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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bo: Why righteous people suffer

Summary

There are different reasons why righteous people suffer. Better to suffer in this world than in the World to Come. Sometimes one suffers just to get reward in the World to Come. Some of the great rabbis of the Talmud found their suffering unbearable and they prayed that their suffering should be alleviated even though they would lose their extra reward in the World to Come. How can we know whether our difficulties in life are given to us as a punishment for a sin or in order to reward us in the World to Come? From the stories we quoted in the last two Torah Attitudes we gain insight how far back we have to go in our life to investigate whether we have wronged a fellow being, or have other wrongdoings to rectify. These are lessons that we must all take to heart and internalize to insure that this kind of behaviour is treated with zero tolerance. Sometimes the main purpose for a righteous person's suffering is that this person should be a model for others. At times, a righteous person suffers as atonement for the sins of his generation. A righteous person sometimes suffers if he fails to chastise his fellow beings for their wrongdoings. We will never be able to fully comprehend the way of G'd, and how He conducts the world, but if we internalize the words of Rabbeinu Bechayei we will be able to gain some insight to what is going on when we see good and righteous people in difficult situations.

Why righteous people suffer

In Torah Attitude Parashas Vayigash we mentioned that Rabbeinu Bechayei in Chovos Halevovos (Gate of Trust, Chapter 3, Introduction 5) mentions different reasons why a righteous person may suffer. He warns that this is obviously not a complete list, for every individual situation is different. Every time a person suffers, or goes through hardships, it is unique to that person's particular situation. Nevertheless, this list gives a general understanding of why good people suffer and go through difficulties.

Two reasons

Rabbeinu Bechayei mentions that the first reason is because the person once sinned, and G'd will punish a righteous person in this world rather than letting the person suffer in the World to Come. The second reason is just the opposite. This person is not being punished for any sin. On the contrary, G'd exhibits His great love for this person and lets the person suffer only to reward the person in the World to Come for accepting the suffering without questioning why G'd does so. The Zohar (Bereishis 181a) explains this concept with a quotation from Tehillim (11:5) where it says: "G'd tests the righteous." Every test we overcome elevates us to a higher level of our trust in G'd, for which we will be rewarded in the World to Come. In this way, every test and challenge is due to G'd's love, as King Solomon says in Mishlei (3:12): "G'd chastises the one He loves."

Unbearable suffering

It is interesting to note that the Talmud (ibid 5b) relates how some of the great rabbis of the Talmud found their suffering unbearable and they prayed that their suffering should be alleviated even though they would lose their extra reward in the World to Come.

How can we know?

Recently, I was asked how we can know whether our difficulties in life are given to us as a punishment for a sin or in order to reward us in the World to Come. The Talmud (Berachos 5a) addresses this question and explains that a person who is suffering must scrutinize his past to see if he can find something he did wrong and repent for it. If a person cannot find any shortcomings he should assume that it may be because he did not utilize his time well enough to study Torah, or he caused someone else not to spend enough time to study Torah. If this also does not apply, he may assume that his suffering is only to add to his reward in the World to Come.

Investigate far back

From the stories we quoted in the last two Torah Attitudes we gain an insight how far back we have to go in our life to investigate whether we have wronged a fellow being, or have other wrongdoings to rectify. It further shows how things were orchestrated from above to give the young culprits an opportunity to rectify their evil ways later in life. What at first appeared to be a great calamity, such as infertility or a serious sickness of a young innocent child, turned out to be a Divine opportunity to straighten out old quarrels and wrongdoings. In the first story, the two classmates seem to have been mutually at fault. The Skulener Rebbe was obviously Divinely inspired to say what he did, and in his merit things were straightened out. In the second story, the father of the sick child must have had a special merit, for something good he had done at some point, to be allowed to have a Heavenly message from a deceased grandmother to guide him to find a way how to rectify his terrible act of causing a fellow Jew to hate Judaism and Torah observance.

Zero tolerance

Thank G'd, both stories had happy endings, but how much suffering could have been avoided, had the youngsters behaved in a moral and ethical way, and had been more responsible in their conduct. It was obviously no secret what was going on at the time, and it is very surprising that principals, teachers and parents did not get involved to stop the quarrelling and abuse that took place in front of them. These are lessons that we must all take to heart and internalize to insure that this kind of behaviour is treated with zero tolerance.

Model for others

Sometimes, says Rabbeinu Bechayei, the main purpose for a righteous person's suffering is that this person should be a model for others. As they observe how he continues in his righteous ways, they learn that although a person has big difficulties, one must still continue and serve G'd with full trust.

Suffering as atonement

At other times, says Rabbeinu Bechayei, a righteous person is suffering as atonement for the sins of his generation. He proves this concept with a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah (53:4): "In truth he carried our sins and suffered our hurt." This verse has been used by Christian missionaries to support their belief that their messiah suffered for everybody else. The fallacy of their claim is, first of all that Isaiah is not talking about a messiah but a servant of G'd (see ibid 52:13). Putting their false claim aside, the Rada"k points out an obvious question. The Prophet Ezekiel (18:20) states every clearly, "A son shall not carry the sin of the father, and a father shall not carry the sin of the son." So for sure, says the Rada"k, no one will ever be punished for another person's sin just like that. The commentator, Merapei Lanefesh on Chovas Halevovos, explains that this reason for suffering will never occur on its own, but could happen in conjunction with a person who is suffering because G'd wants to reward him in the World to Come. Others explain that this reason for suffering is brought upon the righteous person in addition to him being a model for others.

Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law

Later the Prophet Isaiah says (57:1): "The righteous has passed away, and no one takes it to heart no one understands that due to the evil [of the generation] the righteous has been taken away." When the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Zvi Levinson, passed away at a young age, the Chofetz Chaim's rebbetzin exclaimed: "There is so much evil in the world, so many evildoers are all over, why did the Heavenly judgment hit Reb Zvi? The Chofetz Chaim answered her and said, "It was either Reb Zvi or half the world's population. Reb Zvi was taken away in lieu of them."

Failure to chastise

The final reason that Rabbeinu Bechayei mentions, why a righteous person suffers, is his failure to chastise his fellow beings for their wrongdoings. Rashi (Devarim 29:28) quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 37b) that all Jews are responsible for each other. The Talmud (Shabbos 54b) teaches further that a person who is in a position to chastise his family, his fellow citizens or whole generation and fails to do so is considered as participating in their wrongdoings.

Never fully comprehend

We will never be able to fully comprehend the ways of G'd, and how He conducts the world, but if we internalize the words of Rabbeinu Bechayei we will be able to gain some insight to what is going on when we see good and righteous people in difficult situations.

To be continued, G'd willing, next week.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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