For many people, especially in today’s world, it is very hard to reconcile the personal suffering of good and pious people, with Divine justice and love. Believers of all religions face this challenge. There are many answers offered; from Karma to reincarnation.
Muslims and Jews have traditionally given the same answers with some variation. This is to be expected since both Jews and Muslims share the same belief in God’s oneness, goodness and justice; and both Jews and Muslims reject the doctrines of ‘bad luck’, or inherited sin from previous lives, or original sin.
The Qur’an tells us that just because you become, or already are, a believer doesn’t mean that you are exempt from personal suffering. “Do men think that they will be left alone on saying “We believe” and that they will not be tested? (29:2), this is not correct: “Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions; and in your personal selves.” (3:186)
You will be tested by fear of, and hunger for, the loss of material goods, loved ones lives, and the failure of your efforts to bear fruit. Yet if you patiently persevere all will be well “Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, or lives, or the fruits (of your toil); but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. (Qur’an 2:155)
The glad tidings might come from a reversal in your bad fortune in this world, as happened to Job: or in your life in the world to come.
Traditional Jewish sages and rabbis would have agreed with all of the already quoted verses in the Qur’an. The first thing you should learn from suffering, your own and that of others, is that different people react to suffering in very different ways. Our reactions to suffering rest upon the varied beliefs we hold both consciously and unconsciously.
I share a few Jewish reports about suffering along with several probing questions so that you can examine your own beliefs and those of others; and thus gain a greater understanding of one of the major challenges in life. The first story embodies the heroic perspective.
One day a young man stood in the middle of a town proclaiming that he had the most beautiful heart in the whole valley. A large crowd gathered and all admired his heart, for it was perfect. There was not a mark or a flaw in it. Yes, they agreed it truly was the most beautiful heart they had ever seen. The young man was very proud and boasted about his beautiful heart, which was the result of his following a path of calmness and detachment.
Then an old Rabbi named Akiba ben Yosef the convert appeared at the front of the crowd and said, “Why your heart is not nearly as beautiful as mine.” The crowd and the young man looked at the old man’s heart. It was beating strongly, but full of scars, it had places where pieces had been removed and other pieces put in, but they didn’t fit quite right and there were several jagged edges.
In fact, in some places there were deep gouges where whole pieces were missing. The people stared. How can Rabbi Akiba say his heart is more beautiful, they thought?
The young man looked at the old man’s heart and laughed. “You must be joking,” he said. “My heart is perfect and yours is a mess of scars and tears.”
“Yes,” said Rabbi Akiba, “yours is perfect looking but I would never trade with you. You see, every scar represents a person to whom I have given my love. I tear out a piece of my heart and give it to them, and often they give me a piece of their heart, which fits into an empty place in my heart. But because the pieces aren’t exactly equal I have some rough edges, which I cherish, because they remind me of the love we shared.
Sometimes I give pieces of my heart away, and the other person doesn’t return a piece of his or her heart to me. These are the empty gouges…giving love is taking a chance. And then there are places where my heart is broken, reminding me of the love I have had, and lost. I then say the mourners prayer, the Kaddish, for it is better to love and lose than never to love at all.”
The young man stood silently with tears running down his cheeks. He walked up to the old man, reached into his perfect young and beautiful heart and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the old man with trembling hands. Rabbi Akiba took his offering, placed it in his heart and then took a piece from his old scarred heart and placed it in the wound in the young man’s heart.
It fit, but not perfectly, as there were some jagged edges. The young man looked at his heart, not perfect anymore but more beautiful than ever, since love from Rabbi Akiba’s heart flowed into his. They embraced and walked away side by side.
How sad it must be to go through life, calmly and dispassionately, without suffering and with a perfect heart. Rabbi Akiba taught that there were yesurin shell ahavah– sufferings that come with love. There really are people who can accept suffering with love. Perhaps there is no gain without pain. After all, it is a Mitsvah to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”.
But Rabbi Akiba did not reach this view easily. The Talmud tells the story of how Akiba came to his belief.
“What is the lesson from (the life of) Rabbi Nahum the optimist? This is his story: Rabbi Nahum the optimist had bad vision, and arthritis in both his hands and his feet. Once his disciples asked “Rabbi, how can it be that someone as kind hearted and good as you should suffer such misfortunes?”
He replied, “I brought it on myself. Once I was traveling to my father-in-law’s house with 3 donkeys loaded with food and drink. A poor scabby looking man came to me and said, “Rabbi, help me stay alive.” I replied, ”Wait until I unload the donkeys.” While I was unloading the donkeys he died.
I felt terrible. In remorse I said, “May my eyes that didn’t see his needs grow dim. May my hands and feet that cared for my wealth before his health, bring me pain.” His disciples said, “It is awful to see you suffer so.” He said, “For me it would be awful if you didn’t see me suffer so.”
Is Rabbi Nahum overly strict on himself? Do people with very high standards for themselves suffer more? Do you admire someone who is overly sensitive more than someone who is insensitive? Why? Which way would you want to lean?
Some time later Rabbi Akiba visited Rabbi Nahum the optimist. Akiba said, “It is awful for me to see you suffer.” Rabbi Nahum the optimist replied, “It is awful for me to see you reject my example.” (“I can bear my fate why can’t you? I am positive about my circumstances, why can’t you see the virtue of my accepting suffering as part of life and love. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Admire how I bear my burdens, do not pity me.” Does no pain, no gain apply only to exercise? to cancer? to sudden crib death?
In the end, Rabbi Akiba came to agree with his teacher and accepted from him his way of accepting suffering with love. (Talmud Ta’anit 21a)
The Talmud also says, “The life of an overly sensitive person is no life.”(Talmud Pesach 113b). Perhaps that applies to those who are overly sensitive about themselves and not about others. Perhaps Rabbi Nahum is a saint who goes far beyond the normal requirements of our duties, and is not to be copied.
Perhaps Rabbi Nahum is an extremist on one side just as Gautama Buddha, who taught that all suffering should be avoided through detachment, is an extremist on the other side. Would you choose to suffer from too much conscience or choose others to suffer because you have too little conscience? How do you find the correct balance between “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?” (Talmud Avot 1:14). Is this why we need community ethical and ritual rules to set the norm
Not every Rabbi welcomed suffering as the following story shows: Rabbi Heeya was very ill. Rabbi Yohanan visited him and asked. “Is your suffering of any gain for you?” Heeya replied “Neither it nor its reward.” Yohanan said, “Give me your hand.” Heeya gave him his hand and felt much better. (Talmud Berachot 5b )
Those who visited Rabbi Nahum expressed pity first. Rabbi Yohanan asked first. People handle pain, their own or others, in different ways. How do you respond when seeing others in pain? Do you think others should respond as you think you would or even as you did? How can one know when Rabbi Akiba is correct or when Rabbi Heeya is? Is there a great difference between physical and emotional pain?
Written on the shirt of a marathon runner “Pain is the feeling of weakness being sucked out of the body.” Is life a marathon? Is running a choice? Do you have to run in every race?
Judaism teaches by questioning. What other questions do these stories stimulate? As you think about your answers to these question would it be helpful to discuss your thoughts and feelings with others, both those who are close to you and those who are not.