Shiur #14 Afflictions of Love: The Relationship between Suffering and Sin

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #14 Afflictions of Love:

The Relationship between Suffering and Sin


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rava, and some say Rav Chisda, said:  "If a person sees that suffering (yissurin) comes upon him, let him examine his conduct, as it says: 'We will search our ways and return to Hashem' (Eikha 3:40).  If he searches and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute [the suffering] to neglect of Torah study, as it says: 'Happy is the man whom You cause to suffer, Hashem, and teach him from your Torah (Tehillim 94:12).'  If he attributes it [to neglecting Torah study] and still finds nothing, it is clearly afflictions of love (yissurin shel ahava), as it says: 'For God chastises whom He loves (Mishlei 3:12).'"  (Berakhot 5a)



The question of the relationship between sin and suffering has been a constant in the history of religious thought.  The above gemara suggests that not all suffering in this world can be assumed to be punishment for sin.  At the same time, the gemara does suggest that the first response of the sufferer should be repentance.  Let us examine the three stages of this gemara's response to suffering before concentrating on that mysterious term, "afflictions of love." 


            As mentioned, the suffering individual begins by searching for sins that might be the cause of his suffering.  If he cannot find such sins, he attributes the suffering to neglect of Torah study (bittul Torah).  Yet why did this person not locate the problematic bittul Torah in the original stage of spiritual stock taking (cheshbon ha-nefesh)? 


            The Ramban explains (Sha'ar Ha-gemul, p. 180) that the initial search looks for violations of negative prohibitions.  After that search turns up nothing, the suffering person turns his or her attention to a deficiency in the area of positive mitzvot, e.g., insufficient Torah study.  For the Ramban, bittul Torah is not a unique problem; rather, it represents the broader category of not adequately fulfilling positive mitzvot.


            In contrast, the Yismach Moshe (cited in Likkutei Batar Likkutei on Berakhot) explains that bittul Torah is meant in a specific way.  As people can always utilize their time more productively and free up more of that time for Torah study, an intensive religious evaluation will find bittul Torah, even when the basic search for sins identifies nothing.  The first investigation finds no sinful cause of the pain, but the second and more probing look at how that person uses his or her time does find some problematic behavior.


            The Vilna Gaon (Gra) offers a third perspective in his commentary on Berakhot.  He suggests that the neglect of Torah study explains why the first search turns up empty: perhaps a person doing a cheshbon ha-nefesh finds no sins because that person does not truly understand the manifold religious responsibilities of the Torah.  A person who learns Torah thoroughly would understand in which areas he or she is religiously deficient.  For the Gra, the second stage, looking for bittul Torah, comes to rectify the poor application of the first stage, the fruitless search for sin.


            Yet the gemara does go on to talk of individuals who do not find that bittul Torah adequately explains their suffering either.  Apparently, some suffering cannot be explained by claiming that the person in pain did not fulfill positive commandments, did not use time well or did not fully understand the broad nature of religious responsibilities.  If we do sometimes break the nexus between sin and punishment, what other explanations for suffering exist?


            Rashi (ibid.) says that God gives one undeserved suffering in this world in order to compensate that individual with reward in the World to Come.  While the terse quality of Rashi's writing makes it difficult to offer a precise understanding, he may refer to an idea cited by the Rambam in the name of the Mutazalite Kalam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:17).  According to this school of Islamic thought, a person can 'cash in' his or her suffering 'chips' from this world for greater rewards in the next world.  Rav Sa'adia Gaon endorses such a possibility in Emunot Ve-de'ot 5:3.


The Rambam rejects this approach; indeed, it does seem odd that God would give one pointless suffering just so He can reward that individual more in the next world.  If God wants to give reward beyond one’s merit, He can certainly due so without increasing our afflictions.  The Rambam apparently identifies the Mutazalite position with the concept of "afflictions of love," and he goes so far as to claim that this concept may appear in the Talmud, but only as a rejected, minority position.   


            The Ramban (cited above) refuses to accept that God punishes the innocent out of love.  He explains that afflictions of love come upon the individual who has sinned inadvertently.  When the gemara mentions a person who cannot find sins that would bring about a given punishment, it refers to a search for purposeful iniquities.  Although inadvertent transgressions are far less serious than willful crimes, they too deserve punishment, both because the sinner could have been more careful and because the sin leaves a mark that taints the soul.  These afflictions are "of love" because they repair the soul and ready it for the World to Come.


            The Maharsha suggests that "afflictions of love" refer to vicarious atonement.  He cites support from the famous verses in Yeshayahu 53 in which a righteous person apparently suffers for the sins of others.  Of course, this reading of Yeshayahu 53 immediately calls to mind the Christian reading of that chapter, and we tend to think that Judaism does not endorse the Christian concept of vicarious atonement. 


However, are our assumptions about a divide between Christianity and Judaism on this issue correct?  On the one hand, some sources (e.g., Mo'ed Katan 28a) speak of the death of the righteous being an atonement, and Yeshayahu 53 can be read along the same lines.  On the other hand, many passages in Yechezkel (e.g., chapter 18) and other places emphasize individual responsibility and reject the concept of suffering for the sins of others.  Indeed, the Radak (Yeshayahu 53:4) states that those verses in Yeshayahu reflect the people’s erroneous belief, but the reality is that each person suffers only for his or her own transgressions.  Perhaps we can say that Judaism is far more conflicted about vicarious atonement than Christianity.


Rabbi Shalom Carmy once suggested to me a different religious dividing line regarding this matter.  Some Christians believe that man is so depraved that only vicarious atonement could pave the way towards salvation.  Our tradition may include some form of vicarious atonement, but it is not based on the assumption that, due to human lowliness, such help from the suffering of the righteous represents the only possible route to salvation.


Both the Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-yissurin 1) and the Ran (Derashot Ha-Ran, p. 174) explain that affliction sometimes promote personal religious growth.  For the Maharal, suffering helps break our attachment to the material; for the Ran, suffering helps free us from the snare of wild imagination.  Either way, the afflictions help us focus our attention on the most important things in life. 


            While the Ran and the Maharal write about suffering moving us away from certain potentially harmful aspects of the human personality, we can broaden the point to a much wider range of religious growth.  Struggling with frustrations and difficulties often brings out new reservoirs of strength and helps us realize aspects of our humanity that we would not have found otherwise. 


This last approach differs from that of the Mutazalite Kalam because, according to the Ran and the Maharal, the suffering is not spiritually pointless.  Rather, it provides an avenue to growth of the human religious personality.  Of course, some kinds of suffering might prove too crushing to have such a positive effect, and I am not suggesting that this model would solve every difficult case of unjustified suffering.     


John Hick, a contemporary theologian, builds a similar theodicy in his Evil and the God of Love.  He contrasts a pet owner with a parent.  The former is solely interested in providing a life of comfort for the pet.  The latter is interested in the personal growth and development of the child.  This will sometimes include decisions that make life more taxing for the child because in those struggles, the child achieves religious, ethical and personal maturity. 


            Note that we have seen various understandings that break the easy causal connection between sin and punishment.  Yaakov Elman has written a number of articles showing the many other Talmudic models that also sever this link.  Apparently, we can believe in divine, providential justice and still understand that the pain of others and even our own difficulties need not always be traced back to sin.  Suffering should make us think of teshuva, but several models exist to explain why we suffer.