Measles, and the Book of Job

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I go for regular checkups. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We can’t avoid all tsuris in this life, but we can stand by one another in times of trouble. We can do that individually and we can do it communally. When I hear a parent worrying about vaccines and autism, one of the things I hear is a person who is terrified of parenting a challenged child in a society that doesn’t give a damn. Does that make it right to withhold vaccines? Of course not. But isn’t it understandable, once the seed of doubt is planted?

My children received every shot the doc prescribed. I have begged young parents not to be fooled by the anti-vaccine nonsense. But I think this terrible measles outbreak points to something we need to consider as a society: when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

May we all have mercy on one another.

For chapter and verse on what Jewish tradition has to say about vaccination, I recommend an article in Tablet: If Jenny McCarthy Were Jewish by Rebecca Einstein Schorr.  Rabbi Schorr is a colleague and friend with her feet firmly planted in Jewish tradition and a poignant stake in the discussion.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

13 thoughts on “Measles, and the Book of Job”

  1. Rabbi Ruth, you continue to inform and inspire me….such a good post.

    My mother never had me vaccinated, for anything….not even the ‘polio sugar lump'(that was in the 50s/60s….Im now 59)

    Her reasoning was that “she didn’t want me to be hurt.”

    Without sounding mean, I think it was more to do with her not being able to cope with my being hurt, upset, or otherwise….so, it really was about her, not me. There is a lot more to this, which would take too long to go into detail, but it was a very difficult situation.

    A couple of years back, I had to get a tetanus jag…the nurse asked when I had it last, and when I told her I’d never had any, for anything, she couldn’t believe me. I had to convince her.

    And my mother is gone, now, killed in the fire, along with her wee rescue cat…over three years ago. I told a friend I would never get over it, nor losing Alastair….and the friend started to quibble with me, saying she was ‘concerned’ at the words I used. That upset me, and caused a bit of fuss….

    I don’t think anyone has the right to do that – tell someone how they should/not feel: unless and until ( and G-d forbid) one is ever in such a situation, no matter how well wrapped in concern, it’s just not a good thing to do. And why should I be put in the position of having to explain what Im feeling, when I can barely do it to myself?

    Sorry….got a bit carried away there. Please delete this if it’s not appropriate. Not having a good day today and some of it spilled out here.

    Oh, and I had measles as a child(there were no vaccines for that, then, so that was not an issue) and it’s a very unpleasant, sometimes deadly disease. It left me with very poor vision in my left eye, aged four. I also have Aspergers, which is on the autism spectrum, and so while I understand concern about vaccines causing it, well, my own view is the same as yours.

    And some days I do feel as though Im a relation of Job, which is oddly comforting. I can’t explain that very well….it’s not meant as cheeky or rude….hope that’s clear….

    Thanks again for your blog. It’s part of my day, and Im very thankful for that.


    1. Dear Alex,

      No need to apologize. You write from the heart.

      I have wondered how much of this anti-vaccination business is really about the pain of seeing one’s child hurt, even a little. One of my children screamed at the idea of a shot, and it was a miserable business for both of us, each time. I think the only thing that got me through it was my grandfather’s story about being the only child his age left in the neighborhood after a whooping-cough winter. So I do have sympathy for your mom.

      We are the same age! What a nice coincidence.

      And thank you for your comments; I look forward to them!

  2. I am 59, too! Must be a good age!
    I like the point that trouble happens. To all people. To ones who prepare and to those who don’t. Scared people blame the victims. People who want to think they have some control. And, yet, people can do everything right and still trouble finds them.

    My problem at this moment is that I have so many friends who need my support and my listening ear, and yet, in my own family there is deeply painful trouble. I find myself almost physically ill trying to deal with the friends and their needs and my family’s needs, too.

    I try to space it out so I can deal better. And I know I have pushed some super needy friends away, but it’s what I have to do to keep myself functioning.

    Ah, well, all things will work out. I’ll give it time and go through day by day.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I try to remember the oxygen mask rule: to put my own mask on before I attend to others. It seems selfish, but in truth we are no good to others if we neglect ourselves.

      Sometimes needy people can be encouraged to help one another, too.

      I wish you the best as you navigate a challenging time.

  3. Rabbi Ruth…like you I too am a boomer, but a few years ahead of you in years. I remember when the first polio vaccine became available as a test. I was a pre-schooler and my pediatrician was one of the Dr.s nationwide selected to be one of the test Dr.s to use it on selected patients. I was one of those patients. My parents were thrilled I had been selected as a candidate. My dear, sweet mother (z’l) especially was thrilled as she and her family were able to immigrate to the US prior to WWII from Poland sadly leaving the rest of their family to become victims of the Nazis. And, she was thrilled to be in a country with such advanced medical care…why not give her child every opportunity to avoid any disease. Like you, I and my younger sister were vaccinated for every know disease possible, and thankfully suffered no ill effects.

    Unfortunately the MMR vaccine had not been developed until I was an adult and at the age of eight while visiting my mother’s parents (z”l) in Chicago that summer, I came down with the measles. I laid in bed for almost two weeks in a darkened room wearing sunglasses in the hope that my eyesight would not diminish. I remember coughing and sneezing and itching. It was a terrible event in a hot Chicago summer in a third floor apartment with no modern air conditioning. For the rest of that summer I had to wear sunglasses as my eyes were extremely sensitive to sunlight, but thankfully my eyesight was saved. I WISH THAT DISEASE ON NO ONE!

    In University I studied and received a degree in Medical Technology and I truly believe in vaccinations. I realize there is a segment of population that doesn’t trust the science behind them, but having seen the deleterious effects of some of the diseases we in the country are able to be vaccinated against, the risk is not worth the waiting to see if you or YOUR CHILD gets the disease. Even as important we need to consider the ethical consideration of putting the rest of the population at risk at not vaccinating as in the case of the measles epidemic that started at Disneyland recently. This is not a simple disease and as Jews and part of a greater world society we have an obligation to be a model for G-dliness in this world. Vaccination is one way of doing this.

    As a last comment, Wednesday I went to the VA Hospital with my husband who receives medical care there as he is currently receiving occupational therapy on his hand. I rarely go with him, but he asked me to join him with the motivation he would take me to lunch after. He proudly served as a Marine during the VietNam era and while he got little to no thanks for his service, he still proudly wears his Marine Corps baseball hat. Interestingly, many of the vets I saw also wear and display wants and shirts, jackets too with insignia of their branch of service. Sadly, however, so many of these women and men are homeless and crippled, physically and mentally; many are homeless and come to the VA daily as a place of respite with no where else to go. I said “Hi!’ with a smile to each whose path I crossed, and the response was totally unexpected. One elderly soldier hugged me. He was a WWII vet, said he was 89 and rarely had any greet him with a smile in years. I said to my sweetie, “There but for the Grace of G-d…” He smiled at me and replied, “Yeah, and I got you too!” It is important to daily count our blessings.

  4. Thank you, Rabbi Adar, for beautiful and perceptive thoughts and the wonderful comments that add to your post; this is a sorely needed blog 🙂

  5. So true. I love your compassion. What a lovely take on Job’s wife, it rings so true! And so true about how little help people with special needs get – there is such arrogance, judgment, and misplaced superiority from so many people. That’s bad enough on its own, but for people already worn thin by suffering, so much worse.

    1. The good news is that each of us can make a difference. We can participate in making big differences in policy with our votes, and we can individually make a difference by changing the way we treat others. Simply offering to help with shopping, or errands, or to sit with a shut-in can make a lot of difference for a tired caretaker. It is in our power.

      1. Rabbi,
        I think that people often do not know how to think logically, to evaluate evidence.

        So they misidentify the enemy. The vaccines are not the enemy. The suffering souls in society are not the enemy.

        And today, Muslims & immigrants are not the enemy.

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