Shemos & The Purpose of Our Suffering

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Last week we examined the parsha and how Yaakov Avinu is the archetype of emunah. In our discussion, a difficulty was raised regarding Yaakov. When Yaakov encounters Paro, Paro asks about his age.

Yaakov tells him the years of his life were few and difficult. The simple reading of the text leads us to the conclusion that Yaakov complained. How could one who is the master of emunah complain about the life that HaShem gave him? After looking at the mevarshim, we concluded that Yaakov was really explaining to Paro that he isn’t as old as he looks, etc. 

However, the question is still asked on a basic level, can someone feel suffering and still have emunah? Can someone complain about their suffering and still have emunah? I’d like to posit that yes, one can have emunah and still experience suffering, and perhaps even complain about it.

Emunah is a matter of perspective.

So what’s the purpose of our pain? 

It’s an age-old question that many people have endeavored to answer throughout the years. It’s a challenging question since it brings up why evil exists. 

Yeshaya teaches us that HaShem created evil/suffering. 

So if HaShem can only create something that can be for the ultimate good, then even evil/suffering can, in the end, only be for the good. 

Let’s look to the parsha to give us insight…

In our parsha, Shemos, we see a lot of suffering of klal yisroel. The Medrash takes note of this, 

The Holy One, Blessed by He, gave three good gifts to Yisroel, and He gave them to them only through afflictions: the Torah, the Land of Yisroel, and life in the World to Come.

Medrash Rabbah Shemos 3

The Medrash brings sources throughout Tanakh to prove its point:

“Praiseworthy is the man whom G-d afflicts, and whom You teach from Your Torah.”

Tehillim 94:2

“You should know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so HaShem, your G-d, chastises you.”

Devarim 8:5

“For a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light; and reproving discipline is the way of life.”

Mishlei 6:23

The Medrash says a lack of discipline causes one to turn away from HaShem and His mitzvos. Therefore, there is a very clear benefit to our suffering – it keeps us humble and pure, serving HaShem.

The core identity of a yid and Olam HaBa are dependent on our suffering. So it’s not a lack of Emunah to see suffering in life, rather it is an expression of Emunah to see G-d’s handiwork in our lives. 

The Medrash discusses how suffering is necessary to bring about our ultimate salvation. It refines and guides us in life. In fact, when we fail to discipline, we have offspring that are rashayim. Discipline, sometimes harshly, is necessary for growth and sticking to Torah values. Examples include Yishmael vs. Yitzchok, Esau vs. Yaakov, and Dovid HaMelech with his sons Absalom and Adoniyah.

In the sidra we see plenty of suffering:

  • Bnei yisroel put into servitude
  • Execution ordered for the Jewish male babies
  • Paro gets tzaraas and uses Jewish blood to try to treat it
  • Back-breaking labor increased when Moshe returns
  • Jewish children are put to death between the bricks

In these cases, we see the narrative driving forward to the point of redemption. All of this suffering was necessary for the ultimate salvation at krias yam suf. So, too, our suffering is necessary. 

Rebbe Elimelech of Lizsensk once shared about a series decree against klal yisroel. R’ Elimelech worked to nullify the decree. The Maggid of Mezritch appeared to Rebbe Elimelech in a dream. Rebbe Elimelech asked him to pray to nullify the decree. The Great Maggid responded, “as long as I was alive and things appeared to me as a harsh decree, I was able to properly daven. Now that I see things differently from above, I clearly see everything is good. Can I possibly pray for good to be withheld from my people?”

It says in Iyov (36:15) that “He rescues the poor man by afflicting him.”

This brings us to a great example of suffering in Tanakh – that of Iyov (Job). Iyov had plenty of suffering in his life, but why? The Medrash illuminates the issue for us: Iyov served on Paro’s council alongside Bilaam and Yisro.

  • Bilaam supported the torture and destruction of the Jewish people. As a result, he was sentenced to death. 
  • Yisro dissented and argued for the Jewish plight. He left to Midian for his life and as a result he was rewarded with his daughter, Zipporah, marrying Moshe and his offspring would later serve on the Sanhedrin. 
  • Iyov took the neutral ground. Essentially, his stance on the suffering of the Jews was “that sounds like a you problem.” As a result, he was given suffering and loss that mirrored that of the Jewish people so that he could do tshuva and no longer be ambivalent to the plight of others.

It was recently shared in a davar Torah regarding Acher, that he went off the Derech after seeing a young boy climb a tree to fulfill the mitzvah of shluach hakan and falling to his death. Personally, you’d think a Torah scholar of this caliber would get it. After all, while even off the derech he kept his talmid accountable to halacha and made sure he didn’t walk outside the techum on Shabbos, counting the steps while engaged in deep and meaningful conversation.

We have to drop our assumptions and our pride.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (103b) cites a Medrash that Moshe petitioned HaShem as to why He was allowing Jewish children to be put to death by being used as “batter” for the bricks to hold to each other. HaShem allowed Moshe to save one of them, Michah. Michah later was directly involved in the Chayte Agel, as well as forming his own cult of Avodah Zara, and had to be put to death. HaShem’s example was clear – for these children, death at this moment of purity was better for them than a future that would lead them and klal yisroel away. Moshe and bnei yisroel didn’t understand this suffering because they lacked perspective.

Let’s recap:

Why is there suffering? 

  • The reality is, we don’t see the big picture. 
  • All evil and suffering in the world, all the Baruch Dayan Emes, is really good, a Baruch HaShem, in the perspective of eternity and Olam HaBa. 
  • Suffering can be a tikkun for where we fall short, either in this life or another.

I have stories to share with you regarding the idea of suffering being a tikkun for another life.

  1. The Bris

I unfortunately was not able to look up the provenance of this story but I recall hearing it. There was a baby boy born and the mother shlepped the baby to the next town in secret to mohel for a bris on the eighth day. The baby looked healthy and well, and the mother went to the side room to wait during the Bris. 

Once the bris was completed, the mother came in and, to her shock, her son had died. The mohel explained everything went well but the boy died immediately afterward without reason. 

A mekabel explained that the boy was actually a gilgul (reincarnation) of someone who had kept all the mitzvos and intended to convert but died before he could be circumcised. He had to come back and complete this last mitzvah.

  1. The Unexpected Child

The Baal Shem Tov tells a similar story. You can read it at Chabad. Essentially, a husband and wife wanted a child and tried every segulah they could, to no avail. They went to the Baal Shem Tov, who sadly informed them that they were not destined to have children. Upon seeing their great anguish, Besht blessed them with having a boy. Shortly after, they had a boy and a bris. 

The boy grew up happy and healthy. On his second birthday, he wouldn’t wake up. Nothing could be done. When the later saw Besht to tell him of the tragedy, he revealed that they were not destined to have a child, but upon seeing their anguish, he saw that there was a soul that needed to come down for a short while for tikkun. 

Several hundred years ago, there was a goyish king and queen that wanted a child. Upon threatening to expel the Jews to receive their prayers, they were blessed with a baby boy. For two years the boy nursed. By the age of 5 he surpassed the ability of the local teachers and they brought in a priest with renown on his ability to teach. 

Long story short, the priest was Jewish and in hiding, the boy learned from him for many years, discovered he was Jewish, and the Jew agreed to teach him Torah in secret. Later on, the boy chose to convert in secret and move out of the kingdom, never to return to the palace. 

That boy that converted had but one tikkun to make – the two years of life being fed in a spiritually negative palace. Their son was a gilgul of this boy.

  1. The Rich & The Poor

There was a rich man who had a life of difficulties, and when he consulted a mekubal, he was told to go to a certain apartment number and leave him a fortune, that his sorrows would end. He went to the apartment number, and gave the stranger a large sum of money. Upon leaving the apartment, he slipped on the stairs and fell to his death. 

When the mekubal was asked for an explanation, he told them a story. There were once two men, friends, many years ago. It seemed destined that one would be rich and the other poor. The first poor one asked his rich friend for tzedakah. Upon giving the tzedakah, fortunes turned and they swapped roles. 

The formerly poor man now rich, the formerly rich man now poor. The formerly rich man now poor asked for tzedakah from the formerly poor man now rich, and the request was granted. Tables turned again. Poor, rich, then poor. When he asked his friend for tzedakah once again, the rich man declined, recognizing this pattern. He just couldn’t be poor again. The current poor man died in his poverty and the rich man felt guilt for the rest of his life. 

The mekubal pointed out that the poor man was reincarnated as the poor person in this apartment, and the rich man as the rich person who died on the staircase. This last act of tzedakah was the final tikkun he needed.

Emunah is not trusting that G-d will spare us from suffering. 

Emunah is trusting in G-d and seeing suffering as a gift when given. “Baruch HaShem” isn’t a catchphrase – it’s a mindset and the ultimate reality.

We don’t need to understand why we are suffering. We just need to understand that suffering was created by HaShem as one of the means of refining us to who and where we need to be, either in this life or the next.

Just as Yaakov recognized everything was min hashamayim, so too may we merit to recognize the true source of our tzuris, and appreciate everything that HaShem sends our way.