Woodie Allen famously quipped, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.” Human suffering is an eternal conundrum. Why would a good and powerful God permit us to suffer? As if that isn’t a tough enough question, our Rabbis go further and suggest that God actually brings about suffering as a token of love. Many would be inclined to respond: “Thanks, but no thanks! Love like this I can live without!”
In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Berakhot 5 we find a fascinating and troubling discussion of yissurim (afflictions that cause suffering). Raba (and some say R. Chisda) then suggests that if we are visited with painful sufferings, we should examine our conduct. Perhaps we neglected Torah study, in which case the sufferings are justifiable punishment? This is problematic enough, but if that explanation doesn’t cut it, Rabbi would have us assume our suffering to be yissurim shel ahavah, sufferings God visits on people who please God so that if the sufferer accepts them, s/he will be rewarded with progeny and long life.
Raba (some say, R. 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 in his conduct], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the one whom You chasten, O Lord, and teach out of Your law (Psalm 94:12). If he did attribute it [neglect of Torah study], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loves, God corrects (Proverbs 3:12).
Gevalt! This digs the hole deeper and deeper! God punishes good people so they can subsequently be rewarded for withstanding their suffering? I can appreciate the desire to understanding the experience of suffering, but this simply paints God a tyrant and masochist. Progeny and long life are two terrific blessings, but why isn’t righteousness sufficient? And this leaves aside the whole question of whether God micromanages the world in this way: rewarding and punishing, threatening and coercing (more on that topic later).
It seems to me that what we have here is an attempt to ascribe meaning to experiences we have that are painful, intense and cry out for explanation. If suffering is random, or God is capricious in distributing it, then it’s far harder to bear the suffering. But if God is dispensing suffering so good people can earn extra brownie points, it’s time to re-examine the whole theology.
(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman