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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: Why Rabbi Akiva laughed at his rabbi's suffering
If trusting the sages is a pre-requisite for acquiring Torah, how much more is it imperative that we trust G'd Himself. We must feel a love for G'd irrelevant of whether He rewards us or punishes us. When the disciples saw their teacher in his great pain, they started to cry. Only Rabbi Akiva laughed. Sometimes a person suffers not because that he sinned in any way but purely because G'd loves him. A smart person will not wait for G'd to afflict him. Rather, he will take upon himself, through his Torah study, subtle ways of suffering and affliction. If a person accepts upon himself to become involved in his Torah study to the extent that he deprives his body of what it has been accustomed to until now, this will help him to acquire Torah on a higher level. If we truly want to acquire Torah we must elevate ourselves to a higher level and understand that the only real value in life is spirituality. In this way our souls will be the dominant force in our lives.
In the last Torah Attitude we discussed what the Mishnah says that in order to acquire Torah one must trust the sages. If trusting the sages is a pre-requisite for acquiring Torah, how much more is it imperative that we trust G'd Himself. As the Ramban states in his commentary (Shemos 13:16): "A person has no portion in the Torah of our teacher Moses unless he believes that every thing and every event that happens to us is a Divine miracle. Nothing happens just by nature or because this is the way of the world, neither to the nation as a whole nor to any individual. If a person fulfills the commandments his reward will make him succeed, and if he transgresses them his punishment will cut him down. Everything is decreed from Above."
Reward and punishment in this world
Obviously, whatever G'd decrees is ultimately for our benefit. People who are generally wicked are rewarded by G'd in this world for any good deed they have done. As it says (Devarim 7:10): "And He [G'd] pays His enemies in their lifetime to make them perish [in the World to Come" - see Onkelus]. In the same way, G'd punishes the ones He loves in this world in order that they enter the World to Come free of sin. With this we can understand the words of King David in Tehillim (23:4): "Your rod and your cane, they comfort me." At first sight, this seems strange. How can the rod, that is used to punish, be a comfort? However, when we realize that the one who uses the rod is our Merciful Father in Heaven, we can well understand that He is using the rod for our benefit, whether it is to educate and guide us on the right path, or to clean up our record while we are in this world. Either way, we believe that our afflictions are for our benefit. This is important in regards to every aspect of our lives. Only in this way can we completely fulfill the commandment that obligates us to love G'd, as described in the first portion of Shema (Devarim 6:5). In his commentary, Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Berachos 54a) that we must feel a love for G'd irrelevant of whether He rewards us or punishes us. And this is especially important when we want to acquire Torah as we see from the next thing mentioned in the Mishnah: "Acceptance of suffering."
Rabbi Akiva laughed
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) relates how Rabbi Eliezer's disciples came to visit him at his sick bed. When the disciples saw their teacher in his great pain, they started to cry. Only Rabbi Akiva laughed. The other disciples asked him in wonderment, "Why are you laughing?" He answered back, "Why are you crying?" In response they exclaimed, "How can one watch a living Sefer Torah steeped in pain and not cry?" Said Rabbi Akiva, "This is exactly why I am laughing. As long as I saw the Rabbi without any problems, I was concerned. Could it then be that the Rabbi received his reward in this world, G'd forbid. But now that I see the Rabbi in pain, I'm happy and that is why I laugh." When Rabbi Eliezar heard the words of his beloved disciple, he said to him, "Akiva, have I missed fulfilling any of the commandments of the Torah? To this Rabbi Akiva answered, "You yourself have told us what King Solmon says in Koheles (7:20): 'There is no man so righteous on earth that he does only good and never sins.'"
Suffering of "beloved by G'd"
The Talmud (Berachos 5a) further explains that sometimes a person suffers not because that he sinned in any way but purely because G'd loves him. This kind of suffering is given to the person as a test. This is an opportunity that enables this person to grow to an even higher level as he accepts his affliction, without asking why G'd is afflicting him. Obviously, only people on a high spiritual level, described as "beloved by G'd" are ever tested in this way. As the Talmud says: "A person that G'd likes, G'd will afflict with suffering. As it says (Isaiah 53:10): 'And the one that G'd likes He will afflict with illness.'" The Talmud continues to explain that if an afflicted person overcomes his test and accepts his suffering with love, he will be richly rewarded both in this world and in the World to Come. As the Prophet continues, "He will see his offspring and he will live a long life." In Scripture, a "long life" in general refers to the World to Come, as it is as "long" as eternity itself. The Prophet concludes, "And the wish of G'd will succeed in his hand." This, says the Talmud, refers to that he will succeed in his Torah study.
Suffer through Torah study
This clearly shows us the connection between suffering and success in Torah study. The Talmud (ibid) takes this a step further and teaches that Torah is one of the three things that can only be acquired through suffering. This seems very strange. Could it be that a person who does not suffer cannot acquire Torah? However, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains that a smart person will not wait for G'd to afflict him. Rather, he will take upon himself, through his Torah study, subtle ways of suffering and affliction. This happens when a person dedicates himself to Torah study, and is ready to give up on the pleasures of life for his spiritual pursuit. The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 25:1) discusses this concept and writes that if a person commits a serious transgression he can afflict himself by doubling his learning schedule. Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Teshuvah 4:11) explains that by doing so, it protects him from Heavenly punishment in two ways. First of all, his Torah study is extremely valuable in its own right and will act as a protection. Secondly, by asserting himself and toiling in his study, and by depriving himself of sleep, this will be considered an affliction that will bring him atonement. It is obvious that this refers to someone who deprives himself of sleep or lowers his standard of living that he is used to for the sake of studying Torah.
Elevate soul, diminish body
With this insight, we can understand the words of the Mishnah, that acceptance of suffering is a pre-requisite to acquire Torah, in a new light. The Mishnah teaches that if a person accepts upon himself to become involved in his Torah study to the extent that he deprives his body of what it has been accustomed to until now, this will help him to acquire Torah on a higher level. This, says the Zohar (Parashas Toldos 140a), is the purpose of any suffering. For it enables the person to elevate his soul and diminish the importance of his body, so that the soul will be the leading force in his conduct.
We live in a time when most people's approach to life is to indulge and satisfy one's body and its cravings. But if we truly want to acquire Torah we must elevate ourselves to a higher level and understand that the only real value in life is spirituality. In this way our souls will be the dominant force in our lives.
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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