Biblical and Rabbinic Responses to Suffering

Early Jewish writers were more concerned with the randomness of suffering than with its actual existence.

Print this page Print this page

Thus “sufferings of love” are neither for sins of commission nor of omission, but are due solely to God’s love and are not penal. The passage contains a further discussion as to how to know when sufferings are penal and when they are “sufferings of love.”

Rashi (1040-1105), obviously puzzled by the whole concept of  “sufferings of love,” comments: “The Holy One, blessed be He, chastises him in this world, though he is guiltless of any sin, for the purpose of increasing his reward in the World to Come to a degree greater than his merits would otherwise have deserved.”

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3. 17), refers to this talmudic passage in which the Rabbis speak of “sufferings of love” and remarks that according to this opinion, sometimes misfortunes befall an individual not because of his having sinned before, but in order for his reward to be the greater.

Maimonides considers this to be a minority opinion, one which, in his view, is hard to reconcile with God’s justice. Maimonides contrasts this with the other Rabbinic sayings: “There is no death without sin, and no sufferings without transgression” (Shabbat 55a) and: “A man is measured with the measure he himself uses” (Mishnah Sotah 1: 7). This latter saying, continues Maimonides, occurring as it does in the Mishnah, enjoys special authority.

Throughout the literature of Jewish piety, the idea is found of accepting suffering in love and faith in God. The Mekhilta [a midrash on the book of Exodus] to the verse: “Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold” (Exodus 20: 23) comments: “Do not behave towards Me as heathens behave to their gods. When happiness come to them, they sing praises to their gods, but when retribution comes upon them they curse their gods. If I bring happiness upon you give thanks, and when I bring sufferings give thanks also.”

On the same lines the Mishnah (Berakhot 9: 5) states: “A man is duty‑bound to utter a benediction for the bad even as he utters one for the good.” The benediction on receiving good tidings is: “Blessed is He, the good and the doer of good.” On receiving bad tidings the benediction is: “Blessed is He, the true judge.” The Talmud (Berakhot 60b) observes that the benediction over the bad should be recited with the same joyfulness as that over the good.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.