Suffering is sadly familiar to Jews. We have a long and painful history of suffering. Our sages taught that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai because Sinai is etymologically similar to sinah, which means hatred. From the day that we were chosen to become a light unto the nations, the nations responded to us with hatred.
The first to hate a Jew was Esau. When Jacob received his brother’s blessings, Esau responded with hatred and wanted to kill him. What did Jacob do? He fled from home and went to study Torah. He didn’t complain about being driven from home and didn’t allow his victimhood to define him. He spent fourteen years studying Torah and then built a family and prospered.
Jacob could have spent his entire life crying, victim. He could have shouted accusations from the rooftops blaming his failures on his brother, who abused him and drove him from home. But he didn’t. He took responsibility for himself. First for his spirituality and then for his material life. First, he went to study Torah, then he built a family.
In our Parshah we read that when Jacob’s descendants returned to Israel after their bondage in Egypt, they approach Edom, the land where Esau’s descendants lived. Edom would not let them pass through and threatened them with war. G-d told the Jews, “Turn toward the north.” Don’t fight with them, don’t respond to them, just go north.
Our sages explained that G-d wasn’t merely acting as a GPS. There was a deep message here similar to the message that Jacob modeled. In Hebrew tzafon, which means north, sounds like tzafun, which means hidden. G-d was telling the Jews to go and hide.
Jews complained, “His father blessed him with, ‘you will live by your sword,’ and you endorse this blessing and tell us to hide, where shall we hide?” G-d replied, “If you see him tangling with you, flee to the Torah of which it is written, “He concealed the Torah for the upright.”
Just as Jacob fled Esau’s threat by fleeing to Torah study, so did G-d instruct Jacob’s descendants. When Esau threatens you, go study Torah.
This week we commemorate the destruction of the two ancient temples in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by Rome, a nation that the Talmud considered heirs to Edom. Once again, we find that Jews fled Jerusalem and went to study Torah. When Jerusalem was besieged by Rome, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, who knew that Jews were not destined to save Jerusalem, secured passage for himself and all Jews who wanted to study Torah. They went to Yavneh, where he set up a Torah academy.
We have always known that the correct response to suffering, is self-examination. From our earliest days, this message was drilled into us by the prophets. G-d doesn’t treat us badly. If bad things happen, it is in response to something we have done. Because of our sins, we were exiled. We can easily blame others for our troubles, but we don’t. We don’t believe in wallowing in suffering, victimhood, poverty, and helplessness. We believe in pulling ourselves up.
First things first, we address the true cause of our suffering. We renew our dedication to the Torah and remember that it is life’s only worthwhile pursuit. Everything else pales in comparison and should only be pursued in the context of this pursuit. If I must earn a living, it is so our family can study and observe the Torah. If I must eat and sleep, it is so that I can have the energy to study and observe the Torah. The same applies to every endeavor in life.
We self-examine to determine whether our commitment to G-d has slacked off. We self-examine to determine whether we have become self-indulgent or even sinful. We identify our weaknesses and strengthen ourselves. We don’t pretend that our persecutors are righteous agents of G-d’s indignation. We know that they are terrible people who enjoy striking us when we are down. But neither do we suppose that they have the power to bring us down. Only G-d has that power, and he gives it to them when we lose our right to stand up.
So, first things first. We return to the Torah and its G-dly lifestyle. Once we looked after the spiritual side of things, plugging whatever holes we find in our spiritual integrity, we turn our minds to material and financial relief. We build businesses, send our children to school, and ensure that the next generation is more prosperous than ours. With G-d’s help, we build ourselves back up and don’t insist on staying down just to pin the blame on others.
This is why G-d told the Jews when they approached Edom to go hide in the Torah. As we mentioned, King Solomon once wrote, “He concealed the Torah for the upright.” The actual word King Solomon used, is tushiyah, not Torah. The commentaries explained that this is because the word yesh appears in tushiah. Yesh, means to exist. The message is, only G-d exists absolutely. Our existence is not absolute, it is contingent on G-d’s existence.
This is precisely the message we need to hear in times of suffering. Sin stems from the mindset that I must indulge in what I want because what I want is important. Repentance begins with remembering that only G-d is truly important.
It is also called tushiyah because Torah (tash) weakens its students. The ordinary translation is that those who study Torah all day are physically weakened by their lack of exercise. But a deeper meaning is that Torah study weakens our ego. If we don’t think highly of ourselves, we can be content with having everything we want as soon as we want it.
This two-pronged response to suffering has been the hallmark of our people. We begin by self-examining and identifying the spiritual reasons behind it. The second is to work to improve our lot. Not for us is the handwringing and finger-pointing to ancient crimes that we hear so often in the media these days.
Let others use these arguments to justify their continued lack of success. We will take responsibility for our faults, correct them, and work our way back up without dwelling on the suffering of our past. Indeed, may we be granted a period of calm and serenity, and may we merit seeing the coming of the final redemption, speedily in our days Amen.