Suffering, according to Buddhist teachers has no value; and therefore must be totally eliminated through universal detachment. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all agree that God is both just and merciful; and therefore sufferings (all or some) are trials that can lead to spiritual growth. The following story illustrates the teaching of the Abrahamic faiths.
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 without 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 proud of his beautiful heart, which was the result of his following a dispassionate path of calmness and detachment.
Then an old rabbi 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. “Compare your heart with mine, mine 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 had, and lost. I say Kaddish (the mourners prayer) then to sanctify God’s name, 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 Rabbi Akiba, reached for his own perfect, young, and beautiful heart and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the Jewish sage 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. There really are sufferings that lead to spiritual growth. There really are people who can accept suffering with love. Often there is no gain without pain. After all, it is a Mitsvah to love “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”.
The following discussion comes from the Talmud. It is deeply concerned with making suffering more bearable by making suffering more meaningful. But also teaches us not to be too pious when encountering other people’s suffering.
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 tilt?)
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)
Rabbi Maller adds; 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 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). This is 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 he 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 in pain, or seeing others in pain?
How can one know when Rabbi Akiba is correct or when Rabbi Heeya is correct?
Is there a great difference between physical and emotional pain?
Judaism teaches by questioning. What other questions do these stories stimulate?