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The Challenges of Suffering

July 5, 2020 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller and Sara Yoheved Rigler

Choosing a response to adversity.

Suffering may be the greatest stumbling block to recognizing and having a relationship with God. Especially in our generation, deep theological discussions often terminate abruptly with the question, "But what about the Holocaust?" or "Then why does God let children starve?" One answer bandied about today is that God has nothing to do with particular afflictions striking particular people. Judaism, however, adamantly insists that God has everything to do with everything. In this article, therefore, we will attempt to penetrate the dark screen of suffering, so that we can find the omniscient, omnipotent, loving God Who awaits us on the other side.

Let's think of a person from the annals of history who is considered great. What made him or her great? For example, let's look at America's perennially favorite President, Abraham Lincoln. Why do more people admire Lincoln than, let's say, George Washington, the great general and the founding leader, or Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence? The answer is an important axiom: We measure accomplishments through difficulty. Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, studying by the light of the cooking fire, trudging miles through the snow to get to school, and losing his mother at a young age, strikes us as a more heroic figure than the privileged George Washington ensconced in the luxury of Mt. Vernon, or Thomas Jefferson in the Ivory Tower of Monticello. If you review the life of a person you consider great, you will see that it was fraught with difficulties and challenges.

No one is praised for her ability to walk across a room, unless, of course, she is a polio victim who had to struggle to achieve every step.

Simple tasks are not viewed as an accomplishment. No one is praised for her ability to walk across a room, unless, of course, she is a polio victim who had to struggle to achieve every step. Thus, although most of us prefer a life of ease, we acknowledge that greatness is the result of overcoming difficulties.

Every difficulty which life presents can be viewed either as a hardship or a challenge. If we define our difficulties as hardships, we will respond with bitterness and rejection or with depression and paralysis; either way, we become a victim. If we define our difficulties as challenges, we will summon our fortitude and potentials to face the challenge; we will become a victor. When a football is thrown at you, you can try to duck it or be hit by it, or you can catch the ball and run with it.

In the game of life, even if you don't succeed in reaching the goal line, your running with the ball makes you a champion. A woman I knew, the mother of five children, was struck with a brain tumor when she was in her early forties. She responded with courage, rising to the fight with valor and a positive outlook. She never complained, and continued to care for her family as long as she was physically able. Shortly before her death, she asked her sister, "Do you think I'll make it?" Her sister replied, "You already have."

Challenges and tests can be divided into two categories: big, dramatic tests and routine, unsensational challenges. Big tests are generally easy to notice and identify. The right or noblest choice is usually obvious, our spiritual adrenaline starts to flow, and often we can rouse ourselves to rise to the challenge. Thus, on the battlefield a very ordinary soldier may risk his life to save an injured comrade, while the same soldier would curse the very same comrade if he tried to jump his place in the mess hall line.

There are, likewise, two kinds of suffering: great dramatic suffering and the routine difficulties and tedium of daily life, the irksome vexations which beset every person every day.

All suffering, great or small, is a test given by God to catalyze one's potential for goodness. The catalyst is painful rather than pleasurable for several reasons. First, we usually choose not to be deeply effected by pleasure. Second, the law of justice by which God rules the world demands that we live with the consequences of our choices. Although our egos contest the fact, the majority of our suffering is the result of our own bad choices, in this or previous lifetimes. Third, the level of meaning in a choice in which there are dramatic tradeoffs is incomparably higher than one in which there are not high stakes.


Many people experience suffering as a punishment from God. Envisioning all suffering as having one cause, namely to punish wrongdoing, is untrue and leads to clouded perceptions of life's purpose. Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi, philosopher, codifier, and physician, explained that even for that specific suffering which is, in fact, a punishment, one must distinguish between Divine motivation in punishing and human, dualistic motivations in punishing.

When human beings punish, we often want to help the person who we're punishing, such as in the education of a child, but our motivation usually is tinged by egotism. To give an example of "good punishment": Your three-year-old is busy sticking her fingers into the electrical outlet. What are you supposed to do? Smack her hand and shout, "Get your hand away from there." It would be folly to take the time to start explaining to her, "Sweetheart, there's something called 'electricity.' " You want to create a dramatic enough effect to prevent her from ever again endangering herself like that.

A high percentage of our punishing behavior is egocentric. With God, all punishment is educational.

Most human punishing, however, is not so selfless and transparent. Picture another kind of punishment: the way we punish adults, which we prefer not to call "punishment." Let's say your husband displeased you in some way, such as forgetting your birthday. You want to "show" him. We punish adults by sulking, coldness, snippiness, and passive aggressive behavior. When we punish adults, we often fool ourselves by saying "I'm doing this for his own good. He has to learn." However, we wouldn't dream of punishing our friend Sally's husband when he forgets her birthday, although objectively he also may have to learn. By using this test of "How would I react if it happened to someone else?" we can discover how much ego is involved in our reactions. Intuitively we know that a high percentage of our punishing behavior is egocentric.

With God, on the other hand, all punishment is educational. All Divine punishment is of the "slap the hand in the electric socket" variety. God never indulges in egocentric punishment, although our anthropomorphic concepts of God often project this accusation onto the Divine.

In human punishing there is usually a large element of, "You did something bad, therefore you should suffer." In Divine punishing the approach is always, "You did something bad, therefore you must learn and grow to be the type of person who will not repeat such actions."

Why does God punish at all? As Maimonides explains, we sometimes make life choices that corner us. For example, a person could choose to be insensitive to others. He could choose it so frequently that, by the time he's, say, forty years old, being insensitive has become his second nature. Now, this person may have another forty years to live. If his life is going to progress spiritually beyond where he is now, he may need an external stimulus to move him forward. Sometimes losing money moves a person forward spiritually. Sometimes a health crisis moves a person forward. These kinds of suffering are opportunities given by God to shake oneself out of behaviors that have become second nature.

In the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides describes four different levels of punishment. We will discuss each one in depth:

  1. Financial suffering
  2. Physical suffering
  3. The suffering of watching a loved one suffer
  4. The worst level of all: No suffering


Financial suffering can evoke two types of responses. Negative responses would be: depression, anger, bitterness, etc. If a wealthy, generous person lost a great deal of his fortune, and as a result became irascible and parsimonious, he would be moving backward spiritually. A key point to remember is: A different response is always possible. The same person could become more appreciative of what he had left. He could move his inner eye away from material competition, and look for pleasure in other directions, such as family, nature, or creative endeavor. He could become more sensitive to other people who experience material lack. The possibilities for spiritual growth are manifold.

If you experience financial suffering, who's going to determine which way your suffering will take you? You. This is a crucial point:

Often people feel that suffering presents them with a fait accompli, that suffering is the last word, the end of the chapter. In fact, suffering is the beginning of a new chapter.

The only response to suffering which is impossible is no response. A person confronted with suffering cannot remain as she was. She can choose to let her suffering take her forward or she can let it draw her backwards, but movement is the inevitable consequence of suffering. One who suffers is like a person standing on a train platform, with trains about to depart on either side, going in opposite directions. Suddenly the police announce that they have received a bomb threat and the platform must be cleared immediately. The person must board one of those trains; remaining on the platform is no longer an option. Similarly, God often uses financial suffering to shatter a spiritually static state, and to force the person to move. The direction which she chooses is the epitome of the test.

In 20/20 retroactive vision, sometimes we'll observe that the times of challenge are the times of greatest growth. Here's something that almost nobody experiences: That the times of ease are the times of greatest growth.


Physical suffering is much worse than financial suffering. I'm stressing this point because, if you're going to have a major test, financial suffering is preferable to any of the others. So, if you're suffering monetarily, you should say with the Psalmist, "Thank God, for He is good," because this is the easiest of the major tests you could have been given.

Physical suffering definitely moves a person further, in either direction. It could negatively move a person to self-absorption, anger, jealousy of healthy people, despair, or a sense of abandonment. Physical illness could also move a person forward. We can observe people who have suffered physically who have become more sympathetic, more humble, more courageous, and who, through their illnesses, have discovered what life is truly about.

Very rarely does someone suffer a heart attack and say, "I can't wait to get back to that office and resume working 16-hour days."

I've noticed this especially with people who suffer heart attacks. Very often after a heart attack a person makes a total turnabout in his priorities in life. Very rarely does someone suffer a heart attack and say, "I can't wait to get back to that office and resume working 16-hour days." The recognition that one's years are numbered can jolt a person into doing what he always wanted to do with his life, for example, tinker at inventions or write a book. The recognition that life is fragile can make it ever so much more valued.

Another good choice that people sometimes make after physical suffering is transcendence. Transcendence is the ability to rise above limitations. We are all limited by the fact that we live only so many years, and have access to only a limited number of experiences. When a person is taken ill, her physical limitations increase. Sometimes the patient responds by choosing to move on to another realm of self-definition, to seek fulfillment through inner conquest and spiritual enrichment. The worlds to be discovered within one's soul are not encumbered by the limitations of time, space, or the physical body. Pursuing this dimension of self-exploration leads to a richer connection not only with those who one loves, but also with God, the source of all love.

Another good choice open to people who have suffered physically is to trust God in spite of the painful hand He has dealt them. It is easy to trust God when our perceptions testify to the good He bestows on us. Often, however, much time elapses between our experience of pain and our recognition of the long-term benefit we derived from that experience. To be able to suspend one's intuitive need to define "good" and "bad" in terms of the present moment requires enormous humility. While most of us will at least give lip service to the virtues of being humble, suspending one's ego even briefly is often a challenge of immense proportions. Faith during and after suffering requires a double abnegation of the ego: to suspend one's judgment of what is ultimately good and to let go of the ego's indignation that "one as virtuous as I should have to suffer."

In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issued an edict which suddenly made being a Jew a crime punishable by death. A significant proportion of Spain's Jews opted to flee the country, leaving behind their property, possessions, and the only home and culture they had ever known. This was only the beginning of their trials. Sea travel at that time was dangerous and difficult. Many ships fell prey to storms or to pirates, who either robbed and killed the hapless exiles, or sold them into slavery.

A fragment of a diary found on a North African island was left by a 15th century Spanish Jew fleeing from the Inquisition. He recorded how the family boarded a ship bound for North Africa, but a disastrous storm forced what was left of the ship onto a desolate, unpopulated desert island. Heroic efforts to survive failed, and his entire family perished, leaving only the writer of the diary. After recording the saga of their tragic journey, he wrote: "My God, You have taken everything from me. I have nothing remaining but my faith, and that can never be taken away."

Another good choice that people who are ill or convalescing often make is sensitization to other people's pain. A friend who almost died of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy told me that when she was lying in the hospital the morning after her surgery, she was shocked by two realizations: how much pain her own body was experiencing, and that hundreds of her fellow patients were also suffering such agony. "I knew the hospitals were full of sick people, and I even prayed daily for some of them," she told me in wonder, "but I had no idea that their days and hours and minutes feel like this." Her subsequent prayers for the sick came from a much deeper place.

I cannot understand what it is to be deaf, or blind, or confined to a wheelchair. I am sure, however, that the covenant of anguish shared by people who suffer the same afflictions gives them the opportunity to open their hearts to each other and to respond with more authenticity than someone outside the picture could ever duplicate.

Whatever choice a person makes, physical suffering forces change. The direction of that change is up to the person stricken.

One gift that physical suffering almost invariably confers is humility. Most of us are inflated with a feeling of physical invulnerability that comes with youth and stays with us until punctured by some grave illness or sober diagnosis. Most serious physical afflictions heal in their own time or not, no matter how smart, creative, or important we are. If we are courageous, we can put up a good fight, but so much of healing is not in human hands that we are forced to recognize our helplessness in the face of physical illness. That humbling is a freebie, because we get it even without choosing it.


Even worse than physical suffering is the suffering which comes from watching someone you love suffer. The worst such suffering is the suffering of a parent whose child is in pain. This is the hardest suffering of all.

Here we must tackle the perplexing question of how could a good God allow a child to suffer? The basic Jewish answer to this is that the suffering has nothing to do with the child in this lifetime. It's always a consequence and a resolution of matters from previous lifetimes. This opens us up to another axiom, which is: Our perception of reality is a fragment of the total picture. It's as though we open up a 500-page book to page 126 and read ten pages. Those are the only pages we see. We don't see anything that happened before; we don't see anything that will happen afterwards. Can you imagine judging the characters or understanding the action based on reading ten pages?

Our perception of reality is a fragment of the total picture.

The idea is that every soul has a mission, and not every mission can be completed in one life span. The Talmud states that even if a person borrows a small sum of money and fails to repay it, she will have to be reborn in order to discharge her debt.

As previously stated, the suffering of watching a loved one suffer is the hardest of all of the challenges. God's selection of which set of parents should be the ones to whom a child who's meant to suffer is born is not a random selection. The needs of the child's soul and the possibility of the parents' development are perfectly matched, custom made.

Like all forms of suffering, this too should be regarded as a challenge, with a wide range of possible responses. What are the bad choices that the parents of a child who suffers could make? Anger, bitterness, rejection of the child, rejection of each other, rejection of God, rejection of their better selves. These are choices that people often make. The other choices are just as extreme as the bad choices: dedication to the child; dedication to each other; gratitude to God for what they got to enjoy rather than focusing on what they will miss out on, to the extent that I have seen parents of mortally sick children thank God for every day, indeed every hour of their child's life, with a degree of sensitivity to the moments of life that is usually reserved only for great mystics and great poets.

Another good choice is sensitization to others who suffer. Have you ever noticed that most of the foundations to help people suffering from a particular illness or to fund research for a cure (the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, Tay-Sachs Foundation, Institute for the Blind, Children's AIDS Foundation, etc.) were founded and are most energetically supported by parents whose children suffered from that disease? These people, who often devote all their spare time and more to these causes, responded to their losses and to the heartbreak of their children's sickness by mobilizing their energies to help others who suffer from the same affliction and to search for cures which will save others from such losses. This is an incredible choice. Instead of depression, which turns all one's energies inward on oneself, such a choice focuses one's energies outward toward other human beings. Such a choice enlarges one's world, enlarges one's heart, and renders a person immeasurably bigger than they were before tragedy struck them. Although we do not label the tragedy itself "good," an objective witness is forced to acknowledge that many of the most altruistic people are individuals who suffered from the pain of a close relative.


The worst punishment of all is nothing. When nothing difficult or challenging happens in your life, it may mean that, for whatever reason, you've been given up on, deemed not worthy of the test. Just as soldiers going through basic training may complain of the sheer ordeal and exhaustion of the experience, in fact those who were deemed unfit, physically or psychologically, were never given a chance at the first hurdle. In the Divine plan, tests are only given to those who have the capacity to pass them.

Of course, this isn't the only interpretation of a tranquil life. Sometimes a person could be living a peaceful life and be moving and progressing through that life without needing any stimulus to grow. People who are not sleeping do not need a wake-up call. So, since a person's inner growth is impossible for another person to assess, no one else can judge whether tranquillity is a sign of steady growth or a total write-off. The latter, however, is considered the worst of all punishments.


Suffering, however, is not always punishment. There are basically two other possibilities of why people suffer.

To understand the first possibility, let's look again at Abraham. The Midrash enumerates ten tests that Abraham had to pass, the most dramatic of which was the command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Abraham's ten tests were in no way punishment. Abraham was an inveterate spiritual seeker; he was not in a state of spiritual torpor from which he needed to be roused, nor had he embarked on a spiritually destructive path from which he needed to be deflected. If Abraham were to search his deeds, as we are enjoined to do when visited by suffering, he would not have found any wrongdoings. Rather, he would have found consistently good choices, which made him worthy of the gifts which came in the form of enormous challenges.

Often a person has tremendous potentials which will be actualized only through the process of challenge. Their suffering is a sign not of failure, but of potential for greatness. This is why we don't look at people who suffer and say, "They must have brought it upon themselves. They deserve it." That may not be the case at all. Rather, they may be people who have the ability to bring forth more than the average person.

When we observe the lives of the great tzadikim (holy men and women), one word we would not use to describe their lives is "easy." Consider, for example, the standard blessing which Jewish parents give their daughters every Sabbath night. They bless their daughters to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the Matriarchs of the Jewish people. Think about what we're wishing these poor girls. "Be like Sarah": We wish you a life of childlessness; traveling from place to place with no roots; abduction by a Middle Eastern dictator (Pharaoh); your husband taking a second wife, who will become pregnant right away and scorn you; and your only son, who will finally be born to you after you had given up hope, to be almost sacrificed by his father. What are we wishing for this innocent girl? Wouldn't it sound better to say, "Don't be like Sarah. Be like Gloria. Go to a good school; marry a doctor; buy a big house; live happily ever after." Wouldn't that be better?

No, because that's not what life is for. If life were for contentment and pleasure, than being like Gloria would be the ultimate blessing. Since, however, life is for rectification and growth, the worst thing to happen would be to be like Gloria -- to leave the world no better than when one entered.


The third dimension of suffering is the hardest of all to assimilate. It is woven into the very fabric of creation. The Book of Genesis begins: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was without form and empty, with darkness on the face of the depths." God created the world as a place which inherently contains darkness. The text uses the word tehom (the depths), which is the deepest level of darkness. The Bible continues: "And the spirit of Elokim (alternately, a spirit of God or spirit of redemption) hovered over the face of the waters." The idea conveyed here is that the world was inherently created to be challenging. Both the darkness and the possibility of responding by transcendence were there in the original blueprint of this world.

This is a difficult idea to accept because most of us think, or feel on a gut level, that the world should be like Disneyland -- no slums, no disease, everything clean, colorful, fun, and exciting, where litter is picked up as soon as it drops and nobody suffers for longer than it takes to get to the happy end of the thrill-packed ride. In this model of the world, all forms of pain are a mistake, an unwelcome intruder, a trespasser who broke in through an accidental breech in the white picket fence.

Every crisis enters through the front gate, bearing a gilt-edged invitation, on which is inscribed its own name. Our choice, as the host, is whether or not we will dance with it.

The Biblical account of creation, however, assures us that the world was meant to be exactly as it is: a place of darkness and redemption. Every affliction, loss, and crisis enters through the front gate, bearing a gilt-edged invitation, on which is inscribed its own name. It was meant to be here. Our choice, as the host or hostess, is whether or not we will dance with it.


On the most fundamental level, this means that God created the world with certain inherently catastrophic phenomena, such as volcanoes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. It also means that God created the world to operate according to certain natural laws, such as gravity and entropy. Thus, there are challenges that are part of nature, which aren't always personally directed at an individual.

For instance, if you're running very fast and the floor is wet and you're wearing new, leather-soled shoes, you will most likely slip and fall. This may or may not have anything to do with who you are as a person. This may have to do simply with the laws of velocity and gravity with which God created the world. God is not going to suspend those laws for you.

He is, however, fully aware of the impact of those laws on you. There is nothing random in your fall. The issue is not God's awareness, which is, of course, absolute, but rather your inability to interpret this particular meeting of natural law and Divine providence. If you ponder the question, "Why did I fall?" the answer is that you are just not the sort of person for whom God is willing to suspend gravity and velocity. Some saintly individuals, in fact, do exist for whom God would and does suspend natural laws. I doubt, however, that I or my readers are among them.

Let's suppose you are a person who is committed to personal growth, and instead of asking, "Why did I fall?" you ask yourself, "What can I learn from this fall?" You may gain insight into yourself, which you can use to prevent further mishaps. For example, you may realize that you often rush without taking into account what is going on around you. You may decide to work on the trait of hastiness, to try to become more deliberate. In this way, your fall will end up positively impacting your life. At that point, you may get a subtle sense that, although God did not create the laws of gravity and velocity for you, your being at that place at that time was not totally "accidental."

When natural catastrophes occur, they are not coming out of a vacuum of Divine awareness. Quite the opposite, He is fully aware of the impact that is being made. In ways that are not necessarily within our grasp, every interaction is drawing the world towards its ultimate perfection. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us that the sound of thunder is a gift presented to us in order "to straighten out the crookedness of the heart." (Lekutey Moharan 5:3) When we get carried away by our own hubris, sometimes on a group level we are forced to experience our mortality and frailty as a species. The feeling of vulnerability which ensues from an earthquake, for example, is remedial to the human illusion of being supreme masters of the earth.

The question is often posed why the good should suffer together with the wicked in times of collective disaster. God has set up the world under the rubric of free choice. As behavioral psychologists have demonstrated, if a person or even an animal is rewarded every time she repeats action A and punished every time she repeats action B, all organisms will learn to do A and refrain from B. Since it is not God's will to reduce human beings to mindless robots, He does not obviously punish the wicked and reward the good in this world. According to Judaism, there is plenty of time for accounts to be settled in the spiritual realms which the soul enters after the death of the body, but in this world it would be counterproductive for the headlines to read: "QUAKE STRIKES LOS ANGELES. PORNOGRAPHY STUDIOS DESTROYED. CHURCHES AND SYNAGOGUES INTACT."


We have explored three different sources of suffering: the possibility of punishment; the possibility of expressing potential goodness; and the inherent pain of living in the natural world. All suffering will end up falling into one of these categories. So, when we or someone close to us suffers, and we ask, "Why?" will we now be able to identify the source? Usually, no.

Great holy people who have very clean slates sometimes can look at their lives and identity precisely where every lack is coming from and what is its rectification. Few of us could do this, simply because our inner slates are scribbled all over with so many misdeeds, prevarications, and omissions that it is impossible to distinguish causal connections.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew an old woman who was truly holy. She wore thick stockings and a babushka over her hair. Although she had worked hard all her life, instead of retiring in her old age, she devoted almost all her waking hours to helping others. She had a little storefront. She would ask people for old clothes, would sell the clothes, and would give the money to charity.

One Shabbat, her Shabbat candles fell over on the table, and the ensuing fire caused a lot of material damage. She went to her spiritual advisor and asked him what she had done to cause this fire. A mystic, he replied that it was because of the time she spoke negatively about someone. She thought for a minute and replied, "Yes. I did speak negatively."

Now, if this were me, I would have had to say, "Which time do you mean? This week? Last week? Which day last week?" When our misdeeds are so numerous, it becomes difficult to trace our suffering to specific causes.

Thus, often when we look, we're not going to find. Sometimes when we think we have found, we have come up with the wrong connection. This is especially true when we have the enormous arrogance to interpret other people's suffering, a tendency at which many of us are expert. "I know why he lost his money. It's because he was so stingy." The appropriate response to other people's suffering is to share their pain, not to pontificate about how they deserved it.

Living within a world defined by hiddenness is one of the hardest challenges that we human beings face. This is the challenge of not being able to interpret events with total clarity. Despite our sincerest efforts at introspection and searching our deeds, sometimes we simply cannot understand why a particular affliction has struck us. Its source is in a level of being that is so hidden that we do not have the capacity to reveal it in this world. However, the power of our suffering to catapult us into change and growth is not diminished by our hampered

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