Purposeful Suffering

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Leah Sarna

:דברים ח:ה – וְיָדַעְתָּ֖ עִם־לְבָבֶ֑ךָ כִּ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יְיַסֵּ֥ר אִישׁ֙ אֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ מְיַסְּרֶֽךָּ

Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. (NJPS, Deuteronomy 8:5)

Most of our traditional commentators fall into line with the JPS’s translation of ייסר. Onkelos goes so far as to translate the line as:

.כְּמָא דְּמַלֵּיף גּוּבְרָא יָת בְּרֵיהּ, יְיָ אֱ-לָהָךְ מַלֵּיף לָךְ

As a father teaches his son, the Lord your God teaches you.

The Ramban understands the pasuk in a very similar way. He suggests that the verse means– שיתן עליו לטובתו עול מוסר, that a person should put upon their child the yoke of discipline for his betterment. We can assume that to these commentators, education and discipline were quite similar, if not synonymous.

However, the word that the NJPS and most Rishonim understand as “discipline” or in Onkelos’ version, “education” could also be translated as “causes to suffer.” The Midrash, in a fascinating line, (ספרי דברים פרשת ואתחנן פיסקא לב ד”ה רבי עקיבה ) seems to understand our pasuk this way.

רבי מאיר אומר הרי הוא אומר (דברים ח ה) “וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו ה’ א-להיך מיסרך,” אתה ולבך יודעים מעשים שעשית ויסורים שהבאתי עליך שלא כנגד מעשיך שעשית הבאתי עליך

Rabbi Meir says: the verse says “Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.” You and your mind know the actions that you did and the suffering that I brought upon you – the suffering I brought upon you was not commensurate with your actions.

Discipline is definitionally conditional, responsive to particular actions. Here Rabbi Meir interprets this pasuk to say that that the suffering endured by the Jewish people is not in response to their actions. It is disproportionate. But the direction of the disproportionality is left opaque. We usually think of Hashem as רחום, gentle and compassionate. But Rabbi Meir’s words here also leave open an opposite possibility: that the punishment was overly harsh. Support for this reading comes from a thesis statement put forward by the midrash a few lines earlier– and our statement by Rabbi Meir is part of a compilation of rabbinic statements brought in discussion of the following line:

ועוד יהא אדם שמח ביסורים יותר מן הטובה שאילו אדם בטובה כל ימיו אינו נמחל לו מעון שבידו ובמה נמחל לו ביסורים

And further, a person should be more glad in their suffering than in their good experiences, for were a person only to experience good things all of his days, he would not be forgiven from the sins he bears. How are his sins forgiven? Through suffering.  

Rabbi Meir’s reading of our verse is brought as part of a suggestion that a person should be delighted by suffering, for it brings forgiveness. This touches on one of the largest theological questions: צדיק ורע לו. The suffering of a righteous person. Rabbi Meir looks at the problem of צדיק ורע לו and says “that Tzaddik should be grateful because he has achieved forgiveness.”  

We must then go back and try to understand how Rabbi Meir is reading our pasuk in Devarim. He seems to be saying, “Bear in mind that the Lord your God causes you to suffer just as a man causes his children to suffer” – but with the intention that suffering is a gift, for it gives the other an opportunity for his sins to be absolved.

There is something quite relatable about Rabbi Meir’s seemingly strange read of the pasuk. First of all, it eliminates the equation of education with punishment, which is an assumption of the read put forward but Onkelos and others. Second, it owns up to the fact that intimate relationships sometimes cause disproportionate harm. Parents inevitably cause suffering for their children, most of the time through their good intentions. And so too, maybe, Hashem.

The difference lies only in the accidental nature of the suffering. In the theology of Rabbi Meir, when a parent inadvertently causes their child to suffer, the parent is not causing the child to suffer so that the child will be forgiven– only Hashem does that. (This makes for a reading of the verse that is slightly defective in its parallelism, but so are most comparisons between humans and Hashem.)

One can imagine that a Jew listening to Moshe’s speech in Sefer Devarim looks back with resentment on the many times that Hashem punished the Jews harshly during their wanderings in the desert. Perhaps their relative was killed after the golden calf. Another was involved in the Korach ordeal. A third was just really hungry, he had some slav. The nation endured great suffering in the desert, even while Hashem was taking care that they have food and clothing. Rabbi Meir suggests that Moshe here addresses that suffering: you suffered the way all children suffer. Suffering is inevitable. But suffering is positive, look back on suffering not in resentment but in gratitude, for ultimately it is a gift– it brings forgiveness.

Obviously, it would be insensitive to tell someone who is suffering, “your suffering is for the best” or “your suffering is bringing you forgiveness, smile!” I think Rabbi Meir’s read of the pasuk takes Moshe’s audience into consideration. Moshe is speaking to people who have endured suffering and who have seen others endure even greater suffering, but they are not currently suffering. They are sitting in Arvot Moav, waiting expectantly to finally to enter the land of Israel. The theology that Rabbi Meir attributes to Moshe here is a type that might very well serve a person who is resentful. It might help them look back and make meaning of their past.

Leah Sarna (SBM 2014) is a student at Yeshivat Maharat and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is the Congregational intern at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains. 

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