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‘Where Were You When I Laid the Earth’s Foundation?’

Lessons from taking our time with Sefer Iyov.

My Tanach chabura began learning Sefer Iyov (The Book of Job) in the fall of 2020, and a few weeks ago our group celebrated a siyum marking its completion. This 42-chapter sefer’s depth, poeticism and inscrutability, as well as the complexity of our lives during this time period, might have made this seem a long time to sit with a single sefer, but taking it slow allowed us time for its lessons to settle, take root and become ideas we will contemplate for much longer than the two and a half years we studied it on Shabbat afternoons.

Tanach, which is often used interchangeably with the word Bible, is an acronym composed of Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). Sefer Iyov is in the Tanach’s portion of books called Ketuvim, and these seforim seem to take on big questions many of us ask ourselves at the most challenging moments of our lives. In Iyov, that central question asks about the meaning of seemingly unbearable suffering that has been brought upon us, bringing us to question our very existence and purpose. Or “why do bad things happen to good people?” Some of us also ask, “what could we possibly have done to deserve this?”

As the sefer begins, we learn immediately that Iyov was in fact a righteous person, the most righteous of all the non-Jewish Canaanites, and that the entire experience that created Iyov’s suffering resulted from a strange challenge that the Satan made, telling Hashem that no person, much less someone as generous and God-fearing as Iyov, could fail to curse Hashem if provoked enough. Hashem takes on Satan’s bet, and the stage is set.

Iyov, who had seven sons and three daughters, many animals and many enterprises, enjoyed a wonderful and joyful life at the sefer’s outset; he was widely acknowledged as the wealthiest and most upright person in the land. Just as suddenly, Iyov’s animals were all stolen, killed or burned in fires, and the house of Iyov’s eldest son, where all of Iyov’s sons and daughters had been eating and drinking, had apparently collapsed upon them and killed them all.

As Iyov rents his garments in mourning, we begin to learn the many halachot that Sefer Iyov teaches in terms of how to conduct oneself in a house of shiva. Though he prostrated himself in mourning, Iyov did not curse Hashem, which prompted the Satan to immediately argue to Hashem that more must be done to provoke the man. Hashem, again, allows the Satan to take further action, in fact to bring excruciating suffering upon him, though not to kill him.

The Satan then afflicted Iyov with boils all over his body, “from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.” (2:7). As he tries unsuccessfully to scratch off the boils he sits in ashes in an attempt to cool himself, three friends come to be menachem avel (to provide comfort to a mourner). Iyov is, according to sources at this point, in at least three types of pain, first from mourning his children and his former life and position of honor, second from the boils from the top of his body, and third from the lower half of his body. The treatment for the boils on one part of his body worsened those on other parts, leaving him in literal agony. While he stops short of cursing Hashem, the physical discomfort, from which he gets no relief, eventually brings him to curse the day of his birth.

We learn much from the perspectives of these friends, including additional halachot we apply in our lives about how we must not speak in a shiva house until the mourner speaks directly to us. Each of the three friends offer explanations of sorts for what has happened to Iyov. One by one, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, wept with him and then eventually began to offer their versions of why so much suffering had been inflicted upon him.

Although these speeches and multiple rejoinders are among the meatiest parts of the sefer, it is not the friends’ answers nor Iyov’s responses to them that are widely considered to be correct or remarkable, or even appropriate or comforting for a mourner. They do offer what are widely known as versions of moral reasons given for suffering, but most often they are based on the assumption that Iyov must have done something quite terrible to deserve the condition in which he finds himself. All, in their ways, contend that Iyov must have brought his suffering upon himself. The sources here sometimes note the non-Jewish worldview of the speakers. In several cases, his friends tell him to repent, to do teshuva for whatever he must have done to deserve such punishment, but Iyov maintains his innocence and instead says shocking things as he maintains his perspective that he has done nothing wrong. The solipsistic claims of innocence Iyov makes also reminds us that we must not hold a person responsible for things said while experiencing unbearable pain, either physical or mental.

In the penultimate portion of the sefer, we meet another person, a young man, who has in fact apparently been sitting and listening to the many speeches and responses thus far. Elihu ben Barachel is no longer able to be silent; he criticizes both the friends for condemning Iyov and Iyov himself for his insistence that he is more righteous than Hashem, and for selfishly demanding answers of the Almighty. Ramban and Malbim both discuss how Elihu’s statements differ from those of the friends and of Iyov, and is somehow “representing Hashem” as part of these proceedings, which have morphed into kind of a court case with Iyov demanding answers from Hashem about the punishment that has been meted out without his understanding of the charges. Even his name “Elihu,” seems to indicate a Godly presence.

Elihu states that Iyov is incorrect in that Hashem somehow could be angry with Iyov for his small earthly deeds and seeks to punish him in this world, though He observes every step made by every person. Elihu notes that God is infinitely greater than man and man does not, or needs not, receive answers to every question posed. Hashem and man are not equal. Iyov, nor any man, is not entitled to explanations from the creator of the universe. Elihu speaks in poetic terms about Hashem’s mastery of the heavens; how He harnesses rain, lightning and thunder and conducts everything on earth according to his own precision. Elihu intimates that God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked, but also introduces the concept of the transmigration of souls, which suggests that suffering in this world could be punishments to cleanse the soul for past wrongs in other bodies, to prepare it to enter the next world.

We might think these are the last words of the sefer, but at the end of Chapter 37, Elihu’s words on the power of Hashem and His majesty over the universe as a whole are drowned out by the words of Hashem himself speaking to Iyov out of a whirlwind.

אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיׇסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ הַ֝גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

Speak if you have understanding.

מִי־שָׂ֣ם מְ֭מַדֶּיהָ כִּ֣י תֵדָ֑ע א֤וֹ מִֽי־נָטָ֖ה עָלֶ֣יהָ קָּֽו׃

Do you know who fixed its dimensions

Or who measured it with a line?

עַל־מָ֭ה אֲדָנֶ֣יהָ הׇטְבָּ֑עוּ א֥וֹ מִי־יָ֝רָ֗ה אֶ֣בֶן פִּנָּתָֽהּ׃

Onto what were its bases sunk?

Who set its cornerstone

בְּרׇן־יַ֭חַד כּ֣וֹכְבֵי בֹ֑קֶר וַ֝יָּרִ֗יעוּ כׇּל־בְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃

When the morning stars sang together

And all the divine beings shouted for joy?

וַיָּ֣סֶךְ בִּדְלָתַ֣יִם יָ֑ם בְּ֝גִיח֗וֹ מֵרֶ֥חֶם יֵצֵֽא׃
הֲֽ֭מִיָּמֶיךָ צִוִּ֣יתָ בֹּ֑קֶר (ידעתה שחר) [יִדַּ֖עְתָּ הַשַּׁ֣חַר] מְקֹמֽוֹ׃

Have you ever commanded the day to break,

Assigned the dawn its place,

לֶ֭אֱחֹז בְּכַנְפ֣וֹת הָאָ֑רֶץ וְיִנָּעֲר֖וּ רְשָׁעִ֣ים מִמֶּֽנָּה׃

So that it seizes the corners of the earth

And shakes the wicked out of it?

In the last chapters of the sefer, Hashem honors Iyov, elevating him to the level of prophecy (albeit a lower level than other nevi’im, because the sound is muted from the whirlwind), by speaking directly to him and expounding on the nature of His mastery of the universe, in poetic terms. Hashem speaks about his command of the entire animal world, the behemoth, the Leviathan, and the types of control he holds as Creator over these and other large and tiny beasts. He also explains His role in some of the most detailed aspects of animal birth, among them positioning a scorpion or snake to bite a gazelle at just the moment it is to give birth through its extraordinary narrow birth canal, creating a spasm allowing it to birth its young, and to ensure that an eagle flies to catch the newborn kid of a wild mountain goat, who ascends rocks at the very moment it cruelly expels its baby out of its body to rid itself of its labor pains without concern as to where the kid will land, to ensure that the animal world continues to propagate.

When Hashem concludes His detailed speech from out of the whirlwind, Iyov accepts the words and explanations. He has not cursed Hashem for the pain that was inflicted. He accepts his lot and he no longer expresses anger or frustration at his plight. “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge? Indeed, I spoke without understanding. Of things beyond me, which I did not know,” says Iyov, mollified and at peace.

Then Hashem then speaks to Eliphaz the Temanite, and commands him and the other two friends to do teshuva for their errors in speaking. He tells Iyov to pray for his friends to be forgiven for their words of disrespect and error to Hashem, and Hashem forgives them. This is then how we learn that Hashem seeks our prayers and wants us to ask forgiveness directly of those we have wronged before Yom Kippur. Hashem then returns Iyov’s family and riches to him, though it is unclear whether it is his original family who may have been hidden or concealed from him by the Satan through the ordeal, or whether he is given a new family.

Among the most difficult parts of the sefer is the end, when we wonder whether this whole story was a mashal, parable, designed to explain the role of suffering in the world and to answer questions that people face in difficult moments. Whether Iyov existed at all is expounded in great detail in the Gemara in Bava Basra (15a-16b). It is hard to understand why Hashem would purposely place suffering upon Iyov, particularly since He held him in such high regard throughout the sefer.

But our story concludes with: “Afterward, Job lived one hundred and forty years to see four generations of sons and grandsons.” The Gemara in Bava Basra discusses the giants in the land of Caanan that were seen by the meraglim and posits that these were people attending the funeral of Iyov. Iyov, along with Baalam and Yitro, are attributed in the Gemara to have been the three counselors of Pharoah in Egypt, particularly the one who said nothing while Baalam urged Pharoah to kill newborn Jewish boys while Yitro counseled against this. Could he have been punished for the act of saying nothing? We may never know.

After learning this sefer for so long, I appreciated the peace of the sefer’s conclusion. I also appreciate, again, how learning a sefer creates and solidifies the deep bond of friendship between those who learn together, and I thank my friends Shifra and Chaya for staying the course of this sefer with me. And I thank my children who ran in and out of my house continually while we had our learning sessions on Shabbat afternoons, and for hand-making the chocolate-and-sprinkle covered pretzels we enjoyed at our siyum. They made learning this Torah extra sweet.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek. (Be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened). May we merit to return to this sefer again and again and continue to gain lessons from it.

By Elizabeth Kratz


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