning, that is a time for nechama, comfort. Mussar is for a different time.
Second is the issue of knowledge. Our sages may be able to pin down with certainty the root cause of a disaster, the "ג' חמורות" or שנאת חנם. The rest of us are not generally so gifted. You see with Job's friends, who were so terribly wrong in their understanding of what was happening to him; in the end Hashem had to set them straight, and criticize them for presuming to judge him. The other example you gave is just as bad: We all have so many issues, so many things that we need to improve; how can anyone in our days dare to suggest that mezuzos are the cause of someone's suffering?
Even when not accusing of sins: I have personally been to shivos where one of the "comforters" began to quote sayings of Chazal - comforting sayings! - as if they were able to understand what was happening in heaven, and it actually upset the mourners more. We are not gifted with that level of understanding and it isn't helpful to the mourners to pretend that we are.
That being said, I heard a tape by Rav Avigdor Miller z"l where he did just the opposite. He was speaking, as he often did, of ונשמרתם מאד בנפשותיכם, being very careful with safety. He told of a man who left a large pot of hot water at the edge of a table, when children were around. Then he said, When I visited the man at his little boy's shiva... You could hear the moan from the audience on the tape. Oy. He said, the man asked me, What sin could I have done to deserve this? Rav Miller told him, Your sin was leaving a pot of hot water where children could reach it.

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    I agree with Rav Miller's explanation regarding the hot pot. He was not criticizing the father harshly. He did not say, for example, 'your sins are great,' rather that he left the hot pot. This natural explanation seems to align well with Maimonides' explanation for why the Second Temple fell.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:03
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    Yes. But Rav Miller was special and the situation was special. These things need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Usually we can't assign a cause so clearly.
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:05
  • Yes, I agree with you.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:05
  • Btw, do you have a reference for the letter to Marseilles? I would like to see it. Thx!
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:10
  • Yes, see Iggerot HaRambam, ed. Isaac Shailat (5748), 480.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 23:30
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Your question did not establish any contradiction, if you look carefully at your examples of commenters telling us things.

The brayta on Bava Metzia 58b discusses causing pain to people with your words, by reminding a descendant of converts of his ancestry, a convert of his previously eating non-kosher food, of someone currently undergoing suffering that it is all his fault, or making a prank by directing donkey drivers (pizza delivery folk) to someone who doesn't sell grain.

It is possible that the author of the brayta maintains that afflictions of love (yesurin shel ahava) are possible, such that (as we see in Berachot 5a) after searching one's own actions and finding no fault, he might conclude that these are afflictions of love. It is possible that the author of the brayta possesses seichel that others don't, and know that there is a time and place for telling someone this. As we see in Pirkei Avot, 4:18:

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו, וְאַל תִּשְׁאַל לוֹ בִשְׁעַת נִדְרוֹ, וְאַל תִּשְׁתַּדֵּל לִרְאוֹתוֹ בִשְׁעַת קַלְקָלָתוֹ:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger; Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him; Nor question him at the hour of his vow; Nor strive to see him in the hour of his disgrace.

It is possible that the author of the brayta distinguishes between people considering their own deeds (as Berachot 5a states, yesfashfesh bemaasav) and people considering the deeds of others, judging them and blaming them (which would be yefashfesh bemaaseihem).

Now, let us consider your three examples and see if any of involved going up to the people actually suffering and telling them that it was their fault.

The destruction of the first Temple? Because of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.

How many years after the destruction of the First Temple was this explanation offered? Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta, the author of this statement, was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, lived in the time of Bar Kochba and was one of his opponents. So much after the destruction of Shiloh and the destruction of the First Temple.

The destruction of the second Temple? Because of senseless hatred.

What about in terms of the destruction of the second temple, which Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta also mentioned? In terms of generations of Tannaim, the first generation was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai et al., the second generation which was between the destruction and the revolt was Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, who were teachers of Rabbi Akiva, and the third generation, around the time of the revolt, were Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, and so on. So Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta was not speaking to people who were in the process of being destroyed, telling them that it was all their fault. The prooftexts in the gemara are from Neviim such as Yeshaya, warning people well before the destruction of what would ensue.

Maalot, Israel, 1974, when Palestinian terrorists machine-gunned 25 children to death? Because 25 mezuzot on the school doors did not have kosher scrolls in them.

Please give an exact citation of this "comment", which shows a non-idiot commenting that this was punishment for this sin. It is indeed a matter of halachic debate whether a school, which is not a residence, even requires a mezuza. So they put some up, didn't realize that some were pasul, and the penalty was death? The school administrators sinned and the children were punished?

From what I was able to find from some Internet searches, it was 22 or 21 children, corresponding to what someone claimed (without publishing pictures to prove it) were 21 invalid mezuzot of all the mezuzot in the school. And the student branch of the Lubavitch movement issued a flyer which said that the homes (rather than the school) of most of the hostages had invalid mezuzot.

A kosher mezuzah on your door posts not only makes your house an abode for G-dliness, but is also your security measure even after you have left home for the day. And since all Jews are one large body, it increases the security of the entire Jewish nation. Due to the fact that most of the mezuzot in the homes of hostages, upon examination, were found to be defective, improperly placed or not on every door post, all Jews should check their mezuzot immediately.

That wasn't directed towards the administration of the school. It wasn't directed at the parents of the murdered children. It was directed at klal Yisrael, to learn from the incident.

It also didn't say that it was punishment for the sin of having improper mezuzot. Rather, it was saying that they had lacked the protection that a kosher mezuza would have afforded them.

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B"H

We don't know why other people's problems happen necessarily, for example in the writings of the arizawl, it says that all of the shmawdoys are already finished and will never happen again, and that was written and published a few hundred years ago, so why did the shoyuh happen? We don't always know, it's not always about sins chawss vishawloym, especially as there were many great tzawdeekim on the shoyuh...

Blessings and success

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Our sages were quick to assert that the destruction of the temples was "because of our sins and for no other reason." This led some rabbis to say that the Holocaust was G-d's retribution to Jew. But is it reasonable to say that every single Jew was bad and deserving of obliteration? Those who prefer the traditional view would say yes. They would point to the flood as an example. But some rabbis feel that the flood was a natural event.

I take a different approach. I agree with Maimonides who said that evil is caused by one of three things: People harm themselves, harm others, or natural law (as when a hurricane cleans the earth but may harm people). Thus, most evil is self-inflicted. A human activity. G-d, according to the Rambam, does not do evil. G-d only does good.

Thus, I do not think G-d caused coronavirus. Rabbi Natan Slifkin pointed out to me Rambam's letter to Jews in Marseilles, where he wrote that when the [second] temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it was because Jews focused on bad theology and neglected military preparations.

Similarly, we have a coronavirus pandemic because governments lack in medical preparations, for example, we do not have enough masks in the US. Yes, the Rambam wrote in his MT that we should pray and fast, but these procedures do not change nature. Rather, they help us recognize the damage and help prompt us to find new creative ways to deal with the situation.

Perhaps we can answer this question best with a story. After Jacob's death, Joseph’s brothers feared that he would extract revenge for what they did to him when they sold him into slavery many years before. They sent him a message: “Your father commanded before his death saying, ‘Say this to Joseph, ”I beg you, forgive now the guilt of your brothers and their offenses, although they did evil to you.”’”

Leaving aside the fact that virtually all commentators agree this letter was a forgery, Joseph responded by telling them not to worry, “Ha’tachat Elohim ani—Am I in the place of G-d?” (Genesis 50:19). We might use Joseph’s phrase to help explain our answer. We should not pretend to be in G-d’s place to know why people suffer. We should leave it to G-d and let Him heal when He so chooses. Besides, isn't it a bit presumptuous to act like Job's friends, who, despite being told that he did no wrong, insisted to link his suffering to sin?

At the end of the day, we simply do not know why people suffer and should not presume to make quick judgments.

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  • Why was this downvoted Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 19:46
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    @bluejayke I don't know, but I'm glad you liked my answer.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 22:01

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