The Value of Suffering? Part II

December 7th: Miketz
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the Torah this week, in Par’shat Miketz, we see the beginning of the end of Joseph’s suffering. It has been a long road of abandonment, exploitation, and injustice, but God’s redemption is coming. Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers the Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he calls Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention. Pharaoh calls Joseph from the prison and poses his two perplexing dreams. Joseph humbly explains that he cannot interpret dreams—that he is merely channeling God’s message, and he gets down to business, interpreting the dreams and suggesting a course of action. Pharaoh is impressed, and a day that began with Joseph sitting forlorn in prison ends with him as the second most important official in Egypt.

We are also, of course, celebrating Chanukah—a very happy holiday. The Festival of Lights celebrates the dual miracles that led to the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple back around 165 BCE AND the resilience of our people and our faith. We are happy, as were the Maccabees when they were able once again to worship in the holy Temple. However, a lot of suffering was necessary in order for that first Chanukah to take place, and the suffering continued as the war with the Greek Syrians continued for a number of years.

 A hint of these generally forgotten difficulties comes in the English version of Ma’oz Tzur, the Chanukah Hymn. In the second verse we have:
Kindling new the holy lamps,
Priests approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine
Brought to God their offering.

 And, in the first verse, we sing:
Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword
When our own strength failed us.

We don’t tell the children about the fact that Judah Maccabee died in the ongoing war with the Greek Syrians—and the fact that the wars were real wars, with plenty of casualties on both sides. There was also suffering before the wars when many Jews were martyred for refusing to worship the Greek idols.

These stories are not in the Bible because they happened after the Bible. And, they are not included in the Talmud because the Rabbis did not want to emphasize the warrior ideal of the Maccabees. After all, they put together the Talmud in the aftermath of disastrous military efforts against the Romans (70 CE and 135 CE). From 140 CE until the mid-1800s, Judaism eschewed any kind of physical and forceful resistance—and therefore Chanukah was remembered through a different filter. (If it were not for the Christians and their Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha, the four intertestamental Books of the Maccabees and their stories of gruesome martyrdoms might have been lost.)

This situation of large-scale martyrdom directly counters Biblical “Deuteronomic Theology.” The reward for faithfulness to God’s mitzvot is supposed to be earthly reward. So, when Jews died because they were faithful to God and God’s commandments, it seemed that Deuteronomy is wrong.  Believing that God is ultimately just and fair, the Rabbis—the scholar class which supported the Maccabees and which was swept into religious authority with their victory over both the Greeks and the Hellenized Jewish Priesthood—figured that our purview must be too limited. Perhaps they intuited, God’s justice is not only for this world, and they began to teach about the Olam Haba, the World-to-Come, the place we go after we die—a place where the scales of Divine Justice are brought into balance. Thus, the suffering of this world can be seen as a test—a test that, if passed, can prepare our way for the eternal rewards of Olam Haba.

 Modern Judaism does not emphasize this reward-in-the-afterlife part of our tradition, but it has been a very important element for those dealing with suffering. If, despite the dangers and deprivations and profound sadnesses that afflict us, we can remain faithful to the mitzvot of morality and our religious responsibilities, then the rewards of Olam Haba will far exceed the pain we experience in this life. As Rabbi Judah says in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

There is also the notion of an eternality one can achieve through godliness in the world—through acts of  nobility, principle, justice, righteousness, compassion, lovingkindness, charity, and love. In fact, Rabbi Jacob followed up his teaching on Olam Haba with this eternal but more earthly wisdom: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.” He is not negating his previous teaching, but he is speaking about a closeness to God in the deeds of this world which is of ultimate value.

Is there value in suffering? We certainly do not want to suffer, but we have learned through the ages—and through our lives—that suffering can be transformed to a purpose. It can be something to endure for a future goal, or it can be an opportunity to give witness to a greater good.

Through it all, we are taught, God is with us—with us at every moment: doing justice, soothing pain, setting free, giving light, lifting up, taking care, inspiring, challenging. In both the good moments of our lives and the bad, God is our companion and our eternal hope. As we sing: Children of the martyr race,
Whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs,
Where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering
That the time is nearing
Which will see all free
Tyrants disappearing.