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The Mystery of Suffering
"Twerski on Chumash" Parshas Tazria
by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
Publication: ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications

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A world-renowned psychiatrist considers faith, free-will and the human need for answers

“If a person will have on the skin of his flesh . . . a tzaraas affliction.”

— Lev. 13:2

The affliction of tzaraas is the only condition which the Torah attributes to a specific sin: Loshon hara (gossip). ''Beware of a tzaraas affliction. Remember what G-d did to Miriam'' (Deuteronomy 24:8-9). This refers to Miriam's unjust criticism of Moses (Numbers 12:10).

Our people have experienced suffering in its many forms, as a nation as well as individually. Every so often, someone suggests a reason for suffering. This is presumptuous, because while there may be various reasons for suffering, they are largely unknown to us.

The question of why things happen has been instrumental in advancing human knowledge. Many scientific discoveries have resulted from man's attempt to understand and explain things. Whether an apple did or did not fall on Isaac Newton's head, something aroused his curiosity as to why things fell to the ground, and so he investigated and formulated the Law of Gravity. Life-saving penicillin was discovered because of Fleming's curiosity as to why there was no bacterial growth around the mold on the petri dish. It is only natural for people to be curious why things happen.

Curiosity is one thing. Obstinacy in insisting that every question must have an answer that we can understand is something else. Perhaps we feel that not being able to find an answer is an insult to our competence. There is nothing wrong with realizing our human limitations. There are many things that are unknown, and even if we see the unknown as a challenge and try to investigate it, we should realize that we may not be able to know everything.

There are things in Judaism about which our knowledge is limited or even nonexistant. For example, we believe that G-d has infinite foresight and knows the future. We also believe that a person has the freedom of choice to do right or wrong. This raises a question that has been discussed by many theologians: If G-d knows what I am going to do tomorrow, how can I have free choice? I cannot do anything other than what G-d knew I was going to do.

Maimonides says that the reason we see this as a conflict is because we equate G-d's knowledge with our own. If we have certain knowledge of what is going to happen, it cannot happen differently. However, G-d's knowledge is totally different than ours, and His knowledge does not conflict with free will. What is G-d's knowledge like? That we cannot possibly know, because G-d's knowledge is inseparable from Him. Just as we cannot have an understanding of G-d, we cannot have an understanding of His knowledge (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:5). Ravad criticizes Maimonides for raising a question to which he cannot give a logical answer. But Maimonides's position is that it is perfectly proper to have insoluble mysteries. We do not have to have a concrete answer to everything. We must learn to live with mystery, with the unknowable.

There are many things that we must accept as facts and proceed from there. For example, when oxygen and hydrogen combine in a specific ratio, they form water. That is a natural phenomenon. Why they form water rather than another compound is unknown. However, we accept this fact and see what useful applications we can derive from this fact.

Throughout history, we have observed the fact that there is suffering in the world. We have sought to explain it, particularly why the innocent suffer and why bad things happen to good people. The theme of the Book of Job is the mystery of the suffering of good people.

The Talmud says that Moses' request of G-d, ''Let me know Your ways'' (Exodus 33:13) was to understand why the righteous suffer, but G-d denied him this knowledge (Berachos 7a). The Talmud says that it was Moses who wrote the Book of Job, wherein several explanations are offered, but all are rebutted.

It would be most presumptuous for us to try to understand something that escaped Moses' understanding.

Yet many of our ethicists have investigated the question of suffering. I believe that they were not in search of an explanation. They obviously did not try to grasp something that was beyond the grasp of Moses. The reason for suffering is known only to G-d. All we can do is try to derive some useful lesson from suffering. While we may not be able to know why there is suffering, we may be able to see how we can benefit from this perplexing phenomenon.

Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz (1870-1940) was engaged in a Torah discussion with Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, and he remarked, ''Why does the Torah say this?'' Rabbi Chaim corrected him.

''We may not ask why the Torah says something. That is G-d's wisdom and is beyond our ability to understand. We can only ask, 'What can we derive from what the Torah says?' ''

Although I profess to have emunah (faith), and when I suffered losses I recited the appropriate blessing, Blessed be the Judge of Truth, I could not avoid feeling that it was an intellectual expression. I was in pain, and I felt otherwise in my heart.

Oh, if G-d would only let me operate the world! All children would be born healthy, without physical or mental defects. There would be no leukemia or cancer. People would be healthy until they reached the end of their allotted time on earth.

The Talmud says that the righteous suffer in this world in order to increase their reward in the Eternal World. We find different attitudes toward suffering in the Talmud. Rabbi Eliezer welcomed his suffering, calling his pains ''my friends'' (Bava Metziah 84b). On the other hand, Rabbi Elazar said, ''I do not want the suffering and I do not want its reward'' (Berachos 5b). This was not a rejection of suffering but was in response to the question whether he wished to suffer.

There is a difference between pain and suffering. People who have been given morphine for severe pain, if questioned carefully, may say, ''The sensation is still there, but it doesn't bother me.'' Suffering may be an interpretation of pain rather than a sensation on its own.

Inasmuch as there is no decisive Halachah (Jewish legal ruling) on this issue, I favor the latter position. I have a very low pain threshold, and I find even a toothache intolerable. I am not even interested in knowing why my tooth hurts. That is for the dentist to know. I just want relief.

As a psychiatrist, people come to me with their problems, some of which are heart-rending. I am happy when I can do something to relieve their distress, but I am most frustrated when I am powerless to do so. I suffer along with them, and as you may surmise, I do not handle suffering well.

Sometimes I identify with my great-grandfather, Rebbe Motele of Hornosteipel. He was a chassidic rebbe to whom many people came to unburden themselves of their misery. One day, after absorbing many tales of woe from the people who sought his blessing to extricate them from their plights, he abruptly tore open his shirt, bared his chest and exclaimed, ''Master of the universe! Look into my heart. I cannot take any more.''

Ah! But I am not Rebbe Motele. He genuinely cared for others. I care for myself.

In my last year of medical school, I received a call late one night from a hospital, because a patient requested a rabbi. I found a distraught women standing over an incubator. Her infant had been born with what was at that time an irreparable heart defect. Her baby was going to die.

Tearfully, she turned toward me and said, ''Why, rabbi, why?'' I stood there in utter silence, crying along with her. I said a brief prayer with her and left. The words of Moses came to my mind, when he complained to G-d that his efforts to have Pharaoh free the Israelites resulted in aggravating their suffering. ''Why did You do evil to this people? Why did You send me?'' (Exodus 5:22). If Moses could complain, so may we.

The following morning I told my father about this experience. He said, ''Was your frustration due to the woman's pain, or because you were unable to help her?'' He was right. One of the reasons I had left the rabbinate for medicine was because I felt I could do more for people as a doctor than as a rabbi. Now I was both, and in spite of having the tools of the two greatest healing professions, I was totally impotent. I could not handle the assault to my ego. I am sure that Moses and Rebbe Motele genuinely cared for others and shared their pain, whereas I was caring primarily for myself and was nursing my wounded ego.

Sometimes we can see, if only in retrospect, the good that resulted from suffering. Many times we cannot, even in retrospect. I am sure that the intensely painful experience of the distraught mother had a profound impact on her emotional makeup, but I cannot fathom why it had to come this way. I can only resort to G-d's words to Job: ''And where were you when I created the world?'' In other words, there is a master plan knowable to only a Being who has infinite knowledge of time and space. We may think of a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces. One who has only one piece of the puzzle may say, ''This piece doesn't make any sense.'' Of course, it cannot make any sense unless it fits in with the other 999 pieces which one does not have.

Some things do lend themselves to our understanding. For example, the Talmud says, ''G-d gave Israel three good gifts, and all were given only through suffering. They are: Torah, the Holy Land and the World to Come'' (Berachos 5a). It is common experience that we have greater feeling and appreciation for things we acquire through suffering than for things that come to us easily, especially gifts. The more effort we put into achieving or acquiring something, the more meaning and value it has for us, because we have put part of ourselves into it.

The Talmud says that tzaddikim (the truly righteous) value their possessions even more than their own bodies, because they scrupulously avoid anything that they did not earn honestly (Sotah 12a). Their bodies were given to them, whereas they worked hard for their possessions. In order that we properly treasure Torah, the Holy Land and the World to Come, we have to experience suffering to acquire them.

The Chassidic master, Rebbe Baruch of Medzhibozh was reciting the prayer prior to the Friday night Kiddush (wine sacrament). When he came to the verse, ''I thank You, G-d, for all the kindnesses that You have done for me, and for all the kindnesses that You will do for me in the future,'' he paused. ''Why do I have to thank G-d in advance for future kindnesses? I can wait and thank Him when they occur.''

After meditating a few moments, he said, ''I understand why. The kindnesses may come packaged in suffering, so that I will not be able to recognize them as kindnesses when they occur.'' Thereupon he began weeping. ''How tragic it is,'' he said, ''that G-d will be doing kindnesses for me and I will be unable to appreciate them.''

The Midrash says that when Jacob mourned the loss of his beloved son, Joseph, he said, ''G-d has turned away from me.'' G-d said, ''Here I am manipulating things to make his son viceroy over the greatest empire on earth, yet he complains'' (Bereishis Rabbah 91:13). If the great patriarch had difficulty in accepting suffering as a kindness in disguise, what can we expect of ourselves?

While we wish that it would come via a more pleasant route, suffering is often a wake-up call. We are often so frenetically engaged in the activities of life that we may give little thought to the purpose of life. It is when we suffer that our focus may change. Suffering may change our perspective and we may assign different values to things. As Solomon said, ''It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all man, and the living should take it to heart'' (Ecclesiastes 7:2). There is not much that one learns at a feast.

As a physician, I have observed people reject values that they had never questioned before, and consider new paths in life. I addressed this phenomenon in Light at the End of the Tunnel.

Suffering may alter a person's sensitivity. In experiencing our own suffering, we may develop a connection with the suffering of others of which we may not have been aware. A wise psychotherapist said to me, ''Out of suffering come the strongest souls. G-d's wounded often make His best soldiers.''

We may not have satisfactory answers to some questions. The phenomenon of suffering will forever remain a mystery. Its uses need not be so.

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