WHY AM I BEING PUNISHED? Suffering in Jewish Thought

Rabbi Shlomo Cohen


Many others have addressed the issue of suffering. The following merely purports to raise an interesting option to the question. In effect, rather than any given situation being regarded as punishment, there are a number of other possibilities that must be considered. It may well be that much of our thinking on this issue has been negatively colored by Christian views of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation. Our’s is a G-d of mercy, of loving-kindness, a G-d who “married” His love, the Jewish people, Avinu She’Bashamayim .

Rather than immediately assuming that one is being punished, one must take into consideration all the following possibilities. In some cases, our lessons will be better learned than simply falling back on punishment as the reason for all that occurs to us.

1- נסיון- The suffering may be a test from Hashem.[All of ñôø àéåá is an expression of this concept.]

2-בחירה- It may be the result of one’s own free will. A botched suicide will result in pain. One who has eaten to obesity and dies as a result of neglect of his body has, in effect, brought suffering upon himself..

3- בחירה or it could be the result of someone else’s free will. Someone else’s suicide will cause pain and suffering to those left behind. If one person chooses to drive while drunk others may suffer as a result. Perhaps one’s grandfather had chosen to settle in an area prone to tornadoes.

4- Can anything ever be termed an accident? The drunk driver may well have chosen to get in his car. Are those who are killed or injured as a result to be considered punished by G-d? This is an open question. On the one hand nothing occurs without Hashem’s knowledge. This may not necessarily mean that the one who was killed was under a death penalty. In point of fact, it could even be reward.

5-שכרDepending on the perspective, what we regard as suffering may well be a reward or result in a benefit. There are many true stories like this one. A man broke his leg, which clearly appears to be a punishment. When he was brought to the hospital and some tests were run he was found to have a rare blood disease. He blessed the day he broke his leg! Conversely, winning the lottery may be the worst thing that could happen to a person.

6-עונש – The possibility exists that it may well be punishment.

Consider this a wake-up call and do T’shuva.

7-  צער- There is a clear idea that punishment, meted now in this world, can reduce punishment, hence increasing reward, in the World To Come. In this case, the punishment is, in effect, a precursor to reward. The fitness slogan “No pain, no gain” seems to apply here as well.

8-עון אבות על בנים – The Torah indicates that some actions will have ramifications for future generations. We tend to view that as a warning to us as a possible consequence to our descendants. However, we are the future generation of our own forebears and may be penalized for their Avayros.

9-גילגול – Where the Nishama requires a Tikun as a result of prior Avayros, suffering may be part of that process.

10-כפרה – Where the Nishama requires a Tikun as a result of current Avayros. Someone is in a car accident. The car is totaled but the person is unhurt. The loss of the car may be seen as a punishment, or it may be regarded as a Kapara, an atonement in place of injury or death. [See also #7]

We also need to account for:

11- מזלות– Not to be confused with astrology, Chas V’Shalom. Judaism has a clear tradition that a person’s life is affected by the heavenly hosts. Exactly what this means or how it operates is in the rarified realms of Kabala.

12- דרך הטבעThe world operates on the basis of the physical, chemical and biological principles ordained by Hashem at creation. Many events are simply these laws in operation. Whether we may read anything into the event remains a question.

13- השתדלות– So much of what happens to us is a direct result of our own efforts like the three little pigs in the story.

14-Genetics — The ‘nature’ side of the argument. We cannot go beyond certain genetic limitations. Whether we even fulfill our potential is another story.

15-  Environment & upbringing — The ‘nurture’ side of the argument.

16  – Choice of  פרנסה– This will have a huge impact on much of your life. A great deal of what happens to you is shaped by that one decision.

17- Peer group– Many choices and decisions you make are a direct result of the friends you have.

All of the above tends to the physical. Psychological and emotional components of suffering may be caused by:

18- Self-induced worry leading to severe depression. One whose priorities or perspective is skewed will place undo emphasis on relatively unimportant issues thus bringing on himself pressures that may result in self-punishment.

19- Stress related diseases as ulcers or heart-attacks which may also be self- induced.

20- Psychosomatic conditions, although all in the head, are very real to the sufferer. How much is preventable is a question for psychiatry to answer. Is this punishment?

Each of the psychological possibilities may well fall into any of the above categories.

While many situations appear to be one of suffering at the present time, if we are able to take the long view we might see things very differently. When a parent takes a child to the doctor for shots, the child’s perspective is that this constitutes child abuse. Obviously, the parent is expressing love for the child protecting him from future disease. We are all Hashem’s children. He is constantly expressing His love for us. Too often we are so close to the situation, so subjective, that we are unable to see the positive.

Our own suffering requires one form of explanation. A radically different approach is necessary to explain suffering of children under five, whom Chazal say do not even have Da’as, or anybody under twenty who are not culpable for punishment from heaven. The Shelah lived in the generation when Anton Von Leewonhauk discovered the microscope. The Shelah asks a question regarding the seeming waste in requiring perhaps millions of sperm cells to produce one child. He explains that all the unused cells are Nishamose which needed exposure to Olam Hazeh for a short duration. If we may take license and extrapolate from this Shelah, it would seem obvious that any stillborn child or miscarriage were Nishamos that required a longer duration. One need only go one step further to recognize that anyone who dies at a young age was one whose Nishama perhaps had to be in Olam Hazeh for a more extended period. In fact, mourners are often comforted by the idea that the Nishama is now in a better place. This may explain death. It does not take into account suffering which must be understood as a cleansing process so the Nishama returns to its Maker in its purest possible form.

Similarly, wholesale suffering must be explained on a different scale. Blood Libels, pogroms and, of course, the Holocaust all require an understanding of the concept of Am Yisroel. Each Jew is responsible for all other Jews. Thus, collective guilt, historical necessity, a warning to the Nation of Israel and/or a call to Tshuva are possibilities which require exploration. On that basis it may be possible to achieve a glimmer of understanding. Everyone has experienced a teacher who punished the whole class for the misbehavior of a few. This may seem to be unfair yet fairness is a peculiarly American institution. We were never guaranteed fairness. Life seems to be generally unfair in many, many ways. This apparent disparity must be recognized as our own inability to fathom Hashem’s ‘Master Plan’. Were we to have even the faintest inkling our viewpoint would undergo a change. Perhaps, by way of illustration, if a savage were to observe open heart surgery he would undoubtedly wonder why we call him the savage. Yet, anyone with the simplest understanding of modern medicine would recognize that the pain and suffering of the operation and recovery is in the patient’s best interest.

Some understanding of the issue may be gleaned by looking at who suffers least. Plants cannot be said to suffer nor can microbes, bacteria etc. Animals certainly do not suffer in the same way humans do. A person in a coma may be in horrific shape and have tremendous problems yet his suffering is certainly limited. The lower one’s IQ the less one is able to suffer from many types of punishment.[The story “Charlie” is an interesting exposition of this idea.] Suffering can therefor be directly related to cognizance and level of intelligence. There is a lesson to be learned from this notion. This may be stated thusly: If you are intelligent enough to understand the concept of punishment you should be intelligent enough to learn a lesson from the suffering. In fact, learning a lesson is the ultimate reason for our suffering. The trick is to be able to determine what lesson we are to learn.

There is an all too human tendency to regard ourselves as intelligent beings because we are. We do tend to forget that our intelligence is finite, limited, and colored by innumerable forces. This becomes a terribly limiting factor when we attempt to fathom the infinite intelligence of the Creator. Like the child or the savage, we simply do not have the tools to begin understanding the Cosmic equation.

If we recognize that true reward can never be measured, we should be able to recognize the problem in measuring punishment and assessing its value. If we believe in Hashem and Olam HaBah we must accept the ramifications of that belief.



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