The Value of Suffering? Part I

November 30th: Vayeshev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We who suffer—some more and some less—do not generally approach suffering as a good and purposeful experience.  

There are exceptions, of course. When suffering is necessary to prepare us for something important, we can often endure it for the sake of the ultimate goal. This would go for soldiers suffering through basic training or women suffering through labor and delivery. It could also be the case for athletes suffering through difficult training drills or students suffering through homework. When there is a purpose, the connection between the suffering and the goal can help us endure. 

But, generally, the purpose or value of suffering is not so obvious, and we struggle to make sense of our pain or deprivation or deep sadness. Lest we despair, we work hard to deal with the difficulties in our lives, and this is where religion enters. The late philosopher, Dr. Alvin Reines, used to describe the basic predicament of humans as finitude: we have infinite desires and finite possibilities. To remedy or deal with this finitude, we search for meaning—in Dr. Reines’ words soteria, ultimate meaningfulness, and this is the purpose of religion. As Rabbi Chaim Stern puts it, we hope “to impart to our fleeting days an abiding value.” 

As Judaism has developed through the ages, a number of responses have been formulated to help us understand the vicissitudes of our lives. Several of these lessons can be discussed in the context of this week’s Torah portion and the whole Joseph saga, and we shall consider them over the next two weeks.  

When Jacob is told, in Genesis 37, that Joseph has been eaten by a wild beast, he suffers great grief. The only comfort is that the rest of the family survives and will continue on into the future. As God has promised him, “I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the seas, which are too numerous to count.” (Genesis 32.13) There is less concern in the Torah for individual salvation and more concern with the survival of the tribe or nation. Though individuals do not continue indefinitely, God promises that the Children of Israel will continue forever. 

This limitation of Biblical thought is also expressed by Jacob’s wordsRefusing to be comforted by his children, he says, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” (Genesis 37.35) Sheol is the place our ancient ancestors believed awaited them upon their deaths. It was not a place of reward or punishment; just a place where dead people dwelled. As for reward for obedience to God’s will or punishment for disobedience, the Torah’s teaching is that they come in this life (in a teaching called Deuteronomic Theology). The Book of Job struggles with this notion as Job, a righteous and blameless man, suffers all kinds of terrible things. The book ends with a resolution of sorts—that God’s ways are beyond human understanding, but we are still left with the fact that bad things happen to good people—and that good things happen to bad people. It is not the kind of answer we are seeking.  

Another answer comes in the Torah, though it takes quite a while to emerge. At the end of the story of Joseph—some twelve chapters and three parshiyot hence, Joseph speaks of his suffering with equanimity, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many peoples.” (Genesis 50.20) Of course, this comes after a lot of suffering: Joseph is abandoned by his family, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely accused of rape, imprisoned, and forgotten by someone he thought was a friend. The rest of the family suffers, too: Jacob mourns his son continually and coddles the baby Benjamin, smothering him with “protection.” And, as we find out later, the other brothers are plagued with guilt over a spat that got completely out of control. 

So, we have to be careful in quoting Joseph’s philosophical reflection with too much sanguinity. Yes, God meant it for good, but how does one accept misery and family dysfunction in anticipation of something good in the distant future? The answer lies in the faith we are taught—the faith in God’s ultimate victory that is expressed so often in Scripture and the prayer book. Consider, for one example, the Kaddish. Recited throughout the worship service and after study sessions and after a loved one’s death, the Kaddish prays that “v’yam’lich mal’chutay” that God’s kingdom will ultimately prevail. And, though we say, “b’chayechon uv’yomechon…ba’agala uviz’man kariv / In your lifetime and in your days...quickly and very soon,” we know that the wait may be long. Nonetheless we have faith, and we pledge ourselves to do our small parts to eventuate in Tikkun Olam. 

If we can see the long picture—that step by step and mitzvah by mitzvah, God’s influence can rule the whole earth, then we can find meaning in being a part of the solution. And, we can find meaning despite our finitude. This can be our spiritual aspiration. 

Next week, as Joseph’s long wait for redemption continues, we shall revisit this notion of the value of suffering and consider more lessons from our tradition.