“Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: … (23) acceptance of suffering, (24) knowing one’s place, (25) being happy with one’s lot…”
This week introduces a number of different qualities, all of which relate in some way to personal contentment. As we will see, one must be patient, long-suffering and satisfied with his lot in order to accomplish in Torah study. Without this mindset, one can easily become too preoccupied with his aches and pains or frustrated with his circumstances to focus on spiritual goals. Therefore, we must be able to bear suffering — the invariable fate of man in this world, to know and accept our place in the world and society, and to be satisfied with our lot. If we can accept who we are and who we are not, we will be able to forgo the mundane pursuits of this world in favor of the spiritual ones of the next.
There is a much deeper idea behind these qualities, in particular the acceptance of suffering. They are not just a matter of not being distracted by physical want. Our mishna already taught us that scholars should not be overly indulgent in worldly pleasures (Ways 14-19, http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter6-614-19.html). Accepting suffering is in a sense far more noble and profound. It implies that we accept G-d’s will even beyond what we are capable of understanding — even when life does not make sense to us. We rarely “understand” our personal suffering or the injustices of the world. Only the rarest of individuals can endure harsh suffering and sincerely feel he or she deserves it — even if we accept on some abstract level that G-d’s ways are just. And in a way, we are not so very wrong.
Shortly before I wrote the first version of this class, a victim of a terrorist attack (of the 2001-05 intifada) came to our door asking for charity. Just seeing the young man was painful enough for us (with screws in his legs he may or may not be able to walk unaided again), though it hardly mattered to him as he described his son’s condition (who at the time was only beginning to regain consciousness enough to say “mommy” and “daddy” again). (For our part, my wife and I could not even remember the months-old news item of the terrorist attack — which ruined his and his family’s lives.) Needless to say, my wife’s heart melted (I was just returning home at the time), and we found ourselves giving a sizable donation. (This in spite of the fact that the faltering company I was then working for was already a month behind in paying its employees’ salaries. At the time all we could think of is how fortunate and blessed we were — something we must all be reminded of from time to time.)
Now we could imagine that on some level this man deserved his fate, that G- d, with His Superman-like vision, can see faults where the rest of us see an honest and G-d-fearing Jew, hardly any different from the rest of us.
But not really.
The amount of suffering we witness in this world, both individual and national, just does not lend itself to rational thought or explanation. The world as we see it is not an understandable place, and very few of us – – being the truth-seeking, concerned Jews we are — possess the mindset to accept that. When we see what appears to man senseless tragedy, the success of evil so twisted as to glorify suicide for the expressed intent of killing and maiming as many innocents as possible, our minds and hearts cry out. And it is not only a cry for revenge. It is something much deeper. It is a cry for truth — and for reality. The world is too dark and too painful, and it just does not make *sense*. Should not the world be a place of truth and goodness — a reflection of the all-good and benevolent G-d who created it? But instead we see evil, suffering and distance from G-d, and our very faith in the world and humanity is shattered — along with the shattered glass, bones, and lives in a world in which evil reigns.
And yet our mishna’s words cry out. We must accept such axioms of life — that we cannot make sense of the world. For only then may we begin to study Torah.
For the most part, we study Torah in order to make sense of the world. Torah study is perhaps the surest manner of infusing our lives with meaning and understanding, of bringing G-d’s light into an otherwise dark and terrifying universe. The more we study, the more everything fits in, and G-d’s plan for the world and for each individual within begins to make sense and form a pattern.
But there are limitations. We cannot go into Torah study assuming that it will answer all of our questions — at least in a manner we can understand. Even worse, there are those who — millennia after the Torah was given — attempt to “judge” the Torah’s wisdom, even making their own observance dependent upon what makes sense to them, as if advanced and sophisticated 21st century man can behave as arbiter over all which preceded him.
Thus, the Sages here warn us: The means to fulfillment in Torah study is through the acceptance of suffering and of our lot. There are things in life we will simply not understand. Good people suffer — in fact, as King Solomon tells us, often those most precious to G-d suffer the most (Proverbs 3:12) — and we will never entirely make sense of it all. (Of course we’ve discussed approaches in many past classes, but that is hardly our purpose here. At time we must simply throw up our hands and submit ourselves to G-d’s will.)
But this is the required prerequisite for study Torah. If we approach Torah study expecting “answers”, we will invariably be disappointed. There is no magic bullet. There is no way any amount of knowledge will allow us — in this world at least — to fully comprehend and appreciate G-d’s wisdom. The Sages state it frankly: “It is not in our power to explain the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous” (4:19; http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/ch4-19.html). Thus, we study Torah for understanding and enlightenment — and we get it — but we must at the same time approach from humble submission. There are givens — painful givens and inequalities — in life we must simply accept. I accept that the suffering I and others endure is purposeful. Ultimately, it emanates from an all-knowing and all-merciful G- d. With this in mind, we may begin, humbly and submissively, to understand what we may from G-d’s Torah and from life.
Text Copyright © 2015 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.