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When ‘Bad’ Things Happen: How to View Suffering

Though we hope and pray for the best, suffering is part of life and can be hard to handle. In addition to dealing with the hardship, those suffering often struggle with the questions it raises about Hashem’s relationship with us. It is, therefore, important to understand and account for human suffering. A healthy and robust religious identity hinges on this proper understanding.

 

All From Hashem

First, we must remind ourselves that everything—including suffering—emanates from Hashem. Though Hashem is the source of ultimate good and wants the best for us, we know that grief also comes from Him: “a person does not stub his toe below unless it was declared from above,” (Chullin 7b).

 

Who Cares About Us

What does suffering indicate about our relationship with Hashem? The Torah predicts that suffering will cause many to think that Hashem is not “with us.” (Devarim 31:17, Shemot 17:7) This impression is mistaken and sadly distances Hashem from us. Hashem’s decree of suffering does not indicate distance—but our reaction can generate it (see Sefat Emet Likkutei Shabbat, Shem MiShmuel Vayigash 5677).

In actuality, suffering reflects Hashem’s care for us. Moshe Rabbeinu compares Hashem’s decree to a father who causes his son pain to educate him (Devarim 8:5, Mishlei 3:12). In the words of Amos HaNavi: “You are the only nation I know (personally). I, therefore, punish you for all your sins,” (Amos 3:2).

Knowing that our suffering emanates from Hashem—who cares deeply for us—should make handling it easier. This is why Dovid HaMelech felt comforted not just by Hashem’s “assistance” but also by His “rod.” Like a shepherd who uses his staff to support and discipline his sheep, Hashem guides us, His flock, through life—by helping and, sometimes, disciplining us (see Tehillim 23:4 with Metzudat Dovid).

 

Source of Strength

Reb Nachum Margolios was able to appreciate and express this sentiment under exceptionally trying circumstances. Nachum and his wife had only two daughters, both of whom died in an accident. To everyone’s surprise, Reb Nachum continued to appear in good spirits, smiling even during shiva. Some of his friends asked how he was able to maintain his happiness immediately after he lost both of his children.

He answered them, “Let me explain with an analogy: What happens if you walk in the street and feel a painful slap on the back? If you turn around and see that it is a stranger, you are upset at the person and rightfully complain about what he did to you. But if you turn around and see that it is a close friend, you immediately realize it is a slap of love. You embrace your friend with compassion and happiness.”

“So what can I say? I felt a huge slap of pain, but when I turned around, I saw Hashem behind me and I know He loves me. That is how I am able to continue to rejoice even now, despite my tremendous pain,” (told by Rav Moshe Weinberger in Hamizrachi, Matot 5782.)

The Shem MiShmuel (Vayigash 5672) adds that seeing Hashem behind our suffering should give us the strength to work through it. This is why, when Yaakov heard that Yosef had survived and achieved a position of power in Mitzrayim, he assumed that he had survived spiritually as well (Bereishit Rabbah 94:3). Yaakov understood that Yosef was able to survive physically (only) because he had remained strong spiritually.

Rav Elimelech Biderman expresses this idea through a story about an intelligence agent who was kidnapped and tortured to reveal state secrets. After many rounds of painful torture, the agent felt he was losing his strength and resolve. Just then, he overheard two of his captors speaking about how they were actually working for the same organization as the agent and that they had been sent to test the agent to see if he could be relied upon to keep the secrets, even under duress. Hearing that those “torturing” him were really on his side, and just testing him, gave the agent the strength to withstand the pain and pass the test.

Our pain and suffering also come from “agents” who are “on our side.” We, too, are being tested to see if we react the right way. May this knowledge make it easier for us to respond correctly.

 

All Right

Though we don’t always understand why we are suffering, we must believe Hashem’s decrees are just and fair.

Iyov had a hard time seeing this, and this caused him to eventually completely lose his faith. After Hashem took his possessions and children from him, Iyov responded (1:21), “Hashem gave, and Hashem took. May Hashem’s Name be blessed.” Iyov recognized that Hashem was behind his suffering and took what He had a right to take. This recognition was noble. Indeed, Christians follow Iyov’s lead and use his words to respond to death.

Though noble, this view is incomplete; therefore, when Iyov’s suffering intensified, he lost faith. Iyov recognized Hashem’s right to take, but not that His taking was right. This philosophical flaw expressed itself after his next round of suffering when Iyov (2:10) described Hashem’s decree as “bad.” He decided that Hashem’s decree was unjust and that He governs the world unfairly (Bava Batra 16a).

We are meant to respond differently to suffering. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 17b) tells us that when the Romans executed Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon and his wife, they recited the pasuk from the beginning of Shirat Haazinu: “Hatzur tamim paalo, ki kol derachav mishpat; el emunah v’ein avel tzaddik veyashar hu,” (Devarim 32:4). This pasuk expresses the recognition of Hashem’s righteousness and faithfulness. Hashem’s decrees are not just His right, but also right, just and fair.

King Yoshiyahu responded similarly to his death. After being shot with many arrows by Pharaoh’s army (whom he confronted against Yirmiyahu’s instructions), Yoshiyahu’s death was imminent. Yirmiyahu drew close and heard his last words: “Tzaddik hu Hashem ki fihu marisi (Hashem is righteous; I violated his words) … ” (Taanit 22b).

The death of the righteous Yoshiyahu eventually led to churban and exile. Because Jews suffer greatly during exile, reaffirming Hashem’s righteousness becomes even more critical. Daniel—one of the leaders during the Persian exile—expressed this idea by including the words, “Lecha Hashem tzedakah, velanu boshet hapanim (Hashem is righteous, we should be embarrassed (for our sins)),” in his tefillah (Daniel 9:7).

We, too, include this pasuk in our tachanun and our selichot. The Kotzker Rebbe saw this as the essence of selichot. In fact, on the first night of the selichot before Rosh Hashanah, he would recite only this pasuk. Our ability to petition Hashem begins with our recognition that His decrees are just and that our problems flow from our own problematic actions.

Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi labeled the ben Tradyon family’s usage of the “hatzur tamim” pasuk as “tziduk hadin,” and it has become the model for future generations. When a close relative passes, one begins the “tziduk hadin” by quoting Iyov’s recognition of Hashem’s right to take back the life He granted. We then continue with “hatzur tamim,” confirming Hashem’s decisions are just and fair.

We express the same recognition with the bracha of Baruch Dayan HaEmet, which we recite upon hearing of someone’s passing or other bad news (Mishnayot Brachot 9:2). When we face death or suffering, we use this bracha to reaffirm our belief that Hashem is just and righteous and that His decrees are fair.

 

Sometimes, This Is All That Is Needed

Sometimes, this reaffirmation is all that is needed to change our fate. The medrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:49) tells us that Miryam bat Baysus’s laundry kept getting washed out to sea. Finally, she exclaimed, “Let His (Hashem’s) agents take what He is owed.” In response, Hashem had the sea return her clothing to her. The “debt” was her need to recognize her debt to Hashem. Once she expressed this recognition, Hashem considered the debt as paid.

In addition to being painful, suffering is also a test of faith. May we have the strength to sustain and reaffirm our beliefs at such times. May doing so merit Hashem’s continued blessings.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the educational director of World Mizrachi.

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