Schechter Logo for Print

Human Responses to Suffering in Rabbinic Teaching

Aharon M. Singer
| 13/02/2006
Rabbinic Literature
Symbols and Rituals
Thought and Philosophy

This essay approaches the problem of suffering through the study of human response rather than through a theological speculation. Better that we stumble over human frailty rather than probe the unfathomable mind of the Creator. Let others think thoughts after God and eavesdrop on the deliberations in the Academy on High. As for God’s purpose, we take the contemplative view of R. Yannai: “It is not in our power to explain why the wicked are at ease, or the righteous suffer.” (Babylonian Talmud (BT), Mishna Avot 4:19). When questioned whether R. Akiba’s execution by the Romans and the sale of his corpse in the market was consistent with divine justice, God retorts abruptly and to the point, “Keep silent! So has it come up in thought before Me.” (Ibid., Menakhot 29b). I accede to the divine rebuke.

By focusing on the human response we avoid the dissonance and discontinuity which frequently occur between the dictates of intellect and human behavior. From high-minded dogma to the life situation, from the professed creed to the performed deed, falls the shadow. In the face of physical, emotional or spiritual upheaval, our neat theological formulations fall of their own weight. “There comes a night,” writes Patrick White, “when comfort is not to be found. Faith will spill out of the strong like sawdust.” Beliefs may affect behavior. More like­ly, actions reflect one’s true beliefs. It is the religious character honed on the cutting edge of reality, the clash be­tween personality and personal crisis, not the rationalizations and homi­letics of the mind that promise a more authentic, persuasive faith for men to live by.

Further, this approach makes a classical tradition more comprehensible, accessible, identifiable. Theology, like a smart-looking dress, is quickly discarded with the change of fashion. Not so the human condition which is as perennial as it is indomitable. The struggle to survive, much less to prevail over the immedicable woes of existence, is recognizable by all. There is more than a spectator’s fascination that catches our attention. We wish to learn, draw courage and emulate the noble of spirit who suffer their convictions in the midst of life.

Rabbinic texts have been chosen to illustrate two exemplary models of response to suffering. The first serves as a pietistic paradigm: a response of the devout. The second proposes a visceral paradigm: the instinctive response. At times the focus is on the individual’s reaction to his own situation, at times to the situation of others. The sources have undergone pious transformations and each has its own history and development. It is not our purpose to validate the authenticity of the particular text, but to examine the impact and implications to the human situation. It is precisely this folk adaptation that has made the rabbinic personalities influential members of the Jewish household. To many traditional Jews they are more alive than the living. They continue to inform, inspire and reform those who pore over the pages of the sacred texts.

While constrained by a respect for the ‘simple meaning’, our approach allows for an impressionistic engagement with the texts. However, we will try to avoid the accusation of Rabbi Tarfon who accused Rabbi Eliezer of “raking words” with far-fetched interpretations and keep faith with Rabbi Eliezer’s defense: “I am only getting intimations in a biblical verse.” (Ibid., Yoma 76a). I do not consciously misrepresent the sages who have been constant, loving companions of in­sight and a source of great delight.

Pietistic Paradigm:
A Response of the Devout

Rabbi Meir sat discoursing on a Sab­bath afternoon in the house of study. While he was there, his two sons died. What did their mother do? She laid them upon the bed, and spread a linen cloth over them. At the outgoing of the Sab­bath Rabbi Meir came home, and said to her, “Where are my sons?” She replied, “They went to the house of study.” He said, “I did not see them there.” She gave him the Havdalah cup, and he said the blessing for the outgoing of the Sabbath. Then he said again, “Where are my sons?” She said. “They went to another place, and now they have returned.” Then she gave him to eat, and he ate and said the blessing. Then she said, “I have a question to ask you.” He replied, “Ask it.” She said, “Early to-day a man came here, and gave me something to keep for him; now he has come back to ask for it again. Shall we return it to him or not?” He replied, “He who has received something on deposit must surely return it to its owner.” She replied, “Without your knowledge I would not return it.” Then she took him by the hand, and brought him up to the bed, and took away the cloth, and he saw his sons lying dead upon the bed. Then he began to weep, and said about each, “0 my son, my son; O my Rabbi, my Rabbi! My sons, as all men would say; Rabbi, Rabbi, because they gave light to their father’s face through their knowledge of the Law.” Then his wife said to him, “Did you not say to me that one must return a deposit to its owner? Does it not say, The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21) So she comforted him and quieted his mind’ (Bereshit Rabba 33:3).

This midrash captures the many-faceted personality, the piety, wisdom and humanity of Beruriah, wife of the eminent Rabbi Meir. Upon the death of her two sons she shows no outward grief as she waits for her husband’s return from the house of study at the close of the Sabbath. She will not per­mit her personal tragedy to intrude on the sanctity and tranquility of the Sabbath­, for the joy of the day forbids expressions of sorrow. The Sabbath serves as a buffer to the onset of grief for a traumatic loss. The needs of the Sab­bath having been served, Beruriah must deal with breaking the news to Rabbi Meir. Her strategy is to disclose the painful truth in stages, after first shoring up the foundations of his life. She first deflects his anxiety regarding his sons by telling him that they “went to another place, and now they have returned.” The irony of her words reassure her husband, while alluding to the discomforting truth. Rabbi Meir will soon learn that “another place” is here, and “they have returned” refers to their return to God.

She then feeds him to give him physical succor and he recites the blessing affirming God’s ever-present compassion and loving kindness. With disarming subtlety she then asks her husband’s advice regarding a deposit left with them that very day, appealing to his sense of justice and commitment to the Jewish law simultaneously. When he declares unequivocally “something on deposit must surely return to its owner,” he is totally unaware that he has been for­tified by his wife for the decisive test to come. “Then she took him by the hand” an intimate gesture of her supportive love and brings him to their sons. At this juncture, Beruriah removes herself to make room for his grievous loss; Rabbi Meir’s lament: “O my son, my son; O my rabbi, my rabbi!” devastates with its tormented cry of what was, could have been and is no more.

The initial shock absorbed, Beruriah forces home the words of her husband: “Did you not say to me that one must return a deposit to its owner?” reinforcing his words with those of the Bible, the source and strength of his faith, The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).

Through her loving presence, a respect for and application of Jewish law, an understandable empathy for his grief and an affirmation of an all-embracing faith, Beruriah brings comfort and tranquility to his spirit. But what of her grief? On this question the midrash is silent. We can only resort to conjec­ture. Perhaps she found peace in the comfort she afforded her husband, consolation in the very resources that spoke to the heart of Rabbi Meir. No doubt she shared strongly the philosophy she espoused, a philosophy which teaches that we possess nothing in this world, whether child, spouse, friend or material goods. All are given in trust, as a precious, precarious gift that must ultimately return to its source. He shall not sell the land in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and temporary dwellers with Me (Leviticus 25:3). To avoid the inconsolable loss of one we love, we must be prepared, from the beginning, ‘to hold life with open arms.’

Visceral Paradigm:
The Instinctive Response

Rabbi Eleazar fell ill and Rabbi Johanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room and he bared his arm and light radiated from it. Thereupon he noticed that Rabbi Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven. Is it perhaps lack of sus­tenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables. Is it per­haps because of the lack of children? This is the bone of my tenth son! He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep, and they both wept. In the meanwhile he said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him” (BT , Mishna Avot 4:23).

Rabbi Johanan’s response is non­-judgmental. He does not try to ferret out the cause of suffering. He is concerned exclusively with the reason for his student-colleague’s depression. “‘Why do you weep?” He speculates and encounters each speculation in a dialectical monologue. Are you crying because you think your suffering is due to your failure to study enough Torah? Do not fret over that. It is not the volume of torah you cram into your head but your holy intention, and on that score you have nothing to fear. Are you sad for lack of sus­tenance? Better crumbs on the table in this world and a feast on the table in the world to come! You cry over the lack of children? Are you any worse than I who had ten children who died? Rabbi Eleazar needs none of these comforts. A man of recognized piety, as well as poverty, he is not troubled by any of these conditions of his per­sonal life. His suffering has made him sensitive to the transience and brevity of life which are evoked by the sight of Rabbi Johanan’s physical beauty. [A similar reaction was recorded with respect to Rabbi Akiba who broke down and cried at the sight of a beautiful pagan woman.] The beauty of this world is doomed to obliteration. A poignant moment of exquisite pain is shared by the two sages as they experience the unalterable fragility of the physical world. “At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hur­rying near, And yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found….” The universality of this loss puts all other losses in its shadow. The experience of their personal tragedies merge in the cosmic reality.

Having identified the cause of Rabbi Eleazar’s tears, Rabbi Johanan concerns himself with his student’s physical condition. “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” This question relates to the rabbinic concept of the “chastisement of love” which were sufferings that the righteous received from God with joyous acceptance. Impeccable piety notwithstanding, Rabbi Eleazar replies: “Neither they nor their reward!” Not only is this candid, unabashed renunciation startling, but equally so is Rabbi Johanan’s acceptance and expeditious gesture to relieve the suffering. “Give me your hand and he gave him his hand and he raised him.”

Rabbi Johanan’s approach is therapeutic, not moralistic. His purpose is clearly to expunge travail, not to impute or engender guilt. His religious queries are intended only to lighten the inner darkness. When he asks him, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” he is implying that his sufferings are those that come to the righteous and he only wants the reas­surance that Rabbi Eleazar accepts them as such. Seeing that the suffering is so heavy, that there is no saving spiritual grace, he works towards its elimination.

Common to these responses to suffering is a naturalness and spontaneity, each flowing from the individual faith, character and experience of the sage. Their responses are devoid of pious rhetoric. Both display a strong affirmation of this world. It is this attachment that makes Rabbi Eleazar see the tragic end of beauty. In the very aesthetic delight he experiences the finality of that which is most precious. As for his physical suffering, he does not reject or rebel against his condition. It is his teacher who raises the issue. When questioned, he answers honestly with an edge of irreverence. His pain is real, the reward, remote. His miraculous recovery is evidence that his natural response did not impugn his righteousness in the eyes of tradition. Similarly, Rabbi Johanan’s centeredness in this world directs his attention to the emotional and physical well-being of his student. He cannot abide suffering that diminishes without instructing and, therefore, acts to eliminate it.

The models presented suggest only two of varying responses to suffering: the renunciation of self in the pietistic and the assertion of self in the visceral paradigm. Both are informed by a religious faith that sustains courage in adversity and embraces a life of meaning in the throes of existential despair.

At the close of the Sabbath, with the setting sun, Adam saw darkness come creeping upon him, and he began striking himself upon the face, crying out: “Woe is me !” . . . What did the Holy One, blessed be He, then do? He had Adam find two stones, one of thick darkness, and the other of death’s shadow…. Adam took up the stones and smote them one against the other until fire shot forth from them, whereupon he recited the benediction which is part of the Havdalah (service at the close of the Sabbath), “Blessed art Thou…who creates the light of fire” (Midrash Rabba).


7. BT, Baba Metzia 58b.
8. Midrash Mishle, ed. S. Buber (Lyck, 1893), 33:10.
9. BT, Berakhot 5b.
10. Midrash T’hilim 92:4, Buber edition[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone

    Skip to content