THE JOY OF SUFFERING
Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman
We are bothered and perplexed when we see the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Actually, it's an old question expressed by the prophet Jeremiah: "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" (Jeremiah 12:1)
We are bothered and perplexed when we see the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Actually, it's an old question expressed by the prophet Jeremiah: "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" (Jeremiah 12:1) Interestingly, our sages relate a conversation between Hashem and Moses on the same topic. When Moses asked G-d, "Make Your way known to me" (Exodus 33:13), he was actually referring to the fundamental question: "Why are there righteous people to whom good happens, righteous people to whom bad happens, wicked people to whom good happens, and wicked people to whom bad happens?" (Talmud Tractate Berachot 7a). We can certainly understand the second and third prongs of Moses' question - bad things to good people and good things to bad people. But what about the first and last parts of the question - good things to good people and bad things to bad people? Isn't that the way things are supposed to be?!
Rabbi Mordechai Miller, a contemporary British Torah scholar, explains that when we pass away and ascend before the heavenly court of judgment, they will ask each of us: What was most precious to you on earth? Surprisingly, each person will answer that his particular affliction, suffering, or shortcoming was his most precious commodity during his sojourn in this world. The blind person will declare, "It was my blindness that was best, because despite my blindness I persevered and served Hashem to the best of my abilities and didn't question your ways." Remarkably, it turns out that the more tsores one is able to bear in this world and still continue to serve Hashem without questioning His ways, the greater one will become and the more deserving of reward one will be in the World to Come.
We can now better understand Moses' question: Why, if this individual was a righteous person, wasn't he given the opportunity to serve You on a higher level with tsores - why do good things happen to good people? If he is righteous, he should have been allowed to serve You to a greater degree, with tsores, to earn a greater portion in the World to Come. That is what the sages mean when they say, "The reward is in proportion to the exertion" (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:26).
There is a fascinating Midrash that highlights the greatness of King David and his composition of the quintessential poetry of the soul - Tehillim, Psalms. Our sages compare the poetry of the evil King Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Babylon who destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem) to that of King David. An angel came down, removed the crown from Nebuchadnezzar's head, slapped him in the face, and said, "Now let me see you compose poetry."
When your crown is sitting peacefully upon your head and no one is giving you any problems, it is relatively easy to write praise of Hashem. But the greatness of King David was that he composed his songs of praise and thanks to Hashem while the crown was removed from his head - when he was being pursued by his father-in-law King Saul, when his own son chased him out of Jerusalem to kill him, etc. It was in the midst of trial and tribulation, pain and darkness, that David reached into the depths of his soul and poured out his praise and faith in Hashem. This was the greatness of the righteous King David.
In this week's Torah portion, the verse relates a piece of news that Joseph heard: "Behold, your father is ill" (Genesis 48:1). The sages state that never before had someone experienced the phenomenon of becoming sick - that is until Jacob. People used to simply die by sneezing. (Just as Hashem blew the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam, so too when it came time to die one would exhale that breath by sneezing; hence our custom of saying "G-d bless you".) However, Jacob requested from Hashem, "Let a person first get sick so that he can do teshuvah (repentance) before his death."
So it was with all the Patriarchs: Abraham asked for old age as a warning that death was approaching, and Isaac asked for afflictions as atonement for one's transgressions. It's funny when you think about it. When we were children, we read fairy tales about being granted three wishes. What would we wish for? Youth and good health. And what did our great Patriarchs ask for? Just the opposite: Old age, afflictions, and sickness! Why?
The forefathers were able to see the overall picture. They did not ask for what was best for them in this transient world, but what is best in the World to Come. When it comes to making preparations for eternity, experiencing old age, afflictions, and sickness is what is best for us. They clean us up and allow us to pay off our debts, so that we can enjoy a more perfect World to Come - not for just 80 or 90 years, but for eternity.
The bottom line is that we pray each day not to be tested with afflictions. But if tsores do come our way, we understand that it is for our ultimate benefit, sent by an all-compassionate and loving Father in heaven. They provide us the treasured opportunity to serve Hashem on a higher level, accepting life's challenges with love and as springboards for personal growth.
Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman writes from Atlanta.
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