Suffering with Dignity

by | in Jewish Thought

In the book Out of the Whirlwind, the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, teaches that Judaism’s approach to suffering rests on three pillars. The first is acknowledging that evil and suffering exist and they are bad. We cannot whitewash, disguise or ignore pain, hurt or loss, nor should we attempt to justify or deny this reality.

The second pillar is to never passively accept evil and suffering; we must fight against it. God endowed man with intellect and resources that should be used to actively and aggressively battle evil or, even better, seek to prevent suffering. Thus, we are obligated to research cures for diseases, build Iron Domes and David’s Slings and heed warnings to get out of harm’s way if all else fails and we are unable to thwart the evil. Passive resistance is not the Jewish way; sanctity and preservation of life is.

Thirdly, the pillar that the Jewish community has perfected over several millennia of suffering is faith—faith that even as nature defeats us and we lose battles against our enemies time and again, ultimately evil will be annihilated and suffering will cease to exist. In short, we acknowledge the reality of suffering, resolve to oppose and resist it in any way we can and hold tight to the belief that we will one day eliminate it and triumph over its demise.

Think about the devastation Superstorm Sandy left in her wake. Dozens of communities and countless lives have been irrevocably altered by the loss of homes and cherished, irreplaceable possessions. Even those who only sustained temporary losses—the interruption of the normal routines of work, school, transportation and power—experienced suffering, albeit on a much lesser scale. How does one uphold pillar number three of the Rav’s hashkafah in such a situation? We are bidden to maintain our faith even as we are utterly defeated. How can we face such a tragic reality and at the same time be optimistic about what the future holds?

Tragedy does not define us, but how we respond to it does.

There are many ways to deal with suffering, and we could never be so brazen as to judge the reaction of anyone who has endured pain or loss. We can, however, observe which of these reactions helps the sufferer move forward and overcome his distress. A person can fall apart, become hysterical or dysfunctional, get angry and relentlessly question, “Why did this happen to me?” While this is probably the most natural response, it holds one captive to his pain because he will never get a satisfactory answer to the “why me” question.

Others may accept their lot with equanimity: bad things happen to everyone, now it is my turn. I will bear the suffering because it is the hand I have been dealt. This is certainly a more constructive approach than the former, as it allows a person to accept his circumstance as inevitable, knowing that the difficulty will eventually pass and maybe even be forgotten.

But there is another level of acceptance, one that, according to the Rav, makes all the difference: accepting pain and suffering with dignity and humility. This is radically different than accepting suffering with equanimity, which enables a person to persevere through hardship but offers no meaning or purpose to the suffering. The dignity and humility of a human being derives from the fact that we are all created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elokim. Accepting God’s decrees with humility means we acknowledge the Hand of God, even as we cannot fathom His plan for unleashing such fury. Accepting our defeat against evil and suffering with dignity means we heroically attempt to assert our humanity, our spark of Divinity, even in the midst of the incomprehensible. With dignity, we don’t just endure, we uplift; we don’t passively accept, we actively rebuild; we don’t ask why, we ask what can we do to make it better and how will we lead our lives differently as a result of this experience.

I am awed and overwhelmed by the dignified way we as a people, as a community and as a family, accepted our defeat against the forces of nature. We were there for each other—“Imo anochi b’tzarah, I am with you in times of trouble.” Busloads of volunteers traveled to hard-hit communities to help with the cleanup efforts. People who had generators or were lucky enough to have power ran virtual hotels for those who didn’t. Their doors, kitchens, bedrooms, outlets and hot showers were available to all—not just to friends and family, but to total strangers as well. The community in Silver Spring, Maryland, sent buses to New York to pick up fellow Jews and host them for a Shabbat that would otherwise have been cold and dark. Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, restaurants in Teaneck, New Jersey, provided a refrigerated truck where people could store their perishable food that would have spoiled in the extended power outage, saving families thousands of dollars. Countless shuls and schools offered meals, warmth, power and chizuk to the general population in their communities—not just to fellow Jews. People donated clothing, supplies and money so generously and with such sensitivity, as the recipients were, for the most part, not people who were used to taking. The dignity we extended to each other in this unprecedented time of need was truly extraordinary—“V’chavod v’hadar t’atreihu, And [You] crowned [mankind] with soul and splendor” (Tehillim 8:6).

How can we face such a tragic reality and at the same time be optimistic about what the future holds? Because we face it not with defeat, not with equanimity, but with dignity. Because the tragedy does not define us, but how we respond to it does. One of the underlying precepts of Judaism is gratitude, hakarat hatov. Our rabbis instituted the notion that we should recite one hundred blessings every day. That translates into one hundred opportunities to spend a moment appreciating the little things that are so easily taken for granted. Hurricane Sandy, in all of its devastation, has taught us the same lesson—to appreciate how precious our lives, homes and possessions are. There is dignity in realizing that when everything is literally washed away, what defines us is not our “stuff,” but our relationships and our altruistic acts to help alleviate the pain of others. Despite the reality of evil and suffering, and our failed attempts to eradicate these ills, we are able to have faith—faith in our people, whose essence is a Godlike dignity, and faith in Hashem, whose prophet Isaiah promises that a time will come when (25:8) “U’macha Hashem dimah me’al kol panim, And God will erase tears from all faces.”

Rabbi Steven Weil is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

12A member of Kesher Israel Congregation, an OU shul in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hauls garbage to the curb for a homeowner in the South Beach neighborhood of Staten Island. Rabbi Akiva Males, of Kesher Israel, organized a relief effort, which brought members of Harrisburg’s Jewish community to communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Sean Simmers

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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