May 19, 2024
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Last week, we saw that human suffering results from man’s actions, rather than part of Hashem’s intention for His ideal world. This week, we will explore how man’s actions generate suffering.

 

Natural Consequence

Suffering is often a natural result of our actions. Eliphaz makes this point in Sefer Iyov (4:8, 5:6), where he explains that “man reaps what he sows.” Like one who plants weed seeds and, therefore, harvests weeds, those who live dangerously ultimately experience the natural consequences of their behavior.

The Gemara (Ketubot 30a) teaches that “all is in the hands of heaven, except for common colds.” We are responsible for living healthfully. If we do not, we suffer the consequences. Smoking, overeating and other behaviors damage our health, and pollution, deforestation and burning fossil fuels harm the environment. We have no one but ourselves to blame for the natural effects of our actions.

Many Torah-prohibited foods and actions have similar naturally harmful consequences. The Gemara (Yoma 39a) teaches that eating certain prohibited foods “blocks” one’s heart and mind. Modern science has identified many harmful activities; the Torah teaches us about many more (Derech Hashem 2:2).

 

Divine Reaction

Sometimes, suffering is decreed from above—often as a punishment for sin. Hashem punished the first man and woman for their sins on their first day of existence and has continued to do so ever since. The Torah is full of promises of reward and threats of punishment, and Nach tells the stories of those rewarded and punished accordingly. Though the ultimate reward is only in the next world, certain rewards and punishments are allotted already in this one.

Despite being a response to sin, these punishments are meant to benefit us. We learn this from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu compares Hashem’s punishment to a father disciplining his child (Ibid, 2:8). Like a father’s rod, Hashem’s punishments are not vengeful; they aim to help us.

Chazal explain that Hashem’s punishments repair the damage of past sins (Berachot 5a). Sins, even those committed unintentionally, contaminate both our bodies and souls (Ramban to Shemot 22:30, Vayikra 11:13, Devarim 14:3). In addition to atoning for our sins, suffering also cleanses us from their physical and spiritual impact.

 

Divine Intervention

Suffering often serves an additional, future-oriented purpose. Hashem causes us to suffer not only because of what we have done in the past but also to inspire us to improve. Hashem’s goal is not only to repair the impact of past sins but also to help us change course. This is why the Hebrew word for suffering, yisurin, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for rebuke, mussar. Suffering aims to teach us how to improve.

For this reason, Hashem punishes middah k’neged middah—He makes the punishment fit the crime (Sotah 8b), so we can understand what behavior we need to repair. This is why the Gemara (Berachot 5a) encourages one experiencing suffering to investigate his actions. He should consider what inappropriate behavior Hashem is encouraging him to change.

Elihu made this point to Iyov, who felt his suffering was unjustified (Iyov 33:19-22). Elihu explained that suffering is not always a punishment for sin. Sometimes, it is Hashem’s way of communicating with us, of encouraging us to change course before we come to sin.

Realizing this, when experiencing suffering, we should make sure to ask l’mah (for what purpose did Hashem send suffering) instead of (just) wondering lamah (why/what in the past justifies our suffering). We should seek Hashem’s message and the direction He encourages us to head in.

 

Growth Stimulant

Suffering can also be totally disconnected from sin (See Shabbat 55a). It can be part of our personal growth process.

How?

Suffering experienced in the process of reaching a goal helps us appreciate our accomplishment. This is why Hashem arranged for His three greatest gifts to us—Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba—to all be nikneis b’yisurin, acquired through suffering (Berachot 5a). We appreciate the difficult missions; the tza’ar we experience helps us value our accomplishments.

The Mishna in Avot (5:22) makes a similar statement. “L’fum tza’ara, agra”—the more we suffer for something, the more likely we are to appreciate it. The pain helps us appreciate the gain.

Suffering also aims to nudge us out of our comfort zone. When we live comfortably, we often do not consider the higher levels we should strive for. Suffering shakes us up and makes us question our habits and routines and realize that we can accomplish more.

This is why the aforementioned Gemara (Berachot 5a) encourages one who cannot identify a sin responsible for his suffering to attribute his suffering to bitul Torah. The person may not have sinned, but he is also not maximizing his life and opportunities. Hashem sends suffering to inspire him to take more advantage of his life.

Suffering also stimulates reflection and the search for meaning. It inspires us to ask real questions about the world and our place within it. Victor Frankl famously observed how the Holocaust caused many to search for deeper meaning in their lives and reality. People in concentration camps needed some way of understanding and explaining their circumstances.

This is how suffering can strengthen our connection to and relationship with Hashem. Suffering causes us to consider the bigger picture and appreciate and focus more on Hashem’s involvement in the world and our relationship with Him.

Life is not meant to be about comfort, but, rather, about reflection and maximizing growth. Suffering can be a powerful way of inspiring this reflection and growth.

 

Suffering Properly

Suffering is a bothersome and frustrating experience. Sadly, people often respond by trying to merely alleviate the symptoms without determining and addressing the true cause.

We should make sure to understand the real reasons we suffer and respond by seeking to improve ourselves.

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the


Educational Director of World Mizrachi. His new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at rabbitaragin.com/essentials

 

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