The Talmud contains a troubling discussion over which I’ve often found myself puzzling and pained. If a person perceives that sufferings come have come upon him, it suggests, then let him consider his deeds. Is there something he has done which he shouldn’t have? Or maybe there is something of profound importance which he has neglected? (The Talmud of course explains this as failure to study sufficient Torah.) However, if the suffering can be attributed neither to bad things we’ve done, nor to good things we’ve failed to do, then, it teaches, ‘it is well known that these are sufferings of love’. What’s that supposed to mean?
There is ample reason to find the passage hurtful and offensive. Suffering calls for compassion, not judgement. To point the finger of blame at those upon whom life has inflicted pain is not only insensitive but morally and spiritually ugly. Sometimes, as when explanations are offered as to why God sent the Asian Tsunami, or caused the Holocaust, it amounts to blasphemous obscenity. Life brings all kinds of hurts. People inflict terrible wrongs on one another. Sometimes we do indeed contribute to our own afflictions, but often they have nothing more to do with what we’ve done than that we’ve found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the question ‘why?’ is one of the ultimate imponderables of existence. Neither blaming God nor blaming the victim helps. On the contrary, seeking God can help us find the inner strength to make the best of our new and challenging circumstances.
I’m often witness to the bravery, anguish, sorrow, love and hope with which people struggle with life’s hurts. I often hear people trying to make sense of them, working within themselves to tell an inner story which helps them integrate and cope with them. There’s almost always a great deal of courage and love in this endeavour. At its heart is the realisation that we may not be able to change the facts of what has happened to us, but that we are able to determine, at least in part, what it should mean in our souls and in our lives.
This leads to a rather different way of interpreting the troubling passage from the Talmud referred to above. It needs to be understood as an internal conversation. ‘How can I understand this? What can I see this experience as telling me? How must I, and how do I want to, change my inner life?’ Thus I do hear people who have suffered asking themselves what they’ve done and how they are using their time: ‘I haven’t been as aware of others as I would now like to be’; ‘I’ve spent too little time with those I love; I have different priorities now’. ‘I think I understand others better now, and I’m going to use that in my life’. ‘I’ve found my own heart – in a deeper way.’
This leads back to that curious phrase about ‘sufferings of love’. Mercifully perhaps, the Talmud refrains from suggesting what it might mean, leaving it open to our own inner interpretation.
I do not read the words as suggesting that suffering is essentially noble or good. Far from it; the Talmud goes on to tell the stories of three rabbis who all preferred to be cured of their illness than to gain the insights of suffering. But, God knows, and we know too, such cure is not always possible. Nor can grief simply be rolled back and undone. Suffering is a reality some of the time in every life, and much of the time in many. The challenge is what we make of it.
The Talmud is offering a teaching, which I have seen fulfilled in many lives in our own community, that afflictions can be turned into ‘sufferings of love’, sufferings, that is, through which the capacity of love is somehow made deeper within us, through which our own sensitivity towards others grows and through which our desire to give of our heart becomes more real, suffering through which our awareness of our own hurts and pain leads to loving care for and deep, compassionate attentiveness towards those around us.