INSIGHT

5767 - #34

SUFFERING

The perception of many is that a life devoted to religious ideals necessarily must include suffering. For many religions, this would seem to even be fundamental to the faith. Within such mindsets, the religious individual is inherently seen as living a life that would be generically defined as difficult or austere; it is the one who is less committed to the religious ideal that is seen as pursuing the pleasures in life. The result of this perception is that the path to religion is often deemed to be intertwined with denial, with the avoidance of satisfaction and joyful behaviour. Suffering is almost deemed to be intertwined with the pursuit of the religious goal and almost seen to be an inherent part of the religious lifestyle. The result is that suffering is not only embraced, by such individuals, but is a goal in itself for them. The average human being makes decisions with a consideration to avoid suffering. To these religious individuals, though, decisions would seem to be made with a consideration to experience suffering.  

             On the surface, such a perspective would also seem to exist within the world of Torah.1 Certain Torah sources clearly do point to the positive effects of suffering. T.B. Berachot 5a states that God gave the Jewish People three fine gifts – Torah, the land of Israeland the Future World – and all of them were only given through suffering. This source would seem to support a contention that suffering is a necessary ingredient even in the Torah religious lifestyle. Suffering, indeed, would seem to be an important element in the pursuit of the Torah ideal. The question, though, is: How is suffering supposed to effect this movement toward the religious ideal? What exactly is the benefit of suffering that made it necessary in the fulfillment of God’s Desire to bestow these gifts upon the Jewish People? The simple answer lies in the experience of pain itself. For some religious individuals, it is the willingness to experience pain in the name of the deity that gives suffering its meaning. Commitment to the deity is shown by the willingness to endure this suffering. Some extend this argument by focusing on the rejection of the physical. As suffering is usually connected to our physical being, the experience of suffering is deemed to reflect contempt for this side of our existence and a commitment to the spiritual realm. The result of such explanations, though, is that various religious individuals actively seek experiences of suffering. It is in the suffering itself that one believes he/she will find religious purpose. . 

             Devarim 8:5, however, would seem to challenge such an assertion. The verse explains that God brings suffering upon the Jewish People solely as a form of chastisement, in the same manner that a parent chastises his/her child. For the parent, the suffering of a child is never the ideal. The very purpose of the chastisement is lost if the child actually wishes to experience it. The punishment of a parent only works because the child wishes to avoid it. Similarly, if this verse compares the sufferings that God has brought upon the Jewish People to the behaviour of a parent towards a child, we must understand the effect of suffering within Torah thought to be dependent upon the desire of the Jewish People to avoid this suffering. Unlike those religions which wish to embrace suffering, Torah declares that suffering can only have purpose in a context where people wish to avoid it. The greater discussion in this very same gemara in Berachot offers proof of this assertion. Great Rabbi after Rabbi requests the removal of his suffering even if it offers Divine reward. Suffering can only work, within the context of Torah, when it is not desired by the individual. Throughout the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we ask God to forgive us without the imposition of suffering. There may be a reason for suffering but that benefit is not in the inherent suffering itself. It has purpose solely for the individual who wishes to avoid it. Suffering does not have inherent value. Its value is solely in its purpose and this purpose is only achieved in the link of suffering to that which must be avoided

             This distinction is an important one. If a person believes that suffering has inherent value, a desire to live a life of suffering is given religious value. Pain is associated with the pursuit of the Divine. If, though, suffering is only seen as having value in the message that it imparts, in its avoidance, a desire, by the human being, to avoid suffering is fundamental to the value suffering may have for him/her. Pain is not deemed to be fundamentally necessary in the pursuit of the Divine. The only purpose of pain is instructional – and it is only instructional to the one who wishes to avoid it. The ideal Torah life should have limited suffering. When suffering occurs, it is to inform us that there is a weakness in the individual's, or the community’s, pursuit of the Torah ideal – and it must be corrected, motivated by the desire to avoid this suffering.2 The idea that the Torah lifestyle inherently includes self-imposed suffering is problematic.

             Yet, the Torah lifestyle does include mitzvot whose performance does include some level of pain. Fasting on Yom Kippur clearly comes to mind. Is suffering, thereby, not an inherent part of the Torah lifestyle? The question is whether we embrace the pain or attempt to find the message behind the pain. As we are physical creatures and Torah demands of us to direct our physical side and not allow it to have free rein over our being, commitment to Torah will demand of us, at times, to curtail our desires and experience the pain of this curtailment. Still, it is not the suffering itself which has value but the lesson of this suffering. Sometimes, the process of growth will include suffering as we move from one direction in existence to a higher direction.3 In the negation of the old, there will be pain. The problem is that some believe that this pain must continue to exist, that the embracing of the divine must continue to include the rejection of the old. Such a perspective teaches us to embrace suffering. The path of Torah is to move forward and find a life that highlights the Divine Will’s goals for the human being without suffering. 4.

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 A full discussion of this issue is clearly beyond the parameters of this Insight. There are clearly perspectives within the world of Torah that sees the ideal Torah life as austere and would look negatively on even some simple human joys. I, though, believe that the underlying message within this Insight would apply even to this view (at least, some of those who advocate this view) and thus support a contention that the Torah view of suffering is different than many classical religious views, even according to those who maintain a more stoic Torah view.

2. Of course, this topic also is vast and cannot be addressed appropriately in an Insight. The role of suffering and pleasure as forms of Divine communication is both fundamental within Torah thought yet challenged by such questions as why bad things happen to good people, the role of the personal and the communal and the reality that life, itself, also has inherent suffering. Still, recognition that the value in suffering lies in our desire to avoid it, is necessary and fundamental.

3. See Torah Temima, Devarim 8:5, note 2.

4. See, also, Tehillim, chapter 51.

 

Nishma, 2007


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2006 NISHMA