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Thursday, July 23, 2009

"God crushes us with suffering" (Berakhot 5a)

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, in his post, “A risk-free life?” describes yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) in Berakhot 5a and quotes a startling passage:

Said Raba said R. Sahorah said R. Huna [said]: Whomever the Holy One blessed be God prefers, God crushes with suffering. For it is said, The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease (Isaiah 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution (Isaiah 53:10). Just as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days (Isaiah 53:10). And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).

Rabbi Rieser offers this explanation: “This suffering seems to be a form of advanced payment against the world-to-come. If they can get their suffering out of the way now, they can enter the next world free and clear.”

Here’s another perspective. To my thinking, the Rabbis are claiming that if we suffer undeservedly in this world, then our reward in the next world (olam haba) will be that much greater than it would have been otherwise. Just as we can earn mitzvah brownie points for what we do while alive in this world (redeemable in olam haba), we can earn extra points for undeserved suffering.

Why would the Rabbis make this claim, especially given that it is not within a person’s power to either choose or avoid affliction? (As the expression goes: stuff happens.) In facing the eternal challenge of theodicy – the question of God’s justice – perhaps the Rabbis want to convert the affliction of the innocent into purposeful suffering. If I can understand why I suffer (The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease – Isaiah 53:10) and even more, see it in a positive light, then I can endure it far better. Perhaps this was a way to provide comfort and solace.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cannot accept the view that God is an omnipotent being who rewards and punishes according to a mysterious calculus that defies our sense of justice and often results in devastating suffering by innocent people. This notion paints God coercive and even capricious. (Jon Levenson masterfully dismantles the claim that Hebrew Scripture puts forth an omnipotent God in Creation and the Persistence of Evil.) A God who wields power in the manner sometimes described in Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture) and reflected in the statement from masechet Berakhot quoted above is vindictive and unjust. The only way to defend such a God is to claim that God’s ethics are entirely beyond our comprehension (as the poetic dialogues in the Book of Job do). I don’t buy it.

Yet gemara also proffers a completely opposing viewpoint that resonates deeply with me:

When the Holy One blessed be God recalls God’s children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, God lets fall two tears into the ocean and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other — and that is the rumbling of the earth. (Berakhot 59a)

Here we encounter God Who is fully identified with humanity, Who resides in the heart, soul, mind, and cells of each one of us, yet Who also abides beyond us. What is more, here is a magnificent and moving image of the ultimate connectedness of all God’s creation: living creatures, the physical universe in which we abide, the ideas that animate our minds, the values that inform and inspire our behavior, and the God who is in all and beyond all.

The reflection of this God is seen in the accounts of R. Yochanan and R. Chanina who visit their sick and suffering colleagues. In a series of three vignettes, they ask their colleagues if their sufferings are welcome. Without exception, each (including R. Yochanan himself in the second vignette) responds, “Neither [the sufferings] nor their reward.” (I discussed this passage, from Berakhot 5b, in an early posting. Here it is in full.)

R. Chiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Chiyya b. Abba]: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Chiyya b. Abba] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Chiyya b. Abba]: Give me your hand. [R. Chiyya 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 R. Yochanan not 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.

In each case the colleague responds by extending his hand, raising his friend from his sick bed. The gift of love, caring, and human touch is healing; it is divine. This is the hand of God in the world – reaching out to love, touch, and heal. It is not an explanation of suffering that those in dire straits require; it is a loving response to their suffering. We each possess the hand of God, for we are each endowed with tzelem Elohim (the image of God); we have but to stretch out our hands and do what we can to heal one another.

I cannot explain why people suffering. I can only recognize that the one before me is suffering and do my best to be God’s healing hand.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Simcha said...

Thank you for your wonderful insights and sharing of your personal theology. I enjoy it a lot, but still confused... I am no Talmud Mavin, but noticed that Rashi did not comment much on our debated text. I wonder if this has any significance. In addition, I would like to add Shteinsaltz’s commentary ref. yissurim shel ahavah; “There are those who say that it refers to sufferings while a man is in good health, so it is easy for him to study Torah and follow mitzvot; what a person who is depressed with sufferings cannot do. Therefore, sometimes God tortures this special man so that he can overcome the obstacles and in spite of ths, will continue with Torah and Mitzvot. Thus, his reward will be greater, as it says: ‘Reward is according to sorrow’ (le’pum tzaharah agra).
I suppose, R’ Reiser supports this comment, which I think can be valuable by people who are of faith. R’ Amy sees suffering as an opportunity to do good with the other. Yet, R’ Amy struggles with the idea that God can even do such things to God’s created human. Perhaps she challenges the nature of God. I agree with you, R’ Amy, that “the theology of yissurim shel ahavah is trumped by loving, caring human relationships”. That suffering is there so that it would bring out the best of OTHERS, those who need to provide the care for the sufferer. I think that it also talks to the idea that we need to learn to accept what IS and deal with it in the most positive way there is. If we resist or resent the pain, we may slow down the healing process. The important lesson about self-acceptance and Bikur Cholim is clear here.
Yet, this still does not provide [ me] the answer about the real meaning of suffering, and why the sages did not welcome their sufferiengs even with all the support they got from their students.
This is a loaded discussion. I apologize.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Simcha, I so appreciate your ideas and challenges. Please keep them coming. One wonders if Rashi had little to say because he could not support the claim of yissurim shel ahavah, which presupposes a God who would inflict suffering on innocent people to increase the payoff to which they are entitled in olam haba. This is different from the notion of testing their faith, or providing a didactic experience, but shares with these beliefs two common factors: (1) the sufferer does not choose his/her suffering; and (2) the suffering is undeserved. I hasten to add that not all pain and challenge is experienced as suffering, hence suffering is a subjective experience. (As I mentioned earlier, I have experienced severe pain in my life, but did not experience it as suffering. I am currently nursing an achilles' tendon injury from running, but I am not "suffering" -- I'm just feeling some pain and a lot of frustration that I cannot run until it heals.) So it is the subjective experience of suffering that drives one to ask why this is happening, and the response is deeply personal. As a rabbi, I would not tell someone who believes their suffering is God's affliction of love that they are wrong, but neither would I confirm that contention. Yes, I am offering a different theology. I appreciate that the Chachamim struggled with these issues and offered their perspectives because their struggle invites us to wrestle with it as well; I also recognize that they did not walk in lockstep with one another and all subscribe to a "canonical theology" -- indeed, the passage describing the three bikkur cholim visits tells me just the opposite: when the tire hit the pavement (both from the standpoint of suffering and from the standpoint of being faced with the suffering of someone one cares deeply about) the theology doesn't always work. And when that happens, caring compassion does work because it is healing. I've met many people who told me of their worst epidodes of suffering and then stopped, smiled, and recounted diamond moments of kindness from others that redeemed their suffering for them. I never cease to be amazed at the healing power of compassion. I appreciate that this "still does not provide [you] the answer about the real meaning of suffering" -- there is no real theological answer in the sense of a definitive truth, only subjective experience. And as to why the sages did not welcome their sufferings, even given support from their colleagues, perhaps they realized that theoretical theology is one thing and reality is another; i.e. suffering isn't all it's cracked up to be. Thanks again, Simcha. I look forward to your next comments.

Simcha said...

Thank you, R’ Amy; I hope that this does not take you away from posting the next topic on the blog. (1) Rashi: Yes. I am surprised that he was silence, as he was not afraid or did not hesitate to explain meaning, and indicate possible objections. He also was a man who belieed that God was the one who dictated the Torah. Our guess of his dilemma with this issue is a good guess…
(2) Clifford Geertz, in his book The Interpretation of Culture asserts: As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering, but how to make of physical pain, personal loss, wordly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony sometimes bearable, supportive – something, as we say, sufferable” (p.104)
This confirms our sense of stagnation to explain more about meaning of suffering. But Geertz also reminds us that there are different kinds of suffereings. Emotional pain should be considered as well, as we humans, inflict this on our family and friends. I mean to say that when people treat each other with disrespect, when they hurt good friends with unethical behavior, or when verbal abuse takes place – it is also the source of suffering. Yissurim takes the burden of emotional abuse. Perhaps, this kind of suffering is harder to attend to? I am pretty sure that any one of us experienced suffereing which came after an emotional blow. (3) I heard of people who when suffering, they ask to come closer to God. Nu? Is this what God wants? To bring us back to God?
(4) I am sorry to learn about your being put on hold for running. I wish you quick recovery. Perhaps there is a message for you…?
With peace,

Laurie said...

I continue to think about these issues, too. I am parked in the neighborhood of the idea that the "neither suffering nor its reward are welcome" to the Sages because if we welcome suffering, especially to gain esteem in the eyes of others, we are committing a kind of hubris. Our Jewish tradition urges us to treat ourselves (and others) well, not to self-flagellate or commit acts of extreme self-denial. Our mourning rituals don't permit us to blame ourselves for the death of a close family member. We are urged to experience grief and emerge from it in due time, not to prolong it and practice self-destructive guilt. Our fasts are rituals intended to produce heightened awareness but are not punishments. Even Nazirite vows-- practices that stress discipline, allowing an ordinary person to approach a priest-like life--are not meant as punishments but as dedications.

So, maybe the rabbonim felt that it was beyond human prerogative either to welcome suffering or welcome false rewards that could come from it.

Simcha said...

Laurie; I am glad that you did not let this discussion die out. I like to struggle with text that is challanging, even if it may lead me to a dead end. This is where I ask myself how I can apply the text to my own life. I think that this is what our rabbi leaders here try to push us to do. So, your last insight is very interesting. Thanks a lot,