Creative Commons License
Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Suffering and perceptual theology - Berakhot 5a-b

     The topic dealt with in this section of the Talmud is suffering. The rabbis try to understand why people suffer, and in that way, they mean to provide some “therapeutic” tools (if you may) that could make it easier to deal with the difficulties. Indeed, it is very painful to observe our loved ones bearing pain with helplessness and despair. It is difficult when we face health challenges that take us beyond the limits of endurance.
          Many times, patients during my pastoral visits ask for my explanation why they have to face medical challenges. They lose hope, express anger at God, and basically ask me: “Why me? Have I not done good things in life? Have I sinned without even being aware of it, or, why am I punished by God? The truth is that there are different ways to explain suffering, even if only on the theological level. Interesting, there are those who take a distance from God while others find God in their painful experience and grow closer to spiritual life.
          Pain and suffering are universal experiences and part of the human condition whether in small, undeveloped and primitive societies or in large, developed and industrialized ones. However, anthropological studies show that the perception, the understanding and the meaning assigned to pain and suffering are not universal and vary from culture to culture. I would say, each with its own theology.
          Take for example how other societies perceive suffering and pain; some attribute sufferings to the wrong doing of members of the tribe, who provoke bad spirits to react back as punishment. The Paracas of the Southern Coast of Peru release these evil spirits by perforating the skull to relieve internal pressure of a possessed person. The Nuer tribe in Africa believes that pain is a result of collective societal transgressions. And Buddhism always explores the origin of suffering of oneself and believes that it is a product of self invoking mind activities, a constant universal human condition.
          The monotheistic faiths consider suffering within the context of God's power. In Islam, with resemblance to Judaism and Christianity, there are two views of suffering; it is either the result of personal sin and is a way to cleanse the self of imperfection and sins, or, it is a test of faith that will be rewarded by God. 
          While the Jewish way of looking at suffering is equally embracing joyful moments to be  integral in life, there was a search to find meaning in suffering.  There is the understanding that one can be in pain but not necessarily suffer. Suffering seems to be a state of mind, an attitude, a spiritual dimension of pain. The anthropologist Cifford Geertz (The Interpretation Of Cultures, p.105) puts it perfectly:
 “As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable- something as we say, sufferable”.

          Going back to Berakhot 5a-b we learn that the rabbis struggle with the question of why we suffer. Their logic raises some tough questions for me[1]. First they suggest that if one is inflicted with pain, one needs to search for the reason;
          Raba (some say, R. Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him,let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord (Lamentation 3:40). 
          If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], 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 law (Psalm 94:12).
           If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth (Proverbs 3:12).
          I do not think that many of you will assume that we deserve suffering because we are loved by God. This is difficult to digest. How could a loving God inflict such suffering on a righteous person? Why would anyone accept this? How can suffering be a token of love…?
          Raba, in the name of R. Sahorah, in the name of R. Huna, says: If the Holy One, blessed be God, is pleased with a man, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] he crushed him by disease (Isaiah 53:10). …….
          And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days.  And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).
          OK. So one can suffer because God loves him so, and there will even be a reward in the next world. But, if I to continue to worship God with Torah study and prayer, how could I possibly do so when I suffer?

          For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings… Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat, so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.

          The tool that is supposed to help deal with this problem is to vision how suffering is supposed to erase, or to repent for sins. I cannot accept the idea that sick people are sinners. I know plenty of righteous people who suffer, and bad people who flourish. Interesting enough, there are three stories following this long Gemara discussion. The cases of 3 sages who were sick and simply could not accept the suffering or the rewards. Here is only one story in 5b;

            R. Johanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. 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. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why  could not R. Johanan raise himself? They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

          There is a certain level of consciousness that promotes healing and endurance of suffering. It is very personal, and each one of us needs to tap into this well of theology. In many ways, if we re-examine what the rabbis teach us, we can see that a certain kind of acceptance, a Letting Go, could give some comfort.

What do you think of this kind of theology of suffering? What is yours?

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

[1] The following is inspired by a teaching of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman last weekend in NJ;