God gave suffering the power to dispel insensitivity in man, allowing him to become pure and clear, prepared for the ultimate good at its appointed time. The amount of suffering needed to purify the individual would then depend on the amount of insensitivity that he has acquired as a result of his deeds.
The Way of God, 2:2:5
Once a husband and wife decided to go for a stroll in the woods behind their home. They dressed sportingly, walking stick and all, and began their stroll down the path as they had done so many times before.
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As they walked, oblivious to the world beyond the forest, their peace of mind was interrupted. Ahead, in the middle of the road lay a huge tree that had fallen as a result of the previous night’s storm. Reaching far in each direction, and being a couple of feet high, the tree was truly an impasse.
Irritated, the man turned to his wife and in a less than calm tone asked,
"What should we do now?"
The wife, equally irritated, suggested turning back, for to walk in either direction or to cross over the middle of the tree would dirty their clothes. But the man would have nothing of it. He insisted upon continuing their walk.
So together the husband and wife climbed over the tree and, after a short struggle, overcame the obstacle.
"Well, that’s that," the husband said, wiping the dirt off his clothes.
"Yes," said his wife chuckling to herself. "I didn’t know we still had it in us. And look! Look at those flowers over there. I’ve been this way hundreds of times and have never once seen those flowers. It was worth the climb just for this."
"Yes, you’re quite right," said the husband, "This whole episode sort of made time stand still. Well, on with our walk."
Meanwhile, further down the path a man was jogging, also oblivious to his surroundings. His feet were worn from carrying the burden of his body, which he felt as each foot pounded the pavement. His breathing was strained and heavy.
Each stride the jogger took, no matter how painful it was, it was his own choice - something he had decided to do. His life did not depend upon finishing the run, but he willingly sacrificed his comfort just to get to the ‘finishing line’ at the end of the path.
Without warning, the jogger’s foot caught a pothole and his body collapsed, crushing his leg against the ground. The pain was unbearable, and he screamed. The couple, hearing the man’s screaming, ran down the path as fast as they could to help him.
Upon finding the injured runner, the man and woman tended to his injury, and after some time, they helped the runner reach a nearby hospital. As the runner limped away in pain, he thought to himself, "What pain! Why me?"
Meanwhile, not far away from where the couple and the runner were seated, a woman was also screaming; she was giving birth. Her pain was also unbearable, yet, this was her third child, and, with God’s help, she planned to have more. Moments later, a different scream was heard - it was the voice of the new baby and the mother and father could be heard laughing with joy.
Not all suffering is the same; not all suffering we question, whether inflicted on the guilty or the innocent. Specific types of suffering bother us more than others, such as the kind we don’t choose, the kind that hampers us from achieving the goals we set out to achieve, prolonged suffering, and suffering that comes by way of people we do not like.
Worst of all, we hate with a passion suffering that has no apparent meaning, either because of its intensity, its magnitude, or both. However, whatever kind of suffering one must endure, and for whatever the reason the suffering may occur, one thing is for certain: suffering changes lives.
Suffering makes people more sensitive to their own lives. It makes them more aware of the context in which they live, and it makes the sufferer aware of new avenues for positive change. Indeed, the Talmud states that this is the main purpose for suffering:
Rabbi Zira said, and some say Rabbi Chisda said: if a person sees that he is suffering, he should examine his actions; if he examined his ways and found nothing in need of correction, then he can assume that the suffering is because of ineffective use of time that could have been used for learning Torah. (Talmud Brochos 5a.)Furthermore, suffering is humbling, and for that matter it makes one examine one’s vulnerability on the way to becoming less vulnerable. (Eventually, the Land of Israel was bound to become the home of the Jewish people. But, according to most historians (secular and religious) the vulnerability of the Jews to European anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s certainly speeded us the process up to create a Jewish homeland.) So often people talk about how suffering showed them levels of inner resolve they never knew they had. Such people grow from suffering; they become stronger and learn to glean more from every moment of life. They are the kinds of people who replace the word ‘problem’ with ‘challenge,’ the word ‘suffering’ with ‘opportunity.’ Such people agree that there really isn’t a way to make suffering enjoyable, but they try always to find a way to make suffering produce beneficial results.
On the other hand, there are those who become bitter because of suffering. And what’s worse is that they might have been a lot less bitter had they not suffered in the first place. Was their suffering meaningless?
The answer is no, though very often the meaning behind their suffering is not readily apparent. Sometimes the effects of our suffering are not perceptible until generations later. Often, only in hindsight can we then trace the positive result back to its negative cause. (However, for God, for Whom past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously, the positive result of the suffering is clear at the time of the suffering itself.) This is a foundation of traditional Jewish thought: there will always be a meaningful effect of suffering. And not just a meaningful effect but a good one, (Even before this point one has to consider how many people have turned to prayer because of suffering. And if the goal of creation is to create a deep and lasting relationship with God, then certainly suffering that accomplishes this is eternally meaningful.) as the Talmud states:
A person is obligated to bless God for the bad in the same way as for the good... (Talmud Brochos 54a, Mishnah.)Hence the expression, "All is for the good," which has been said with sincerity by Jews throughout the millennia, even in the most tragic circumstances.
One day, it is assured that we will see how all the times of suffering were steps towards making a better world (after man created one that required fixing):
The Future World is not like this world. In this world, for good tidings one says, "He is good, and He does good," while on evil tidings one says, "Blessed be the true Judge." In the future world it shall only be "He is good and He does good." (Talmud Pesachim 50a.)For ultimately, the events we perceive as positive, and those we perceive as negative, are really the same thing: good, purposeful, and meaningful. This was King David’s message to all future generations of Jews, written by a man who knew suffering well:
When God will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with glad song... (Psalms 126:1.)This psalm was written about the returning Babylonian captives, but the words can be applied to any time of redemption. Therefore, they are considered to allude also to the final redemption at the ‘end of days’ when suffering for being Jewish will no longer occur.
Then we will be like dreamers, King David wrote, people who awaken from a nightmare only to discover that it wasn’t what it seemed to have been. Suffering - personal and national - when all is said and done, will appear as a passing nightmare, once we see and understand what it accomplished once we have all the pieces for the intellectual framework.
However, until this time, we have to deal with suffering the best we can. As Rabbi Akiva taught us, this means never losing hope and living with the reality that all suffering, ultimately, is meaningful, good, and from God - it is all one. This we remind ourselves of twice a day, when we recite the words Rabbi Akiva proclaimed, lovingly, reverently, at his final moment of life:
When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was time for the recital of the Shema, ("Hear (Shema,) O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.") and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. (This concept is the underlying premise of the Shema.) His students said to him,The reward for building such an understanding, and living by it, is in the final words of the story:
"Our teacher, even at times such as this you accept upon yourself the kingship of heaven?!"
He said to them,
"All the days of my life I have been troubled by the verse in the Shema, ‘And you shall love the Lord your God... with all your soul,’ (The verse that follows the Shema in the Torah, and which is recited along with the Shema each day is, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your possessions.") which I interpret to mean ‘even if He takes your soul away from you.’ I asked myself, "When shall I have the opportunity to fulfill this? Now that I have the opportunity to do so, to give up my life for God, should I not do so?"
He prolonged the word One, and died while saying it...
The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, "He should have been from them that die by Thy hand, O Lord." He replied to them, "The righteous person’s portion is in the World-to-Come." A voice went forth and proclaimed, "Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that you are destined for the life of the World-to-Come!"
(Talmud Brochos 61b. In another tractate of the Talmud (Menachos 29b), the same episode is referred to, except that it is Moses, not the angel, who questions the Divine reward for Rabbi Akiva’s life of devotion to Torah. The answer is different there: "Be silent, for such is my decree." Perhaps the different response is due to the difference between angels and humans. Angels, who live outside of time, can relate to the concept of Divine reward-and-punishment, and the World-to-Come. But for man, who cannot see the beginning and end of Divine justice, there must be an acceptance of the reality of this limited understanding in order to be able to live with the suffering, and yet not turn against God.)