Nobody I know likes pain. But not all pain is experienced as suffering. Pain may be physical, emotional, or spiritual. It may derive from illness or injury (physical), loss or separation (emotional), or shame or humiliation (spiritual). Suffering begins at the moment we ascribe meaning to the pain: this pain is a punishment, this pain is deserved, this pain is undeserved, this pain is the consequence of my selfishness, and so on. We’re pretty creative in bringing meaning to our pain and converting it into suffering.
I’ve experienced plenty of physical pain in my life – especially after being hit by a red-light-runner in Washington, DC in 1998 -- including protracted periods of pain, but I never experienced any of it has suffering. My pain was just pain and I wanted to rid myself of it. One dear friend and colleague suggested that I consider the pain a korban (sacrifice) to God to atonement for my sins. Perhaps he had in mind the mizbeiach kapparah (altar of atonement) mentioned in Berakhot 5b. I tried that, but it didn’t work for me. Curiously, however, the fact that he had taken the time and trouble to consider what might alleviate my pain provided me enormous comfort.
Our tradition has bequeathed to us a theology and worldview that troubles me deeply: God, the Creator of the universe and Author of life, is often envisioned as the Cosmic Micromanager who visits punishment on the wicked and rewards those loyal to the covenant (Leviticus chapter 26, Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 11). It takes but a moment to realize that the world doesn’t work this way, and so our Prophets project the realization of promised justice into the future (Isaiah 2: 2-4, 12; Habakkuk 1 and 2:3-5; Malachi 3:16-17). There is the lone voice of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) who admits there is no solution to the conundrum of suffering and injustice and hence the best we can do is enjoy what we have and shoot for righteousness. Not a bad existential viewpoint.
Perhaps it would be best if we could avoid experiencing pain as suffering, but we humans seek meaning – that is our nature. It’s one of the things we do best (and sometimes worst). And so the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in masekhet Berakhot tackles the question of suffering with the agenda of making meaning, so we can view suffering as purposeful. The radical idea is raised that there are cases in which God visits suffering on the righteous as a token of love. How is this loving? The righteous don’t deserve their suffering and hence will receive an even great reward in olam haba (the world-to-come) in compensation for what they have undeservedly suffered in this world.
On a psychological level, perhaps this works for some. For me, it raises ethical and theological red flags all over the place; it screams out, “the system is broken and we cannot fix it.”
This brings us to Berakhot 5b where three similar and connected anecdotes are recounted in which Sages visit other Sages who are sick and suffering affliction and ask, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” In each of the three cases, the suffering Sage responds, “Neither they nor their reward.” This is a shocking response. Here's the passage:
R. Hiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Hiyya b. Abba]: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Hiyya b. Abba] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Hiyya b. Abba]: Give me your hand. [R. Hiyya b. Abba] gave him his hand and [R. Yochanan] raised him [up out of his sick bed].
R. Yochanan once fell ill and R. Chanina went in to visit him. [R. Chanina] said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Yochanan] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Chanina] said to him: Give me your hand. [R. Yochanan] gave him his hand and [R. Chanina] raised him. Why could not R. Yochanan raise himself? They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room so he bared his arm and light radiated from it. Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learned: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven [Menachot 110b]. Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables [both learning and wealth in abundance]. Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept. In the meanwhile [R. Yochanan] said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Eleazar] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to him: Give me your hand, and [R. Eleazar] gave him his hand and [R. Yochanan] raised him.
If these are yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) then both the afflictions and their reward ought to be welcome. My daughter Rachel years ago pointed out to me that there are numerous instances in gemara where halakhah or a classic Jewish theology is promulgated and then an aggadic anecdote is recounted that utterly undermines it. I think we have a fine example here: these Sages should welcome their afflictions as yissurim shel ahavah and yet they adamantly do not!
What is the response of the visiting Sage who raises the issue in each case? He extends a hand (the magic of the human touch) and raises his colleague out of bed. He heals him with love and caring, thereby affirming that the theology of yissurim shel ahavah is trumped by loving, caring human relationships.
(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman