Acceptance of Suffering - Middah Kabbalat HaYisurin

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

The word kabbalat comes from the Hebrew root kuf-bet-lamed and means "to receive" or "accept." The word yisurim is based on the root yod-somach-reish. There are several translations of the word yisur or yisurin which include "suffering, discipline, chastisement."

"Happy is the person who You discipline, Adonai, the person You instruct in Your teaching." (Psalms 93:4)

There are several explanations in Jewish tradition for the purpose of suffering. For each explanation the rabbis provided a proof text or reason from Scripture. One explanation is that suffering is seen as punishment for a person's sin or wrongdoing: "No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of misfortune." (Proverbs 12:21) Another explanation describes God as a parent and just as a parent sets limits (which may include punishments), so does God. The text affirms this by telling us: "Bear in mind that Adonai your God disciplines you just as a parent disciplines a child." (Deuteronomy 8:5)

Some interpret suffering as a test of an individual's spirit and commitment to God. Abraham was tested by God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Talmud offers this explanation of the incident: "If you go to the marketplace, you will see the potter hitting his clay pots with a stick to show how strong and solid they are. But the wise potter only hits the strongest pots never the flawed ones. So, too God sends such tests and afflictions only to people God knows are capable of handling them, so that they and others can learn the extent of their spiritual strength." (When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold S. Kushner, p.25)

Midrash Samuel states simply: "Everyone undergoes some suffering in life. Only one who can keep it from distracting him will succeed at Torah study." (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, p.417) The "true" student of Torah carries on studying despite whatever sufferings or hardships come about.

In the commentary Ruach Chaim, the "suffering" a student faces refers to the diminished life-style that the Torah demands. When one willingly gives up creature comforts and commits to the regimen of the Torah, one's suffering is a mitzvah (good deed) and is duly rewarded. (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, p.417) The proof for this explanation is found in Pirkei Avot 6:4, "This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation-but toil in the Torah! If you do this, you are praiseworthy--in this world; and it is well with you--in the World to Come."

Montefiore and Lowe wrote in The Rabbinic Anthology,

"The Rabbinic attitude towards sufferings is…one of humble resignation to the will of God. The convinced faith in a future life of blessedness and happiness enabled the Rabbis to face sufferings, not indeed, for the most part, with pleasure, but with fortitude, and even sometimes with joy, because they were regarded as sure passports to 'heaven.'"

Montefiore and Lowe and other contemporary commentators see these explanations for the existence of suffering as inadequate. The idea that one suffers here as a test of faith, or that God delivers hardship and suffering on individuals and society for atonement of sin, or that suffering here on earth is a prerequisite for a good afterlife casts God as spiteful and vengeful. A God who delivers hardship and suffering for reasons we are not to question makes it hard to see God as loving and caring.

What then is the purpose of suffering? Maybe there is no purpose at all. Suffering simply exists as part of the human condition. If suffering is part of the human experience, what then is God's role? Perhaps God is there to be with us in times of adversity. The next verse after Psalms 93:4 reads: "Happy is the person who You discipline, Adonai, the person you instruct in Your teaching, to give the person tranquility in times of misfortune…"

This is the perspective taken by Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen To Good People:

"If God is a God of justice and not of power, then God can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. God can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of God's doing, and so we can turn to God for help. We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted." (p.44)

To Talk About

  1. In your own words describe the source of suffering and hardship in the world.
  2. Describe a time in your life that was difficult. What were the circumstances? Did you have any control over what was happening? At that time could you give an explanation as to why it was happening? Could you do that now? How did you choose to respond to the situation? Faced with a similar situation what choices or response would you make now?
  3. If you take a look at a daily newspaper or the evening news on television how can one respond to the sufferings we read or hear about? k
  4. Tikkun olam (repairing the world) calls upon us to complete the task of creation. Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that evil and suffering are part of the chaos left over from creation and our task is to respond to that chaos and seek to correct it. Describe ways in which humanity has responded to the evil and suffering found in the world. How have you helped others when they faced adversity or suffering?

To Do

To learn more about responses to suffering, adults should read, When Bad Things Happen To Good People by Harold S. Kushner. As an entry point to talk about life's ups and downs, children can read and discuss Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, .