Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
#14 Afflictions of Love:
The Relationship between Suffering and Sin
Rava, and some
say Rav Chisda, said: "If a person
sees that suffering (yissurin) comes upon him, let him examine his
conduct, as it says: 'We will search our ways and return to Hashem' (Eikha
3:40). If he searches and finds nothing
[objectionable], let him attribute [the suffering] to neglect of Torah study,
as it says: 'Happy is the man whom You cause to suffer, Hashem, and teach him
from your Torah (Tehillim 94:12).'
If he attributes it [to neglecting Torah study] and still finds nothing,
it is clearly afflictions of love (yissurin shel ahava), as it says:
'For God chastises whom He loves (Mishlei 3:12).'" (Berakhot 5a)
of the relationship between sin and suffering has been a constant in the
history of religious thought. The above
gemara suggests that not all suffering in this world can be assumed to be
punishment for sin. At the same time,
the gemara does suggest that the first response of the sufferer should be
repentance. Let us examine the three
stages of this gemara's response to suffering before concentrating on that
mysterious term, "afflictions of love."
mentioned, the suffering individual begins by searching for sins that might be
the cause of his suffering. If he cannot
find such sins, he attributes the suffering to neglect of Torah study (bittul
Torah). Yet why did this person not
locate the problematic bittul Torah in the original stage of spiritual
stock taking (cheshbon ha-nefesh)?
Ramban explains (Sha'ar Ha-gemul, p. 180) that the initial search looks
for violations of negative prohibitions.
After that search turns up nothing, the suffering person turns his or
her attention to a deficiency in the area of positive mitzvot, e.g.,
insufficient Torah study. For the
Ramban, bittul Torah is not a unique problem; rather, it represents the
broader category of not adequately fulfilling positive mitzvot.
contrast, the Yismach Moshe (cited in Likkutei Batar Likkutei on
Berakhot) explains that bittul Torah is meant in a specific way. As people can always utilize their time more
productively and free up more of that time for Torah study, an intensive
religious evaluation will find bittul Torah, even when the basic search
for sins identifies nothing. The first
investigation finds no sinful cause of the pain, but the second and more
probing look at how that person uses his or her time does find some problematic
Vilna Gaon (Gra) offers a third perspective in his commentary on Berakhot. He suggests that the neglect of Torah study
explains why the first search turns up empty: perhaps a person doing a cheshbon
ha-nefesh finds no sins because that person does not truly understand the
manifold religious responsibilities of the Torah. A person who learns Torah thoroughly would
understand in which areas he or she is religiously deficient. For the Gra, the second stage, looking for bittul
Torah, comes to rectify the poor application of the first stage, the
fruitless search for sin.
the gemara does go on to talk of individuals who do not find that bittul
Torah adequately explains their suffering either. Apparently, some suffering cannot be
explained by claiming that the person in pain did not fulfill positive
commandments, did not use time well or did not fully understand the broad
nature of religious responsibilities. If
we do sometimes break the nexus between sin and punishment, what other
explanations for suffering exist?
(ibid.) says that God gives one undeserved suffering in this world in order to
compensate that individual with reward in the World to Come. While the terse quality of Rashi's writing
makes it difficult to offer a precise understanding, he may refer to an idea
cited by the Rambam in the name of the Mutazalite Kalam (Moreh Nevukhim
3:17). According to this school of
Islamic thought, a person can 'cash in' his or her suffering 'chips' from this
world for greater rewards in the next world.
Rav Sa'adia Gaon endorses such a possibility in Emunot Ve-de'ot
rejects this approach; indeed, it does seem odd that God would give one
pointless suffering just so He can reward that individual more in the next
world. If God wants to give reward beyond
one’s merit, He can certainly due so without increasing our afflictions. The Rambam apparently identifies the
Mutazalite position with the concept of "afflictions of love," and he
goes so far as to claim that this concept may appear in the Talmud, but only as
a rejected, minority position.
Ramban (cited above) refuses to accept that God punishes the innocent out of
love. He explains that afflictions of
love come upon the individual who has sinned inadvertently. When the gemara mentions a person who cannot
find sins that would bring about a given punishment, it refers to a search for
purposeful iniquities. Although
inadvertent transgressions are far less serious than willful crimes, they too
deserve punishment, both because the sinner could have been more careful and
because the sin leaves a mark that taints the soul. These afflictions are "of love"
because they repair the soul and ready it for the World to Come.
Maharsha suggests that "afflictions of love" refer to vicarious
atonement. He cites support from the
famous verses in Yeshayahu 53
in which a righteous person apparently suffers for the
sins of others. Of course, this reading
of Yeshayahu 53 immediately
calls to mind the Christian reading of that chapter, and we tend to think that
Judaism does not endorse the Christian concept of vicarious atonement.
our assumptions about a divide between Christianity and Judaism on this issue
correct? On the one hand, some sources
(e.g., Mo'ed Katan 28a) speak of the death of the righteous being an atonement,
and Yeshayahu 53 can be read along the same lines. On the other hand, many passages in Yechezkel
(e.g., chapter 18) and other places emphasize individual responsibility and
reject the concept of suffering for the sins of others. Indeed, the Radak (Yeshayahu 53:4) states
that those verses in Yeshayahu reflect the people’s erroneous belief, but the
reality is that each person suffers only for his or her own transgressions. Perhaps we can say that Judaism is far more
conflicted about vicarious atonement than Christianity.
Carmy once suggested to me a different religious dividing line regarding this
matter. Some Christians believe that man
is so depraved that only vicarious atonement could pave the way towards
salvation. Our tradition may include
some form of vicarious atonement, but it is not based on the assumption that,
due to human lowliness, such help from the suffering of the righteous
represents the only possible route to salvation.
Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-yissurin 1) and the Ran (Derashot
Ha-Ran, p. 174) explain that affliction sometimes promote personal
religious growth. For the Maharal,
suffering helps break our attachment to the material; for the Ran, suffering
helps free us from the snare of wild imagination. Either way, the afflictions help us focus our
attention on the most important things in life.
the Ran and the Maharal write about suffering moving us away from certain
potentially harmful aspects of the human personality, we can broaden the point
to a much wider range of religious growth.
Struggling with frustrations and difficulties often brings out new
reservoirs of strength and helps us realize aspects of our humanity that we
would not have found otherwise.
approach differs from that of the Mutazalite Kalam because, according to the
Ran and the Maharal, the suffering is not spiritually pointless. Rather, it provides an avenue to growth of
the human religious personality. Of
course, some kinds of suffering might prove too crushing to have such a
positive effect, and I am not suggesting that this model would solve every
difficult case of unjustified suffering.
John Hick, a
contemporary theologian, builds a similar theodicy in his Evil and the God
of Love. He contrasts a pet owner
with a parent. The former is solely
interested in providing a life of comfort for the pet. The latter is interested in the personal
growth and development of the child.
This will sometimes include decisions that make life more taxing for the
child because in those struggles, the child achieves religious, ethical and
that we have seen various understandings that break the easy causal connection
between sin and punishment. Yaakov Elman
has written a number of articles showing the many other Talmudic models that
also sever this link. Apparently, we can
believe in divine, providential justice and still understand that the pain of
others and even our own difficulties need not always be traced back to
sin. Suffering should make us think of teshuva,
but several models exist to explain why we suffer.