A friend of mine is going through a lot since being diagnosed with a serious illness. She and I have had a number of conversations about life and its messiness. I try, but I keep feeling there must be more that I could say. I suppose I just wish I had some answers or some good, comforting, wise things to say — maybe a Jewish response to all she is going through. Can you help?
Before entering into the delicate world of a Jewish response to hardship, let me note that you are already providing a true Jewish response. Our sages teach us that God’s work here on earth is carried out by each of us as we “walk in God’s way” — performing acts of kindness.
Rabbi Chama, the son of Rabbi Chanina, said: What does it mean, “After the Lord your God you shall walk.” Can a person indeed walk “after” the Divine Presence? Does it not say, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire?” Rather, walk after His qualities. Just as He clothes the naked...visits the sick...comforts the mourners...and buries the dead... so should you.”
You may be feeling inadequate, but keep in mind there is nothing more authentic than being present. Visiting the sick is more than it might appear at first glance. It is kindness. It is walking in the way of God. It brings God into the room, by virtue of the lofty Jewish notion of tzelem: Each of us, being created in the image of God, has the potential to draw sacredness into all of our interactions, drawing down the Divine Presence.
To the matter of a Jewish response, there are very few prepackaged answers we can simply whip out when need be. It is deeply complicated to offer answers to these questions. Consider the Book of Job. Devoting 42 chapters of the Holy Scriptures, it addresses this very point. The major takeaway from the book is to not be quick to offer up answers to a friend’s sorrow.
Job’s friends propose that his extreme torment must be on account of his sins and that, by virtue of the fact that he is experiencing affliction, proves he must be deserving of his pain. Their stark approach is ultimately swept away by God Himself, who swoops in to allay Job’s impression that his friends might be correct. From out of a spectacular whirlwind God teaches Job that humans can’t ever understand the mystery of God’s ways.
That said, there are a number of Jewish ideas that build further upon this foundational Jobian point of departure. Rabbi M. Klotz, in the book, Jewish Pastoral Care, A Practical Handbook, provides some salient ideas in her chapter on suffering that resonate deeply with me.
Appropriately, given our own current proximity to the Torah portion in which it appears, her exposition begins with the story of Jacob and his wrestling with the mysterious stranger in Pashat Vayishlach. Jacob wrestles alone in the dark, persisting until he extracts a blessing from this unnamed stranger. Those who are suffering, Rabbi Klotz says, are often also alone and in the dark. Those who suffer might, like Jacob, similarly have the opportunity to grasp from their situation an element of blessing — some redemptive meaning and significance from the painful experience. Though, also like Jacob, they will not emerge unscathed from the struggle. Yet, he comes out with a new identity and name: Israel. So, too, might those who go through pain emerge scarred yet potentially transformed in extraordinary ways.
So many questions exist about why there is suffering. We live in a broken world. A more essential question might be, how does the eternal mystery of God’s way in the world interface with our sublime belief in God? How do these parallel values together speak to the issue of those who must endure pain and physical afflictions? And what role does this paradox play in the manner in which we support friends and loved ones? It may very well begin with your act of “being there,” the Godly doing of kindness for others that spans the gulf between the mystery and the certainty, leading then to further explorations.
Yet we should not jump to judge the friends of Job. Their approach reflects a repeating notion in Judaism found in both the Torah and rabbinic literature. It reads, simply: “Punishment is a result of misdeeds.” As hard as this idea is to swallow, many of us tend to fall back on it when hard times hit, thinking with self-scrutiny, “What did I do to cause this [fill in the blank]?”
As we listen to those in pain explore these questions for themselves, we might reflect back to them their thoughts and hopefully move them from a place of self-blame to our notion of mystery. Job suffers and what finally brings him relief is that God is there — albeit in a state of trembling unknown — but there nonetheless. Could this simple palpable hovering presence of God offer them comfort?
Another classic approach is the almost unfathomable doctrine of yissurin shel ahava, loving affliction. Found in this passage of Talmud in Berachot 5a:
Rava said, or some say Rav Chisda said, if a person sees that afflictions are befalling him, he should investigate his deeds. If he examined his deeds and did not find anything, he should attribute his afflictions to the neglect of Torah study. And if he attempted to attribute the afflictions to the neglect of Torah study but he did not find anything amiss, it can be assumed that they are afflictions of love.
In this context, writes Klotz, suffering can hold meaning because it is understood as a catalyst to help one grow and heal spiritually. Others explain the concept as loving, in that the suffering is a temporal stripping away of any need for eternal suffering of the soul in the next world. Pain endured in this world of the physical body spares the soul pain in the hereafter.
Along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” approach, this suffering grows us in a way we would not have necessarily chosen for ourselves. Yet there it is, and in a very strange way we are different and stronger and deeper on its account. Though of an exacting quality, it offers a transformative and redemptive quality to experiences of distress.
Another classic approach is of the Menorat Hamaor of the 14th century. He suggests that pain, sickness and death are part of the natural world created by God Almighty. A pat world, where each receives his fitting reward and where the good do not suffer would be a Pavlovian place of patent complacence. The anguish of this world is not necessarily purposefully directed at any individual. Yet in this world’s misery, which is truly out of our mortal control, it is in our response where we can exercise control. Our actions and the meaning we construct around these complicated experiences are inevitably what we are able to direct and where the opportunity exists to draw out from them meaning: A change of our ways, an appreciation for life, an understanding of others, and sometimes a chance to review past choices with new insight.
Paradoxically, moments of tremendous understanding and intense connections often present themselves in the most difficult of moments. Suffering individuals begin to experience the kindness of others in profound ways, to grow in appreciation for what was until now taken for granted, and, poignantly, sense a greater proximity to God. As Jews, it is our opportunity to assume with humility and integrity a supporting role in the weighty journey on which our friends and families invite us, and to create with them meaning and holiness.