By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

The events of the past few weeks have been filled with extraordinary pain.  There was the pain of losing three of our precious teen-agers.  The was the pain of learning that some of us have fallen to the scourge of revenge.  There is the pain of seeing rockets being fired around our brethren in Israel.

Pain exists.  There is the pain of disease. There is the pain of losing a loved one or loved ones. There is pain of financial difficulty, of marital strife, and of children going off the derech. And there are other types of pain too numerous to measure.

The question that is often asked or remains unasked is — why? Why do some have it, and some seem to avoid it?


The Talmud, of course, deals with the issue of pain. It debates whether Hashem causes suffering even in instances where there is no sin, or only if there is sin (See Shabbos 54a-b). This debate extends from the Talmud through the Rishonim and throughout the writings of the Poskim as well.


The Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that there is no suffering without sin (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17). Rashi in Brachos (5a) concludes that there is suffering even when there is no sin. This is also the opinion of the Chovos HaLevavos in Shaar HaBitachon (chapter 3). The plain reading of the Talmud in Shabbos is also that there is suffering even where there is no sin (See, however, Tosfos there “VeShma Minah” who limits this).

For the Rambam, the reason for suffering is quite clear — it is straight out punishment for our sins. For the other opinion, however, we may ask what is the purpose of pain and suffering?


The Gemorah calls this type of suffering Yissurim shel Ahavah — Sufferings of Love. This term is also somewhat perplexing. When we love someone, do we make them suffer? The idea needs to be further understood.

But let us get back to our original question — what is the purpose of this pain and suffering?


The classic commentators provide three explanations.

Rashi (Brachos 5a “Yisurin”) tells us that the innocent are stricken with suffering in this world in order to afford them greater merit in the world to come — merit far beyond what their actions would have earned. In other words, the pain and suffering they endure is to give them a super-credit of sorts in the world to come.

The Ramban (Toras HaAdam Shaar HaGmul) gives a slightly different explanation than Rashi. He writes that there are small sins of omission that everyone in this world violates to a certain degree. The suffering is there to minimize the implications of these sins of omission.

The Maharal MiPrague (Nesivas Olam — Nesiv HaYesurim chapter one) provides a third explanation to the notion of Yissurim shel Ahavah. He writes that all of us are attached to the physical — unduly so. The suffering and the pain is to purify our souls — to detach ourselves from the physical aspects of the world and purify us, to bring us to a more celestial and spiritual plane.




Perhaps another explanation can be found, however–an explanation that can give us greater insight into the reasons for the pain and suffering. It is an explanation that can allow us to maximize their purpose and benefit. This explanation dates back to the Midrash itself.

There is a fascinating Midrash Tanchuma in parshas Voeschanan. Actually, it is a manuscript version of the Midrash Tanchuma that is not found in our regular edition. It is the version found in the Bodleian Library in England (and now reprinted in the back of some current editions of the Midrash Tanchuma). The verse tells us “Az Yavdil Moshe — then Moshe separated the cities of refuge.. (Dvarim 4:41)”

The Midrash tells us that the word “Az–then” only refers to the recitation of Shira, rejoiceful song. Who said Shira? Moshe Rabbeinu recited the Shira, answers the Midrash.

Why? The Midrash explains that “one who tasted a dish knows what it tastes like. Moshe Rabbeinu was a fugitive from Pharoah — therefore he knew what it was that fugitives feel when they finally have a place of refuge.”

It seems that Moshe Rabbeinu, notwithstanding his great ethical moral composition, was only capable of the sublime type of empathy that is required to recite this joyous song on behalf of another because he himself had experienced the very same feelings of fear and anxiety that being a fugitive entails. Only then could he truly empathize.

Most people, of course, are aware of the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is the ability to imagine what another is experiencing. Empathy is much more. Empathy is the ability to experience and share the pain of another. It is the ability to share in the pains and joys of others.

It may very well be that the entire reason for Moshe Rabbeinu’s fugitive status in the first place way back in Shmos was because of this empathy that he was to demonstrate decades after his original flight. So that the leader of the Jewish nation would be able to empathize with all others — from the top strata of society to the lowliest fugitive- literally running for his life.

Perhaps this is also why the pain and suffering are termed Yissurim shel Ahavah — suffering of love. For it is only through this type of pain that we can reach that higher status of empathy for others — where we can feel that supernal state of Ahavah toward others.

The idea of this Midrash does not necessarily negate the ideas expressed above. Hashem, of course, is the ultimate source of all that is good. He is the true source of empathy. When we rise spiritually in the notion and idea of empathy we shed the physical and become ever closer to Hashem Himself the original and true source of empathy. We can achieve a level of dveikus — cleaving to Hashem that was not possible otherwise.

This then is perhaps why we suffer. The suffering is there to develop ever more in our empathy with others and in our consequent dveikus to Hashem through our enhanced concern, love and empathy for others.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.comfuneral


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