Traditions Help Us Cope with Suffering

By Rabbi Michael Dolgin

Originally published in Ecumenism, No. 181, Spring 2011.

This paper is dedicated in memory of Vicki Campbell, whose suffering and living affected so many so deeply.

Rabbi Michael DolginThe reality of human suffering is not to be explained away in an article. Having watched too many friends and members of the congregation that I serve experience pain and loss removes any motivation to rationalize causes for pain, illness or anguish. Suffering is a basic human experience. While neither religion nor philosophy can find a simple explanation or justification for suffering, traditions do offer us valuable perspective on this pervasive human experience. Among Jewish traditional writings, the book of Job is the text we most commonly look to for insights. I will return to it briefly after discussing a central rabbinic text regarding suffering, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate B’rachot, page 5a.

The following statement is made about suffering:

Raba (some say Rav Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord (Lamentations 3:40). If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest out of Thy law. (Psalm 94:12) If he did attribute it [thus] and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love (yisurin shel ahavah). For it is said: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth. (Proverbs 3:12) {Soncino Translation}

This complex text approaches suffering in three stages. I would like to share an analysis of these steps based on a Talmudic commentary known as Sefer Benayahu ben Yehoyada. (SBY)

While it is common to read this text from Berachot as linking suffering and sin, I cannot accept such a reading. Real life experience makes such a facile connection ridiculous. As we examine this piece from the Talmud, I believe we will see that it is not only moderns or liberals who have rejected this simplistic viewpoint.

The Talmudic text begins by suggesting that if a person sees that suffering is visiting him or her, examining conduct is the best first step. The words do not suggest any cause or sin, but rather that we closely observe our own actions. On its face, this seems a reasonable suggestion. Many choices we make cause us negative consequences. If we suffer, an immediate way to ameliorate it would be to eliminate harmful behaviours that may cause our distress. The SBY offers another explanation for this first step. He notes that the text says, “If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him . . .” At the beginning, only the person experiencing the pain is aware of it. Further, only the individual can truly see and measure her or his own suffering.

The next stage suggested by the Talmudic author requires even more explanation. The text suggests that if no obvious cause of the suffering presents itself, one should attribute it to the neglect of Torah study. SBY asks an obvious question. If the most basic responsibility of each Jew is to learn and grow, how could the sufferer not have noticed that this basic mitzvah is being neglected? He suggests a more complex understanding of the text. The level of Torah study that is right for each person is not clear or set. Even constant study provides no protection from suffering. Instead, the SBY understands this issue as one of balance between the commitment to providing for our physical self and the regular commitment to provide for our spiritual self as through study. Some suffering has a clear behavioural or medical remedy. Much does not. The difficulties we experience much motivate us to fill our lives with meaning. When medicine fails, the pursuit of purpose can help to put the pain in a more manageable context. Even if we lived a balanced life before experiencing limitation or pain or illness, that same balance may not be adequate in a new circumstance. Also, physical suffering can cause us to focus only on physical remedies or responses. Our commitment to our emotional and spiritual selves deserves and often requires additional support when our physical life is disrupted.

The third perspective on suffering offered by the text is all too common. Certain experiences may be healed or managed by examining our behaviour and seeking a healthier sense of balance in our lives. But how do we understand when those approaches fail? How can we approach suffering that is neither our fault nor within our control to manage? The term offered by the Talmudic text is fascinating, though I am troubled by the Soncino translation. The Hebrew/Aramaic term is Yissurin shel ahavah. These words are translated as “chastenings of love” even though the word yissurin has been consistently translated as “sufferings” until this point. What does the tradition mean by suffering of love? Rashi, the most basic Talmudic commentator takes a clear position, saying, “The Holy One inflicts suffering in this world absent of any kind of sin as cause in order to increase a person’s reward in the next world beyond the merit accumulated” The traditionalist calculus that suffering in this world is to our benefit in the next offers very little comfort to those who did not hold such a belief before facing difficulties. However, clearly “sufferings of love” are those painful experiences that have no this-worldly justification. This category acknowledges that life follows not simple, just plan and that suffering exists even where it justly should not. The SBY offers a more mystical interpretation of this term. In the worldview of kabbalah, our existence is a mixture of two different aspects of creation, one negative and the other positive. These attributes are a function of our experience, not of disunity in the divine. Just as a fire can be a source of warmth and sustenance or a cause of a painful burn, so in this world of both physical and spiritual, we experience God’s power in many different ways. The word “suffering” represents the harsh or judgmental side of God’s creation referred to din or judgement. The word "love" represents the kid or generous side of God's cration referred to as chesed or loving-kindness. In Jewish mystical terminology, it is said that “loving-kindness sweetens the judgement”. This process enables us to find meaning even in the most harsh circumstances. It is easy to get lost in such complex, spiritualistic terminology.

What does this terminology really mean? Some would interpret it as a different way to express Rashi’s message. Gold loves us enough to bring us temporary suffering in this world (where all is temporary to lessen and sweeten the eternal judgement we may face in the world to come. Based on study and experience, I see a much less mathematical interpretation. We are created in the image of God. Among other things, this means that we have the ability to create and experience meaning rather than living an instinctive, animalistic life. All living things may experience pain, but suffering is a different, more human experience. All living things may experience pleasure, but love is a more complex, spiritual encounter. The privilege of love is not possible without the burden of suffering. The “sufferings of love are experiences that blend together the two aspects of our spiritual selves. Our ability to experience illness, pain and loss and sweetness, love and beauty are linked. This understanding says more than that suffering and love are twins. It also tells us that when examining our deeds and balancing our lives do not bring us the relief we seek, we must treat our condition with love. When a person is suffering, the loving, caring responses that his or her loved ones are inspired to offer are profound. When someone is in pain and nevertheless affirms live and meaning, the experience touches and often changes all those who experience this human, transcendent moment.

The rabbinic perspective on suffering is much more complex than this one text or a few commentaries upon it. However, this approach requires a few words on the biblical perspective as well. My brief focus here is on the short book of Job found at the beginning and end of the longer biblical book. Dr. Alan Cooper, then of the Hebrew Union College and now at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is my teacher in this regard. From him, I gained the following insights.

First, the book of Job does not suggest that our experience is characterized by divine justice. Job is a righteous man whose possessions and family are taken from him due to not fault or misstep of his own. At the conclusion of the text, his losses are replaced with new possessions and different people. If the goal were justice, God should have returned to Job the loved ones and property that had been taken from him. The narrative is one of survival, not fairness.

Second, the statements of the characters in chapter one of Job must be analyzed carefully. Job is described as a pure and upright man who reveres God and turns from evil (1:1). God values this good man and says so in the presence of the holy beings, including “The opposer”. (1:8) Satan in this case is not a proper name for it is preceded by “the”. This character represents a perspective opposite of the holy and divine view of God. It is only this character who suggests that there is a link between Job’s choices and his material wellbeing. Among the messages of this profound book is that expecting a linkage between one’s righteousness and one’s situation in this world is a satanic perspective.

The Jewish people are privileged to possess and share with the world a variety of profound texts. No one can truly experience them all in depth. Yet, even were one to do so, one would find more questions than answers on the topic of suffering. The role of tradition is not to explain away our experiences in this world. Rather, we are offered a variety of perspectives that allow us to tolerate, contextualize, and even sweeten the difficulties that we may find along our path.