Hashkofa: Torah Views,
Values & Understanding Life
A Torah Understanding of Suffering




Suffering is a universal age-old question. The Jew ultimately understands that finite human intellect can never fully understand or second-guess the infinite. When Yosef's brothers were beset with misfortune in Egypt, they said (Genesis 42:28), "What is this that G-d has done to us?" The Torah is saying quite clearly that trouble comes specifically from G-d. Further, G-d has several names, each of which has a different meaning. The name that is used here is "Elokim," which means the stern, exacting, judging G-d Who dispenses precisely what is due to a person, based on the person's exact merit or demerit. We know that everything that G-d does is for the good (Brachos 60b). The wise person understands that suffering is a kindness from G-d (Radak to Psalms 107:43). The thing in which one stumbles in sin is the thing through which the repair comes [Brachos 40a].

On the road of life, hardship and disappointment are painful. There can be insight obtained from the following study of the Torah's recounting of the attack upon the Jewish people by the nation of Amalek.

Shortly after Israel was taken by G-d out of Egypt, the belligerent, evil nation Amalek ambushed and attacked Israel unprovoked. In the recounting of this war, the Torah is revealing vital information that does not appear readily to the naked eye. Upon deeper study, a lot of very important information comes to light about life, G-d's management of the world, what G-d wants from us, what G-d does for and to us.

One of the things that is very disturbing and intriguing about the story-line is where this story occurs in the chronology of events in the Torah.

The Jewish people had been enslaved in Egypt. Hashem said to Moshe to go to Paro to tell him, "Let my people go that they will serve me." Paro said, "No." There were ten plagues and then G-d opened the Reed Sea miraculously and the Jews fled to safety. The Egyptians who were chasing them were drowned, and the Jews were totally free.

Then, after this, the Jewish people said to Moshe that they needed bread, meat and water. G-d replied that He would take care of them, and He gave Mon (manna, miraculous bread that fell from Heaven in the morning), He blew quails birds into the camp every evening (so that the people would have meat) and He provided water from a rock that would follow them around through the desert and produce water miraculously wherever they would go in the desert.

Now after all of this, the Jews are traveling forward through the desert from Egypt towards Israel. This nation Amalek, with no provocation or justification, ambushed and attacked the Jewish people from behind, killing the stragglers - the elderly, those weak from the effects of slavery, the sick, women and children. Israel rallied and there was a war. Moshe held up his hands and when the people looked at Moshe holding up his hands, Amalek was beaten and the Jews won.

This is a strange story, especially when we consider that on the surface it appears that you have an innocent, weary nation, who have just been oppressed and brutalized for many, many years. After finally being freed, they just want to get going with their lives, and all of a sudden, Amalek bashes them, doing so from behind and killing the most defenseless and vulnerable, for no discernable reason. It doesn't seem to make sense.

Let's look through the eyes of the sages and add material from them, beyond the purview of the Chumash alone. Then, this fuller story becomes extremely and profoundly instructive, especially in a context of having hardships and suffering in life. A lot is going to be disclosed about what G-d does and what we need to do, so that G-d (hopefully) will be more inclined to provide our needs, save and help us.

The Torah tells us that Amalek's attack occurred in a place called "Refidim." We know that the Torah is not a geography book. The Torah does not tell us locations of the events recorded within the Torah for the purpose of letting us know geographic information. It is not in the interest of advising readers of the event's location. There are eternal, profound Torah messages whenever the Torah gives us any information - geographical information or otherwise - about any of the events recorded in the Torah.

One of my main Torah teachers and inspirations, Rav Avrohom Osher Zimmerman explained this attack by Amalek at Refidim. The Midrash Mechilta tells us that when the Torah records the attack by Amalek, and that the ambush occurred in "Refidim," this is a "code word." What does "Refidim" stand for? It is short form of the phrase, "Rofu yidayhem midivray Torah (The Jewish people weakened their hands [i.e. grip] on words of Torah)."

We see, then, that there was a "cause and effect" which the midrash is telling us, that because the Jews let down their grasp and learning of the Torah, that caused that Amalek should attack the Jewish people savagely from behind, ostensibly unprovoked.

An element which is significant is seen in the Torah, after the depiction of the battle. G-d says that his throne is not complete as long as Amalek will not have been erased and exterminated from the world. Those are pretty harsh terms. There is a mitzva in the Torah for the Jews to annihilate Amalek. They are a nation fully entrenched with pure evil, with no redeeming quality. G-d wants Amalek erased and eradicated from the face of the earth, so that Amalek is not even remembered. Rashi says that G-d was furious and hateful towards Amalek. G-d said that his name and his throne cannot be complete because of the degree of hateful evil that Amalek brings into the world.

If we study who Amalek is, we learn that Amalek, stands for complete hefkairus (wildness, freedom from any kind of structure or discipline, abandonment of all law and order) and Amalek is antithetical to G-d and what G-d wants in this world. G-d wants the world to have teaching, system, obligation, behavior standards, morals, submission to greater and higher authority and law. Amalek is the complete absence and opposite of everything that G-d stands for.

In Hebrew, every name has meaning. A name always represents the essence of the one named. So there is some intrinsic, deep meaning about the name of anyone who has a Hebrew name. That name has a tie to the essence of the personality of the person to whom that name is assigned. An angel puts the idea for a name into the mind(s) of the parent(s) so that the name will correspond to the essential personality of the person being named.

G-d also has his names. The Torah says that G-d's name and throne will not be complete. The word throne (Kisay) is written incompletely (Kais - missing the alef, the last consonant), so that it only has two of the three main (consonantal) letters of the word throne. And, instead of using the four letters of G-d's name (yod kay vov kay), the Torah here only says two letters (yod kay). The very way in which the Torah expresses the idea that G-d's throne and name will not be complete (as long as Amalek is not exterminated) is by writing "throne" and His name in incomplete fashion. And, since a name is the essence of the one named, G-d is telling us that His essence that He wants in this world and prevailing in this world cannot be complete as long as Amalek - and the wild abandonment (i.e. no law, morals, restraint, authority, structure, discipline, etc. in the world) that Amalek stands for - is in this world. Amalek hit the weak ones FROM BEHIND under a brutal sun in the desert, after being in slavery. Until someone who can be so merciless, cruel, evil, self-centered and purposelessly destructive, is erased from the face of the earth, G-d's purpose for the world cannot be completely achieved, and what G-d wants from humankind cannot fully happen. Until the Jews, who stand for what G-d wants and for manifesting His essence on earth, who stand for G-d's system, values and authority, eradicate what G-d doesn't want, His name and throne - His essence on earth - can't be complete.

It's not like Amalek didn't know, either. The sages tell us that when G-d opened the Reed Sea, G-d made the miracle of splitting all the water everywhere in the whole world. If a man was drinking a cup of water in China, the water in his cup separated. So everyone in the whole world knew about the miracle of G-d opening the waters of the Reed Sea. Everyone in that generation knew there is a Creator. Amalek knew what he was doing.

Rashi adds something else that is very intriguing and important, that contributes to the unfolding message. The Torah placed the story of Amalek right after the story in which the Torah tells us that G-d miraculously provided the mon (bread from Heaven), the quails and the water every day in the desert to the Jews.

G-d provided the needs of the Jews. When the people were hungry, thirsty and scared, G-d miraculously saved them and provided all their needs. G-d provides our needs today. When we pray for our needs, G-d is willing to save and help us.

When, however, the Jewish people weaken their grasp on the Torah, G-d cannot respond with what we pray to Him for. What was worse, G-d saved them (from hunger and thirst) and the Jews did not respond with gratitude. They kept complaining against G-d. G-d withdrew His protection and the Jews were, to use the words of Midrash Tanchuma, like a little impudent and ungrateful child thrown off the protecting shoulder of his father, whereupon the boy was bitten by a dog. When the boy was "good," he had his "father's" protection. His father provided all the boy's needs and exerted himself to give and to give and to give to his child. Then the child said that he does not know where his father is. He was sitting on the shoulder of his father! The father put the boy down to be bitten by the dog.

If the Jewish people learn and practice the Torah, are committed and devoted to the Torah, then G-d will provide every last one of their needs. G-d will save the loyal one from hardship, provide needs, save from troubles, will help and take care of him/her, He will be benevolent to him/her. But, if a person weakens his grip on the Torah, weakens his attachment and involvement, his devotion to the Torah, G-d brings Amalek.

The Jew, in essence, brings upon himself the forces of wild abandonment, the relinquishment of the "system," by letting go of his grip on the Torah, his involvement with and loyalty to the Torah. Instead, he takes on the "system," the attitude of Amalek. It is the antithesis of the Torah. It is abandonment of what G-d wants, teaches, of what His essence and name and throne stand for, which is the Torah and G-d's sovereignty. When a Jew lets go at all of the Torah, there is no more G-dly law or authority. So, abandonment by G-d, and attack by Amalek, is "mida kinegged mida" (measure for measure) and is perfect justice.

G-d is at permanent war with Amalek. The Jew must be antithetical to the essence of Amalek, which is wildness, abandonment of Torah and G-dliness, evil, immorality, cruelty, absence of order or right, lack of authority and law. When the Jew aligns with G-d and Torah, G-d will provide all his needs and not be "at war" with the Jew, all the while that he strengthens his grip on the Torah, attaches to the Torah, is devoted to and practices the Torah. When the Jews were spiritually weak, G-d brought about the punishment through brutal Amalek; which hit the Jewish people in the place they were weak, falling, dependent, vulnerable and defenseless. When, as opposed to this, the Jews attach to and are strong with the Torah; that will increase merit to earn that G-d should provide our needs, to save and to help, and grant our prayers.

This can apply to all needs or troubles, whether finding one's soulmate, having peace with one's spouse, health or recovery, livelihood, a safe journey, or whatever it may be. If one wants to be saved from suffering or hardship, if one wants G-d to provide needs and answer prayers; attach to the Torah, grab strongly to the Torah and do tshuva (repent in all areas that need spiritual correction). It is the opposite of the weakening of grip on the Torah which brought Amalek to attack the Jews in the desert.

When Moshe held his hands up, the Jewish people looked up to G-d. By looking to G-d, we strengthen our grip on the Torah and are saved by G-d. By being strong and devoted to the Torah, that's the way to increase merit, that G-d should deem it justice to provide what one needs and to help and to save. Find ways to add more learning, mitzvos (doing good deeds on behalf of fellow Jews and fulfilling commandments), cheshbon hanefesh (introspection), tshuvah (repentance), Tehillim (reciting Psalms, especially those which deal with fear of Hashem and tshuvah), prayer, midos (work on character traits) and d'vaikus (sincerely growing closer to Hashem).

The adjacency-relationship between the story of Amalek and the provision of the food in the desert teaches us that the way to have G-d provide one's needs is to have a strong grip on the Torah: what it stands for and requires from you.

G-d will save the loyal one from hardship, provide needs, save from troubles, will help and take care of him/her, He will be benevolent to him/her. But, if a person weakens his grip on the Torah, weakens his attachment and involvement, his devotion to the Torah, G-d brings Amalek. If the Jewish people learn and practice the Torah, are committed and devoted to the Torah, then G-d will provide every last one of their needs.

On a number of occasions I went over to Rav Zimmerman's home to discuss life issues or writings that I was working on. On one occasion, the Rav was nice enough to give me some time to speak with me on a booklet on yesurim (suffering) and troubles in regard to parnossa (livelihood) I was writing. Although related in theme to the above drasha, this conversation occurred approximately two years earlier. He told me that hardship or suffering usually indicates from Shomayim deficiencies in our performance of Hashem's will in things which are in our control and in which we have either done wrong or failed to achieve our potential (although there may be other factors above human comprehension). The Rav emphasized having as much keviyis (regular daily scheduling) in learning Torah as much as one is able. To the extent that one knows how to learn, he should extend the amount of time each day that he learns. This will be a segula for parnossa. Rav Zimmerman cited the story in which a man, who only had 15 minutes a day to learn, asked Rav Yisroel Salanter what to learn. "Learn mussar and you'll come to find time to learn the other things."

The Talmud [Brachos 5] tells that Rav Huna, one of the sages, suffered a massive, agonizing financial loss. He was a wine wholesaler. 400 barrels of wine soured and became cheap vinegar. The rabbis told him to inspect his deeds. He rebuffed, "Do you suspect me of wrongdoing?" The rabbis replied to him, "Do you suspect G-d of wrongdoing?" He asked if anyone heard of anything against him. He was told that it was "going around" that Rav Huna failed to pay a financial obligation which he decided unilaterally was unjust but which the Torah required to be paid. When Rav Huna paid the financial obligation, the price of vinegar on the market went up to the price of wine and he recouped all his losses. Rav Huna had to receive a painful message from Heaven. He got the message.

The biblical book of Iyov/Jobe tells of enormous suffering. Iyov lost his entire family and fortune and he was consumed by illness and pain. From G-d's speaking to Iyov, the Jew knows that G-d created the foundation of the earth, with all of its measurements, wisdom and contents. He created the stars and the shores of the sea which tells it not to go onto the land. He causes morning to come, knows the mysteries in snow, causes a flower to bud, sends lightening, can count clouds and brings life out of an egg. Let the one who criticizes G-d answer [Job, chapters 38-40].

In case suffering ever is there, I will share a wonderful insight taught by Rabbi Chaim Shmuelovitz, late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva (Sichos Mussar). The midrash says that Paro called three advisors to decide how to handle the growing Jewish population. Billam said to be brutal. Iyov (Jobe) was quiet. Yisro fled to evade participation in evil. All received "mida kinegged mida (measure for measure)." Billam was punished by being killed, Iyov was punished with unbearable and agonizing suffering for not trying to save the Jewish people from pain. Yisro was rewarded by having descendants who became Jewish sages.

Rabbi Shmuelovitz asked a kashia (hard question). Billam's punishment appears to be the worst. But, at least when he died, it was over for Billam. Iyov was given terrible and prolonged suffering. Wasn't that punishment worse?

The answer, obviously, is that Billam's was indeed the worst punishment, just like the midrash indicates. As long as one is alive, one is better off, even with suffering. The living person is far, far better off and has a great and precious gift - that he should be happy with and appreciative of. If one could understand what the gift of life is - how much one has and how much one has to be thankful for - he would be filled with delight and satisfaction every moment.

There is a related statement from our sages. "Why did Yisro merit a life without pain? Because he behaved with wisdom for the sake of Heaven" [Tana DeBay Eliyahu Raba 5]. Because he fled Paro's committee dedicated to enslaving and torturing the Jews, he was rewarded with a blessed life, a portion of the Torah named after him and descendants who would convert to Judaism and become distinguished and honored scholars among the Jews.

There is an enlightening story in the domain of suffering about the chasidic tzadik Reb Zushia.

A man had serious suffering. He had trouble and pain in many areas of his life, so much so that he felt compelled to ask a local rabbi to help him understand what G-d wanted from him. The rabbi said, "I can't answer you about suffering but Reb Zushia can. Go to Zushia."

The man undertook a long and burdensome journey to the town of Reb Zushia. When he got the town, he was directed to Zushia's address. He was shocked to arrive at a depressing dilapidated shack, with leaks, a dirt floor, no heat nor furniture. Reb Zushia came to the door. He was severely stricken with boils all over his skin. He was wearing rags. The image of Reb Zushia and his sickly physical appearance and his run-down and impoverished hut made the visiting man's heart sink lower than it was from his own suffering and troubles.

Reb Zushia asked kindly and calmly what he could do for the visitor. The visitor explained that he was referred by his rabbi to ask him about handling his suffering.

Reb Zushia replied, "Me explain suffering?" He gently shrugged his shoulders in wonder and said, "How would I know? I have never had any suffering."

From this, the man understood that to a major extent, suffering is a state of mind, relative to what one expects or feels entitled to. One who is happy with his lot, and appreciates what G-d gives him, can be further away from suffering than he might otherwise think.

When Moshe asked Hashem to reveal His glory [Exodus 33:18], he was asking Hashem to explain the secrets behind suffering. Hashem said that Moshe could only see Hashem's "back," but not His front. We can see from the indicators that Hashem discloses in this physical world that His providence comes with purpose and for the ultimate good. Hashem cannot show us explicitly His plan for the world. We have to be free to use free choice to remain loyal to G-d and His Torah. He shows us the "back," just enough in this world and in His Torah so that afterwards we can, when the salvation comes, see, in retrospect, where it led to and what the purpose was. In the meanwhile, we must remain strong and keep that firm grip on His Torah, correcting our shortcomings and fulfilling our responsibilities to the will of G-d.