Suffering and Tohu
Ya’akov settled in the land of his father, in the land of Canaan.
According to the effort is the reward (Pirkei Avos 5:26). That is often
true, but that is not exactly what it says. A more accurate translation is,
“According to the pain is the reward.” If so, then Ya’akov Avinu had it
right, and we have it wrong.
After all, even though we tout expressions like, “No pain, no gain,” we
spend a lot of time, money, and energy avoiding pain. In fact, some people
even suffer in the present to avoid pain in the long run. Given the choice,
most people would probably choose a pain-free life.
Once upon a time, that wasn’t even a dream for the average person. Until
about 50 years ago, there were barely any billionaires, and even a million
dollars was a pipe dream for many. Realistic people did not dream of
becoming wealthy, they just dreamed of becoming less poor.
Technology and the growth of the Western world changed a lot of that. As a
result, currently, making a million dollars is not only not a distant dream
anymore, it isn’t even enough of a dream. Today people dream of making
millions of dollars, and perhaps, of becoming billionaires. In the meantime,
the standard of living has risen tremendously over the decades for even just
the average individual.
This has also spilled over into the Jewish people, and not just the more
secular components, but even the more Orthodox part of the Jewish
population. There are some Orthodox billionaires, many Orthodox
millionaires, and the general Orthodox population enjoys many of the
comforts that were once reserved for the well-to-do.
And why not? They’re not stealing it. It’s not interfering with their Torah
observance. On the contrary! If anything, it is argued, increased affluence
has enhanced the performance of many mitzvos, especially chesed. After
thousands of years of brutal persecution and abject poverty on a national
scale, isn’t it about time that the Jewish people enjoy this world a bit more?
Perhaps. On the other hand, the Talmud says:
Rebi Yochanan said: “Why are the Jewish people likened to an olive-tree?
To tell you that just as the olive produces its oil only after pounding, so
too the Jewish people only return to the right way after suffering.”
Not only this, but such suffering seems to be part and parcel of bringing
the Final Redemption as well:
Rebi Eliezer said: “If the Jewish people repent, they will be redeemed;
if not, they will not be redeemed.” Rebi Yehoshua said to him, “If the
Jewish people repent, they will be redeemed, but if not, they will not be
redeemed?!” Rather, The Holy One, Blessed is He, will set a king over them
whose decrees will be as difficult as Haman’s, causing the Jewish people to
repent and thus will He bring them back to the right path.” (Sanhedrin 97b)
Yes, prosperity and an easy life is a good thing, if that is your goal in
life. It is certainly the goal of the average human being who seems
hardwired for physical pleasure and comfort, and rarely thinks of eternal
matters such as the World-to-Come. And though they may be accustomed to
terms such as Armageddon, they do not know too much about the Final Redemption.
Certainly not on the level of Ya’akov Avinu and Yosef HaTzaddik, whose lives
were filled with difficulty and pain. But, they understood, that is the
nature of this world, no matter how much pleasure and comfort this world
seems to be able to provide, and of which they took part on occasion. Even
Moshiach Ben Yosef is destined to die in battle as he makes possible the
Why me? Why now? Why at all?
Classic questions that do not really have classic answers, at least on a
non-Kabbalistic level. Sure, there are statements that have been made over
the years to help people deal with their suffering, which are only amplified
by the way people around them do not seem to be suffering, at least not at
the same time. But, if you ask enough questions, such answers usually come
On the level of Kabbalah, all of it is summed up in one word: tohu.
Not to be confused with that chalky white substance made from soya beans,
tohu is definitely not good for your health, and it certainly isn’t pareve.
In fact, based upon the Torah’s description, it is nothing but chaos and
destruction and, much to our chagrin, the basis of history until Moshiach comes.
Tohu is a cosmic migraine headache of astronomical proportions, for which
God prescribed two tablets, the first two tablets with which Moshe Rabbeinu
came down the mountain and subsequently broke upon seeing the golden calf in
the camp below. The medicine gone, the malady prevailed (the second tablets,
carved out by Moshe Rabbeinu were too weak to end the tohu), and will
continue until Moshiach brings a conclusive end to the War of Gog and Magog.
One may ask at this point, “Why? Why create tohu at all?” I mean, who really
We do, that is, if we wish to go to the World-to-Come and enjoy eternal
pleasure, an hour of which, its says in Pirkei Avos, is greater than a
lifetime of pleasure in this world. Make that many lifetimes of pleasure in
this world. Tohu is, in a matter of speaking, the threshold to all of that.
As always in such matters, it comes back to the issue of free will. Without
getting complicated, free will is the ticket to the eternal bliss of the
World-to-Come. This is because our personal portions in this eternal
Heavenly paradise is comprised of all our moral victories, of all those
moments when we were tempted to do the immoral thing, or at least, the less
moral thing, and didn’t.
Sometimes our victories are not sins resisted because sometimes the
challenge to avoid them is too great. Instead, victory may come, as Adam
HaRishon discovered too late, from how quickly we spiritually recover from
our errors, first by admitting our failures and then by making amends for
them. God loves righteousness, but He loves sincere teshuvah as well.
Hence, to get to the World-to-Come, you need free choice. To have free
choice you have to choices, specifically between good and evil. To have
evil, you have to have tohu, because that was the primordial state of
existence that made evil possible in a world that should be, by definition,
After all, Creation exists inside of God, and God is all, and only good. He
doesn’t have an evil bone in Him, and not even a bone for that matter. So,
how do you create a reality of evil, necessary for free will, in an
existence that is completely good, inside and outside? The answer in a word:
It is not the final word, though. Indeed, if anything, tohu is the middle of
the discussion, as a quick perusal of the Zohar and works like the Arizal’s
Aitz Chaim will reveal. We know, from tradition, what it is, and why it
exists. We even know where it can be found, and how to tame it, as the
It says, “And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day”
(Bereishis 1:31). The letter Heh (preceding the word shishis in the Hebrew)
is extra . . . to say that [God] made a condition with them (Creation): “If
the Jewish people accept the Five Books of the Torah [on the sixth day of
Sivan, in the year 2448], then you can continue. If not, then you must
return back to tohu v’vohu.” (Shabbos 88a)
What we don’t necessarily know is when it will show up on the historical
scene, or even just in our own personal lives, at least in full force. But
when it does, people like Ya’akov Avinu know, it is but a threshold to
rectification, personal and world, and it need not be a reason to despair.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.