The Anthropological Implications of Suffering

The rabbis of the talmudic era were more interested in the human response to suffering than in finding theological justifications for its existence.

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Although some authorities take “he inherits the land” to mean “he has a part in the World to Come,” the emphasis in this statement is decidedly this-worldly. Indeed, this statement from the Mishnah is hardly different in spirit from the Bible, with its perspective that is earthbound. The Mishnah typically invites one to expect prosperity in this world if one is loyal to God’s mitzvot to anticipate rain in due season, abundant crops, many children, security from adversity, a long and good life.

The baraita (the external teaching of a tanna [a sage from the time of the Mishnah] not included in the Mishnah [itself]) to the above mishnah, however, claims that when people strive to be righteous in this world, God’s response is to inflict upon them suffering that will expiate their sins, so that they can enjoy complete bliss in the World to Come. But people who prefer iniquity to righteousness are allowed to prosper in this world, because they have already ensured themselves punishment in the World to Come.

Embracing an Outlook That Accords with One’s Experience

The mishnah and the baraita embody different kinds of expectations that individuals may permit themselves in their living relationship with God, different risks that they are prepared to take in the light of that felt relationship. Since the aim of the talmudic discussion is to find a viable way of life, not a metaphysical truth, the Talmud does not give exclusive preference to any of the ways offered. Some Jews may find one outlook more consonant with their sensibilities and personal experience than another; others may feel more at ease with the other. Both ways are authentic, because both seek to preserve commitment to the mitzvot.

In the talmudic discussion, Rava [who died in 352 CE] points out that the baraita accords with Rabbi Jacob, who taught that there was no reward for mitzvot in this world and that wherever the Torah promises a reward for a mitzvah, the reward is to be expected only in the next world. To illustrate his teaching, Rabbi Jacob told a story of a child who died immediately after fulfilling two mitzvot: the child obeyed his father, who had told him to take birds from the loft, and he obeyed the biblical requirement of letting the mother bird go free before taking the young ones. Yet although the Bible promises long life to those who fulfill either of these mitzvot, on descending from the loft the boy fell and was killed (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 39b).

Option 1: Rejecting the Expectation of This-Worldly Reward

Rabbi Jacob refused to expose people to the risk of expecting that their obedience to the mitzvot would ensure them material prosperity and a long life. For when people hold such expectations, the sudden death of a child who has just performed mitzvot that promised long life may create a total value disorientation if things happen that suggest that the promises of God cannot be relied upon, trust in him and readiness to perform his mitzvot may collapse. The solution chosen by Rabbi Jacob was simple and drastic. Eliminate every expectation of reward in this world for the performance of mitzvot. Remember that the covenantal relationship with a personal God does not end with death. Look forward to the promised resurrection of the dead. Never forget that God loves you and that this is why he gave you the Torah and the mitzvot, which will guarantee you reward in the World to Come.

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Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also served as a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.