Finding Meaning in Suffering

I’ve always been intrigued by the expression “the patience of Job.” I would hardly have thought Job a model of patience. As soon as he recovers from the shock of his inestimable losses, Job puts God on trial for cosmic injustice and heaping suffering onto the backs of the righteous. What person alive has not asked the eternal question: Why do so many good people suffer and so many evil people prosper? It is the quintessential question of theodicy, God’s justice.

In the Talmud, the Sages envision Moses asking God why one righteous person enjoys the blessing of prosperity while another suffers adversity, why one wicked person enjoys prosperity while another experiences adversity. Are prosperity and adversity meted out arbitrarily? Is there no rhyme or reason, pattern or justice in the universe? From our human perspective, that often seems to be the case.

Many answers have been proposed. Among them is the suggestion that suffering is a sign that God is displeased with our behavior. Accordingly Talmud counsels: “If a person sees that sufferings have come up on him, let him scrutinize his deeds, as it is said, ‘Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord’ [Lamentations 3:40].” If, however, one’s deeds cannot explain one’s suffering, the Sages suggest these could be “sufferings of love,” a gift from God because those who experience suffering earn a greater reward in the world-to-come. For some, this makes sense of a theologically recondite reality. For many, however, this is a starkly unsatisfying answer.

The Book of Job does not provide an easy answer because there is no easy answer. Job maintains that the pain inflicted on him is undeserved and we, the reader, know this to be true. The brilliance of the Book of Job is that it opens this difficult topic for discussion without coming to a simplistic, pietistic conclusion. It ends as many complex Talmudic arguments do, without a conclusion: “Taku; it is difficult.” Thus Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Sages) records the teaching of Rabbi Yannai: “It is not in our power to explain either the well being of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.”

Some years ago, when I experienced a physical condition that caused considerable pain, a colleague suggested that I view pain as atonement for sins. I considered this suggestion but it did not help me either to cope with the pain or to make sense of it. Rather, I chose to view the pain as a test, a challenge, an opportunity to rise above the temptation to be cranky, complaining, and self-absorbed. I decided that the purpose of this pain would be to learn to recognize the pain of others and hopefully alleviate a measure of it. I am not saying that God throws tribulations across our path in order to test our mettle. In the absence of truly knowing why suffering lands in our laps, we can choose to regard it as a test of our integrity in the face of adversity that provides an opportunity to respond with dignity.

Suffering will always remain a mystery, but sometimes despite -- or even thanks to it -- it we can find our best selves.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.