While I was discussing the issue of Aaron and the Golden Calf with my group yesterday, the issue of the cause of suffering came up. (You may recall that, at the end of Ch. 32 of Shmot, the text advises us that God strikes the people of Israel because of their foray into calf worship.) One of my fellow learners asked whether we no longer associated suffering with punishment and, if so, when did that association cease.
I replied in part that I was not prepared to identify people’s suffering with their supposed sins. (Indeed, the whole thrust of the book of Iyov/Job is precisely that point.) I trusted the narrative voice in the bible which does make such explicit associations but, in life, there is no narrative voice. We are left to engage our lives without the assurance of the Divine imprimatur, identifying heroes and villains for us.
I realized later that there is a perfect fictional articulation of this principle: the wonderful film from a few years ago called “Stranger than Fiction”, with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhall and Dustin Hoffman. It is a poignant comedy in which Ferrell plays Harold Crick (as a conceit, all the film’s speaking characters are named after famous scientists), a tax auditor of the most ordinary sort who wakes up one morning to discover that his life DOES have a narrator and, what’s even more frightening, he can hear her. Still more terrifyingly, she is about to kill him (in the pages of her book, as she thinks). Take a look at Shmot 32:32-33 to see whence this idea may have come.
The film ultimately has a happy ending provided by a surprising deus ex (literally!) machina. But what is particularly interesting is the exploration engaged in by Crick as he tries to assess his life and explain his troubles. He tries medicine, he tries psychotherapy, and ultimately he tries literature. But his struggle can only be called Job-like. It is a beautiful demonstration of how overwhelming it would be to find out the Big Picture in which our life was “merely” an illustrative element.