The Suffering Servant
by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
[Extracted from his forthcoming book Fragments Of The Hammer: Discoveries in the Weekly Sidra - reprinted with permission]
R. Shimon bar Yochai said: The Holy One Blessed is He gave three gifts to Israel and all of them He gave only through suffering. They are: Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come [Berakhot 5a].
On this Shabbat when we read of a personal tragedy unequalled in the Torah, the sudden striking down of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu by divine fire on the day of their [and their father’s] induction as kohanim, it is timely to examine the issue of suffering through the prism of Judaism.
To do this, it may be instructive to contrast the approach of Christianity. Its founder allegedly suffered [and atoned] for the sins of others. This gave rise to the theology of suffering as enobling, hence the highest possible form of service of the D-vine.
The Jewish approach is subtly different. Judaism accepts that sufferings borne in this world may purge a soul of its iniquity in order that it may achieve the bliss of the Afterlife. However this is rationalised only bediavad [post facto]. Jews are not expected to seek out suffering nor even to affirm its beneficial qualities. In a subsequent passage to that cited above [5b] three leading rabbis of the generation, Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar, are all visited by colleagues in their sickness and are asked in turn “Are your sufferings precious to you?” [i.e “are you happy that they will purge you of your sins in order that you will inherit a prize portion in the World to Come?”] Each of them responds with identical words. Lo hen lo sekharan. “I would prefer to have neither the sufferings nor their reward!”
How then should the Jew react to suffering? Aaron demonstrates quintessentially the answer to this most difficult of questions. His silent acquiescence to the D-vine decree against his sons [Lev. 10:3] is only the beginning. Let us reflect upon the true meaning of korban, of the sacrificial service in the Sanctuary and the Temple of which Aharon haKohen was the founding father.
When a Jew brings an offering he is required to be present when the animal is slaughtered. Why? In order that, with a Jewish heart overflowing with compassion, he agonises over the death of this animal and reflects that it could have been his own life forfeit; and only by the grace of the merciful G-D has he been granted the precious gift of extended life [based on writings of the Ramban].
Imagine! Every time Aaron offered up a korban he would have to reflect that, for reasons unbeknown to him, his own sons were designated as korbanot on the day of their inauguration, that they were not granted extended life. And he would do it silently, acceptingly, without bitterness. Not, G-D forbid, rejoicing in his own suffering as might be a Christian approach. But accepting it lovingly without beginning to comprehend its rationale.
All this may help us better understand a puzzling explanation of a seminal passage in Genesis. In the section known as the b’rit ben ha-besarim, the Covenant between the Parts, Abraham asks G-D “How will I know that I will inherit the Land of Israel?” G-D replies by enacting with Abraham the Covenant and declaring that his descendants “will be aliens in a land not theirs, enslaved to their oppressors for 400 years” after which “they will emerge with great substance” [Gen 15:14].
The Talmud in Nedarim [32a] cites the amoraic sage Shmuel as linking our exile and suffering in Egypt to Abraham’s question “How will I know that I will inherit Erets Yisrael”. This is generally understood as indicating a lack of faith on the part of Abraham resulting in the “punishment” of exile for his descendants. However I would venture to offer a different explanation.
G-D is offering Abraham [and us] a unique insight into the role of suffering in His world. How will we know that we shall acquire the Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance? Because we will suffer for centuries before inheriting it! And anything earned through suffering – as Torah and the World to Come also are earned – will be a permanent and prized acquisition.