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Monday, July 20, 2009


My chevruta, Rabbi Scheinerman, discussed the idea of yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) in an earlier post. She cited Berakhot 5b which records three similar and connected anecdotes in which Sages visit other Sages who are sick and suffering affliction. Each asks, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” only to be told, “Neither they nor their reward.” I want to look at that same passage from a different point of view.

The premise behind yissurim shel ahavah assumes that the person so afflicted is righteous and has not earned their suffering through transgressions. The Gemara (5a) offers various tests so one can know if these are indeed afflictions of love, for example:
* If there is no transgression that caused the suffering
“If he blamed it on something and found [after correcting the fault] that that had not, in fact, been the cause at all, he may be sure that he suffers the afflictions that come from God’s love. “For it is said, ‘For the one whom the Lord loves he corrects’ (Proverbs 3:12).”
* If the individual is pleasing to God
Said Raba said R. Sehorah said R. Huna [said], “Whomever the Holy One, blessed be he, prefers he crushes with suffering. “For it is said, ‘The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease’ (Isaiah 53:10).
* If one’s suffering does not interrupt study or prayer
“What are sufferings brought on by God’s love? They are any form of suffering which does not involve one’s having to give up studying Torah."

This suffering seems to me to be a form of advanced payment against the world-to-come. For these righteous individuals the suffering seems to smooth the way into the world-to-come. If they can get their suffering out of the way now, they can enter the next world free and clear.

Consider our three sages, each of whom is presumably righteous and suffering afflictions of love. They are disciplined and learned men who would understand the terms of the offer before them: suffer illness, pain and discomfort in this world so that you can earn a “get-out-of-suffering-free-card” for the world to come. Not a bad deal, it seems to me. So why do they turn it down; indeed, why should they turn it down.

Our sages aren't really offered a choice in the matter; the sufferings come upon them unbidden. Since they ask one another if the sufferings are welcome and if they would choose the reward, it seems worthwhile to me to speculate on why they would decline the sufferings, and why I believe they should do so.

One could say they decline the offer simply because suffering is suffering. It is difficult, painful, and debilitating. Who could make such a choice? Agreed, but that does not seem so instructive to me, so I want to explore a different option. What if they declined because accepting the offer would change who they were as human beings, and that bargain was unacceptable? Could this be a Faustian bargain?

Life equals risk. We operate on the illusion that life follows a neat and predictable trajectory. We have forgotten that before the 1930's most deaths were of young people who died from events we consider inconsequential today – infections, whooping cough and more. Today we assume death properly strikes the old, and only in tragedy takes the young. It is a false illusion, as you can see in any morning paper; but one which comforts us.

What would change if, by some miracle, you could live life risk-free? The “sufferings of love” offers one form of a risk-free life. Once you have merited the “gift”you know that you have earned heaven (however you might imagine it) and everything will work out well for you in the end. Your fate was assured.

Imagine the possibilities. The economy could crash, but you would be okay. Friends might suffer, but you would be immune. Your children would struggle with choices of education, finding a partner, creating a career, but you would sail along with no snags. Every time you stated a goal, you knew you would achieve it. Doubt would have no hold on your decisions. Like King Midas you would have the golden touch. Everything succeeds in the end.

I believe that such a life would dull meaning. Even if you devoted your life to the performance of good deeds, and thereby made the lives of others better, how would it affect you? You are no better or worse off than before, your fate is already sealed.

The sages decline the offer of afflictions of love, I hope, because they know it will negatively impact their human lives. They forgo the toll-free stairway to heaven, choosing instead the same rocky path we all must follow. They do not know what temptations and challenges may try their character, but those trials give one the possibility of improving character or, may we be spared, falling in their path.

Psalm 145 is an alpha-betic acrostic; missing only the Hebrew letter”nun.” The midrash explains that the “nun”, which stands for the word “nofel” (to fall), was excluded so one would not invite unfortunate happenings. The proof, they say, is found in the following letter, the “samech”, standing for the word “someich”, support – The Lord supports all who stumble. As pleasant as it might be to live life knowing you would not stumble, it may be too much to also forgo ever being supported.

To live without risk – in this world or the world to come – is to lose the essential experience of being human. We live with risk. We take the chance to succeed or fall. We will collect our fair share of skinned knees, but also find there are loving people nearby to support us. We will succeed on occasion, and learn to offer a supporting hand to others.

I believe the sages declined the afflictions of love because they knew the cost to be too high. In my imagination they could have endured the pain, but not the exclusion from the risk of daily life. Knowing one’s fate is no bargain.

(c) Rabbi Louis Rieser 2009


Laurie said...

R. Reiser,
You make an interesting connection between (1) the sages' statement that "neither suffering nor its reward are welcome" to them and (2) dullness of meaning in a risk-free life. I enjoy reading the way you have been thinking through the problems presented in the Talmud text.

I have two cents to add:
One way to interpret "reward" is to imagine it as "get-out-of-suffering-for-free-card", as you so clearly explain. I am imagining another interpretation. When we suffer, if we are fortunate to get well or overcome the misfortune that causes our suffering, we feel relief. But Judaism doesn't promote practices of self-inflicted suffering that allow us to be "living martyrs" and to experience either pain or relief from it as an exaltation of spirit. We are not encouraged to punish ourselves, i.e., no self-flagellation or hair shirts. Even when we mourn, our rituals have finite ends, and we are guided by practice to emerge from grief. We're supposed to be good to ourselves and others. (I'm excluding here rituals of fasting and the vows of Nazirites, which are not intended to cause suffering but to cause heightened awareness.)

So, maybe the "reward" referred to in the three Talmud passages represents self-importance or self-exaltation derived from either deliberately self-inflicted pain or relief from it. This sort of reward could be seen as a false reward, not intended by the Divine One, not equivalent in any way to the shalom of olam ha-ba.

Then the rabbis could be understood to say that they would not deliberately cause themselves to suffer for a false reward, that only G!d could choose to put suffering on anyone, that undergoing suffering is not the same as embracing it. As you state, "they decline the offer simply because suffering is suffering". They not only affirm their humanity by NOT welcoming "suffering and its reward" but also affirm that they are not committing the hubris of playing G!d themselves by assuming to understand the reasons for their misfortune.

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Thank you, Laurie, for your interesting take on this issue. You add a new dimension to our conversation, which is what we hope will happen when we create the posts.

rabbijm said...

Laurie's comment reminded me that we sometimes put the sufferer or one who has recovered from suffering into a special status. We try to be nicer to them, be more thoughtful, put them on a pedastal. The sufferer can come to think of his/her "suffering" status as priviledged or even somehow elevated.

This might be the reward the rabbis chose to avoid. Al Tifrosh min haTzibbur relates to level as well as place. Not only did they not want to have their lives changed by the "get out of suffering free" card, but they didn't want their suffering to change the way people related to them.

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Thank you, rabbijim, for your comment. I appreciate the way you cite, "al tifrsoh min haTzibur", not to separate oneself from the community. It is an interesting application of the idea.
Your post raises two opposing thoughts.
1) The mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick, recognizes the special status of the ill person and accords the visit a special power. B. Nedarim 39b teaches that one who visits the sick removes 1/60th of the illness. We don't want to perpetuate their illness by privileging their condition, but we don't want to ignore our responsibility for care either.
2) I also think of the lessons derived from Family Systems Therapy in which one family member becomes the "identified patient" and carries the dysfunction of the family system. There is a "reward" in the system for that person remaining ill as a way to sustain the inner balance of the whole. Does this notion have impact on what you offer?
Thanks for pushing the conversation forward.

Laurie said...

What a wonderful insight!It's good that we get to think about this "out loud", together.

I am focusing on the rest of the text in each of the three passages. Each tale adds detail to the "neither-suffering-nor-reward-is-welcome" and "the hand proffered by the visiting rabbi to raise up the sick rabbi".

The three repetitions are significant. We usually recognize repetition as a signal that we have to pay special attention to the issue at hand (no pun intended).

I wonder if the added themes:

--The prisoner cannot free himself from jail--


-- I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth--

clarify the ideas of suffering and reward?

These words remind me of Korach being swallowed up by the earth, a prisoner of his own faithlessness. But I can't make sense of it yet.

We have no experience of life after death or even of the promise of eternal shalom; maybe only as metaphor do we know of it. The rabbis who weep for the "beauty that is going to rot", maybe they weep for our ignorance, too, because this is all we know.