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.
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.
Suffering As Punishment
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.
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:
3.The suffering of watching a loved one suffer
4.The worst level of all: No suffering
(To be continued next week, IY’H)