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World Religions in Assisi with Pope Francis


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October 1 2013 09:30 | Clemenza Hall, ABI

Suffering – questioning ourselves

David Rosen

Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, AJC, Israel
The title of this panel may be understood on two levels – the one being the theological question of the meaning of suffering; and the other in terms of the religio-ethical imperatives that may be derived from the reality of suffering.
In terms of the theological meaning of suffering, the sage of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yannai declares  “we do not have the ability (to explain ) neither  the prosperity of the wicked nor  the suffering of the righteous”  (Ethics of the Fathers,  4:15 )  - in other words, human comprehension of God’s cosmos and  its modus operandi are limited.  This ultimately is of course the message of the book of Job.            
Yet Judaism affirms that “God is righteous in all His Ways and gracious in all His deeds” (Psalm 145:17).   Rabbinic Judaism resolves the apparent contradictions between this affirmation and the cruel reality of life in this world, by declaring in the words of Rabbi Jacob, that this world is like a vestibule before the banquet hall.  Therefore, “prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may enter the banquet hall “(Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers, 4:16.) In other words, this corporeal existence is only an initial part of the story of our souls; and the fulfillment of justice (reward and punishment) are in the hereafter ( i.e. Heaven and Hell.)  Thus the same Rabbi Jacob is referred to in the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Haggigah 2:1) as having explained that  the promise in the Torah of long life and lasting good, as in Deuteronomy 22:7 , “refers to the world to come that is all good …and eternally long.”
However the subject of our enquiry also begs the question of what is suffering and when  it is such. There is a famous Hassidic story of how  one of disciples of the great rabbi of Mezritch asked him to explain the passage in the  Mishnah (Tractate Berachot 9:3) that declares that we must give thanks to God for the bad that comes to pass ,as well as for the good . The rabbi told him that he should journey to Anipol and there find a man called Zusha who would explain it to him. 
The disciple traveled to the little hamlet of Anipol and asked where the great rabbi Zusha was. He was told that the only Zusha there was a humble man who lived in a little hut at the end of the hamlet. The disciple went to the hut and knocked on the door. A man came opened it and answered to the name Zusha. Before the disciple could ask him anything,  Zusha welcomed him in , sat him down at a rickety little table, and offered to share  with him the  bread and water that his family were consuming . The disciple looked around and saw a wretched impoverished domicile, small and cramped; a family that was barely provided for ; and that Zusha himself was not in good health.  After a while the disciple explained the purpose of his visit, that the great rabbi of Mezrich has instructed him to come to the hamlet of Anipol to meet  Zusha in order to understand the words of the Mishnah that one must give thanks to God for the bad as well as the good. Zusha looked at him in astonishment.  “ I have no idea why the holy rabbi sent you to me and no idea why he thinks I can tell you anything about experiencing anything bad” he declared, “God has only been good to me “.
The message of this story is clear “whether one perceives something as bad or even as suffering, depends on one’s fundamental approach to life. One who lives in the fullness of the sense of God’s Providence sees even what others may see as  bad  or as suffering,  in a very different way.
Indeed if one sees the purpose of life as material pleasure and indulgence, then the absence of such is “pain and suffering”. However a religious perspective does not see material pleasure and indulgence as the purpose of our existence. The purpose of our existence is our spiritual and ethical development. 
Certainly Judaism does not see pain and suffering as an ideal; but it does not see them as necessarily negative and without value .
And this of course brings us to the second aspect of the theme; namely, the religious ethical implication of what is called “suffering”.
While the Torah does view suffering as ,all too often ,the negative consequence of our negative actions; it views suffering as having the power to bring us back to the important values and priorities of life; and indeed even historically necessary for the rehabilitation of the people as a whole.
The collective tragedy and suffering of exile was seen in Jewish tradition as a consequence of our failure to live up to the high standards of God’s revealed way of life - the Torah. Thus even though we know that it was the Babylonians who destroyed the first Temple and exiled us ; and that it was the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple and exiled us ; we declared and continue to recite in our liturgy on the Pilgrim festivals “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land”. The traditional Jewish response to tragedy is precisely not to seek to blame others, but to use the opportunity to search introspectively into ourselves, as to how we could have behaved and should behave differently.  And it is this that the Bible calls on us precisely to do :-
“And you shall seek the Lord Your God from there (exile) and you shall find Him when you strive for Him with all your heart and all your soul.                          When you are in sorrow and all these things have happened to you, at the end of days you shall return to the Lord You God and hearken to His voice.  For the Lord Your God is a Merciful God, He will not abandon you and will not destroy you and He will not forget the Covenant with your Fathers that He promised them” (Deuteronomy 4: 29-31)   and return you back to the Land of your Fathers.
Indeed the Talmud extols the purification value of suffering. But that is the essential point. The value of suffering is not in itself, but in what it leads us to comprehend; and above all in what it leads us to do.
It is trite but true that two people can undergo the same or a similar experience, whether it be one of pleasure or pain, and emerge with diametrically different responses.  Examples from the Shoah  are particularly striking. I have met those who after the enormous tragedy of their experience in Nazi concentration camps, have lived embittered insular and self-preoccupied lives; and I have met many inspirational survivors whose experience has only increased their humanity and love of others and commitment to their welfare.
The value of pain is often precisely in how and in what it enable us to empathise with one another.  It is told of the Chassidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov that he claimed that he had learnt the deeper meaning of the commandment in Leviticus 19:18 ”You shall love your neighbour as yourself…”  from listening to the conversation of  two Russian peasants. The one asked the other, "Boris, do you love me?" His friend replied, "Ivan, of course I love you!" They returned to their vodka and a minute later, Ivan asked, "Boris, do you know what causes me pain?" Boris thought for a moment and replied  “How can I know what gives you pain ?” Ivan retorted “Boris, if you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me ? ”
To really love one another means to be sensitive to the suffering of the other.
Psalm 145 (verse nine) declares that God’s mercies extend to all His creatures”. In other words,  God responds to the suffering of all (see also Exodus 22:26). Thus if we are to live up to the highest Biblical ideal of Imitatio Dei, emulating the Divine Attributes, we must seek to empathize with the suffering of others as much as possible. The more we do so , the more we fulfil the charge to love our neighbours and the more we show true love of God and emulation of the Divine Attributes.

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