Why There Is Suffering

Miketz | Hanukkah By :  Charlie Schwartz JTS Alum (Rabbinical School, Davidson School) Posted On Dec 24, 2011 / 5772 | Midrash: Between the Lines

Bereishit Rabbah 92:1

ואל שדי יתן לכם רחמים, . . . אמר ליה רבי אלכסנדרי אין לך אדם בלא יסורים . . . א”ר יהושע בן לוי כל יסורים שהם באים על האדם ומבטלין אותו מדברי תורה יסורים של תוכחת הם אבל יסורים שהם באים על האדם ואין מבטלין אותו מדברי תורה יסורים של אהבה הן ,כדכתיב (משלי ג) כי את אשר יאהב ה’ יוכיח

“May God grant you mercy . . . ” Rabbi Alexandri would say, “There is no person who does not experience suffering . . . Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would say, “Suffering that prevents one from words of Torah, this is considered sufferings of rebuke, but suffering that does not prevent one from words of Torah, this is suffering of love, as it is written, “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes.” (Proverbs 3:12)

Who among us has not experienced suffering? After all, loss, sadness, and struggle are as much a part of life as joy, happiness, and triumph. This is as apparent in the emotional arc of Joseph and his family in this week’s parashah as it is in life’s experience. As Rabbi Alexandri says in the above midrash, “There is no person who does not experience suffering.”

But how are we to understand suffering? The midrash presents two possible approaches. If our suffering prevents one from engaging in Torah, from engaging in the world, then this suffering is due to a personal failing, due to sin. If, however, our suffering does not prevent us from Torah, from engaging in the world, then the suffering is an expression of God’s love for us. The midrash divides suffering into two neat categories: suffering caused by sin and suffering without cause that serves (possibly euphemistically) as a form of Divine love.

But the verse this midrash is based on provides an additional approach to suffering. Read in context, Genesis 43:14 is translated, “And may El Shaddai dispose the man to mercy toward you . . .” The verse is not about God bestowing mercy on people, but a wish from Jacob that the powerful magistrate in Egypt, who has kidnapped Simeon and demands Jacob’s favored son, Benjamin, will act with mercy. The magistrate, who is Joseph in disguise, is in turn suffering his own emotional turmoil brought about by the chance encounter with his brothers who sold him into slavery. Read in this context, the mercy described in Genesis 43:14, the mercy that is able to help dull the pain of suffering, does not come from God but finds its source in humanity. That there is suffering in the world, whether suffering with cause or without cause, is a fact we have little control over. What we do have control over is our reaction to that suffering. The hidden message of this midrash is a suggestion that we strive to embody Jacob’s wish, that we ask God to help dispose us to mercy—mercy toward community, family, and, most importantly, toward ourselves.