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