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July 29, 2012 1:08 pm

The Secret of Suffering in Judaism

avatar by Adam Jacobs

Jews in mourning at the Western Wall. Photo: Tazpit News Agency.

The day my eldest child turned 16 months he began to vomit. It wasn’t just your average little kid spit-up either. Rather, it was a cascading gastric fountain that randomly exploded like a little incontinent fire-hydrant. Our concern increased in proportion with the frequency of these episodes, which was several times daily. When the pediatric gastroenterologist informed us that he would need to have an upper endoscopy (and what that was like), we began to feel sick as well.

When the day arrived we were told that we should not feed him at all. This was already hard — in almost a year and a half we had never denied him his “baba” whenever he wanted it and he was confused and upset by our withholding it. We did our best to keep him distracted when the doctors delayed the procedure by an excruciating two hours. He was finally placed on the gurney and rolled into a scary room that looked like the inside of a robot’s gullet — lights blinking, devices whirring and a lot of wires. His mouth was already quivering but the approaching masked people set off screams of horror. That’s when they asked us to hold him down. That was the worst part. I tried to imagine what was going on in his tender little head: What the heck is going on? I’m so hungry. Why are the people who have always helped me now doing this to me? The one idea I desperately wished I could convey to him was, “We are helping you. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but please understand that this is actually something good!”

I have found this story to be helpful for explaining to people the nature of suffering. In truth, our ability to perceive what is happening around us is extremely limited; as Thomas Edison once said, “We do not know one millionth of one percent about anything.” With such limited and flawed faculties, how can we rightly expect to have any more perspective about the nature of that which is occurring to us than a 1-year-old child does about the necessity of a surgical procedure? We cannot.

The Talmud asserts that “there is no evil that descends from on high,” and yet, unlike various other theological systems, we do not believe that there are two domains — one controlled by good and the other by evil. Rather, we believe as the prophet Isaiah wrote 2,500 years ago that “I (God) am the One Who forms light and creates darkness; Who makes peace and creates evil; I am God, Maker of all these.” How then are we to reconcile our notion of an infinite, loving Creator with one who “creates evil”? From our perspective, the answer, and the ultimate truth, is that there simply is no intrinsic evil, just the appearance of it. Though events may present as scary, painful, random and dark, in an ultimate sense they are no such thing. Does that imply that we should rejoice when horrific things occur? Absolutely not. We have been given the ability to glimpse a sliver of reality and also to use our intellects to “see” beyond our limitations, but like small children, we cry out when we’re in pain — it’s a function of our basic humanity. At the same time, we are capable of using reason to broaden and compartmentalize what is happening to us — no matter how unpleasant. It’s for this reason that Judaism permits broken-heartedness, which is an outgrowth of the natural pain of loss, but not despair, which implies that something is fundamentally flawed in our reality, which it is not.

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For instance, the great first century sage Akiva ben Yosef met his end at the hands of gleeful Roman executioners who raked his skin off with hot iron combs. As recorded in the Talmud, his response was to laugh. He was perfectly sane, lucid and able to experience the excruciating pain of the torture. He was, however, also able to focus, even in that moment, on what was good in his life and what significance this event held for him and the Jewish world. And lest we think that such a feat is not attainable in more recent times, consider the reflections of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl on his experience in Auschwitz:

I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”

I’ve heard it said that a person can deal with any “what” as long as they have a “why.” We only experience life as unpleasant when there is no meaning to it. For example, if you get a group of people in a room and tell them to sprint back and forth for 48 minutes, they might very well loathe the experience. If I give them a ball and two baskets (a purpose) it’s a great time. Freud understood the full import of the suffering that results from a lack of meaning as illustrated by his observation that “the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence.”

Suffering, therefore, can be a potent teacher and a catalyst for good, but only when it is attached to something with actual significance. At the end of the day it will be an outgrowth of our worldviews — do we choose to take pleasure in life even at the very moment it’s being ripped away from us like an Akiva, or do we prefer the pain of everyday experience lived without purpose or meaning like a Freud?

My son now understands about what happened that day — and is thankful to all involved that we caused him a momentary discomfort in the pursuit of his greater good. So too, when we succeed in expanding our consciousness to encompass the full spectrum of possibility that suffering represents, we will cease to experience it as such.

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