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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Option 2: Expecting Reward and Joy--Along with Disappointment

The authors of the statement in the mishnah, on the other hand, preferred to educate Jews to believe that everyday reality can also contain joy. To give up anticipation of reward in this world for mitzvot could destroy the vitality of the sense of personal relationship with God that animates covenantal religious life. The distant promise of the resurrection of the dead is too weak a peg to bear on its own the entire weight of human expectations.

The living God of the Bible must be seen to be active also in present reality if Jews are not to grow weary of God’s covenant and despair of his love. If we are taught to expect reward for mitzvot also in this world, then sometimes we may be disappointed, but we will also attach greater significance to the joyful moments in our lives by seeing them as signs of divine approval. When the impetus to live that joyful moments provide is thus reinforced, we will also be able to take the disappointments in our stride.

Either Way, Maintaining the Connection to God and Mitzvot

The rabbis of the mishnah and Rabbi Jacob did not disagree regarding belief in a personal God. Both also shared the same objective reality: a world of painful tragedy and undeserved suffering, of people snatched away in the midst of performing noble deeds.

Nonetheless, they are able to have different expectations of a personal God and different styles of living the covenantal life. The choice between the different views is left to the sensibilities of the individual reader. All that the Talmud demands of its readers is that they find some approach that will enable them to maintain their commitment to the mitzvot in the world as they experience it. There is even nothing to prevent the same person from alternating between different approaches at different moments in his or her life.

Using Suffering for Spiritual Renewal

In general, the rabbis sought to transform suffering into a means of deepening their understanding of the Torah and the mitzvot. When tragedy occurred, their characteristic question was, “What can we learn from this?” Typically, they taught that repentance (teshuvah) was always a proper response to suffering.

“If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: ‘Let us search and probe our ways, and return to the Lord’ [Lamentations 3:40]. If he examines and finds nothing, let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: ‘Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest out of Thy Torah’ [Psalms 94:12]. If he did attribute it [to that], and still did not find [anything amiss], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: ‘For whom the Lord loves, he corrects [Proverbs 3:12].’” (Berakhot 5a)

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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.