In Praise of Suffering?

In Praise of Suffering?

The biblical text contains many lacunae; gaps in the narrative that cry out to be completed. One of the best known is where the bible says “And Cain spoke to his brother Abel, so it was that when they were in the field Cain arose against his brother Abel and slew him.” The gap in the text is that it doesn’t tell us what Cain said to his brother Abel.  

Another lacuna occurs after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses is commanded “You shall not do with me, gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourself. (Ex. 20,19). The lacuna is after the first clause: it does not tell us what shall not be done. (Although the verb ‘to do’ can also be translated as ‘to make’, the clause is not referring to the gods of gold and silver; they are governed by the second verb in the sentence).   

These lacunae give the Midrash the opportunity to insert its own ideas into the text. Frequently these insertions, instead of trying to clarify the biblical text, reflect matters of concern in their own time. The Mechilta, the earliest commentary on Exodus, attaches an idea to the phrase “you shall not do with me” which is far removed from the plain meaning of the text.

It begins with Rabbi Akiva inserting the phrase “as other nations do” at the end of the clause. He explains “You shall not do with me as other nations do” with their gods; praising them when things go well and condemning them when things go badly. Instead, Israel, recognising that all things come from the same divine source, bless God for the bad as well as the good. He quotes Job: God has given and God has taken, may the name of the Lord be blessed.  For Akiva, although we may not understand why bad things happen, we should acknowledge that ultimately all is for the good.

Akiva then takes an astonishing leap. It’s not enough to just bless God for bad things; instead we should rejoice when we are suffering, even more than when things are going well. For it is suffering that wipes out our transgressions. It is an astonishing statement because it seems so remote from everything that Judaism stands for. Ours is not a religion founded on the merits of suffering.

The Midrash digresses into a story, one that finds its way into the Talmud. Rabbi Eliezer, the deeply learned but stern and conservative sage is dying. His students and colleagues visit him. Each of them praises him in turn, extolling his virtues. Akiva, the youngest of the group speaks last. But instead of praising Eliezer he looks at the harrowed old man and declares “Beloved is suffering!” Eliezer is astonished. “Sit me up” he tells his carers, “so that I can hear the words of my pupil Akiva.”

Akiva’s emphasis on suffering speaks to the needs of his time. The episode is set during the Roman occupation of Israel, in the years leading up to the Bar Kochba revolt. Life is hard, the Jews are being persecuted for their religion. Time and again we read of Akiva making statements designed to explain to his people why they are forced to endure such torment. He knows that if he cannot explain their suffering theologically, they will abandon their religion.

Akiva’s theology is motivational. He may not be able to stop the suffering, but he is trying his hardest to present it in a positive light. Ultimately though, Akiva’s approbation of suffering did not find its way in to mainstream Jewish thought. We do still make a blessing when we hear bad news, but we do not rejoice in suffering. We know too much about it.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books