During our seder last week, we came to the section where we take ten drops of wine from our cups, reducing our joy because of the suffering of the Egyptians from the plagues. A young woman at our seder table raised a very poignant idea, one that plagues us all during the course of life: she said, it’s fine that we should feel compassion for the Egyptians. But how can we believe in a God who can bring about that kind of suffering at all? I responded with a very traditional, albeit difficult response: that the Haggadah makes it very clear that God is responsible not just for the good things, but for the whole experience, the bad with the good. The same God who brought about our freedom and redemption, is also the same God who brought about the plagues on the Egyptians. Just as, in Judaism, we bless God for the good, so too in life, when death and loss happen, we say a blessing: Dayan Ha’Emet, that God is the True Judge. And this young woman, like so many of us, had real problems with this answer. So, she asked, if I’m with someone who is dying of cancer, I can tell them that God sent them this cancer? What kind of a God is that who sends cancer to good and innocent people?
This question is, of course, the great Problem of Evil. A problem that defies our ability as rational beings to adequately answer. How indeed, can we celebrate a God of goodness and justice when that same God gives us cancer, and all other manner of ways that good and innocent people die? The rabbis in the Talmud struggle with this very question over and over. There’s a famous text in Masechet Brachot that shows us just how radically the rabbis wrestled with this question: how can God allow anyone to suffer?
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yohanan, who was not only a great scholar, but was also a great healer. He goes into visit one of his students, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who was stricken with a deathly illness and was confined to bed. Now we know from the outset, that Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was a good man. In fact, he was great and learned and pious man. He certainly didn’t deserve in any sense to suffer from such a terrible illness. And yet, there he was, suffering, dying. So the story immediately begins with us angry at God: how could God make such a good man suffer? And, upon visiting Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, R. Yohanan asked a perplexing question: he asks, ‘Are your sufferings welcome to you?’ What a bizarre question! We can all think back to times in our lives when we have suffered, and we all know that none of it was in any way welcome to us! And yet, R. Yohanan begins with this question. Why?!
The answer is that there was a belief floating around in those days that if good and pious people suffer, it’s because God was testing them. People were so hard pressed to explain why bad things happened to good people, that they decided that if you can’t think of a reason to be punished by God, then you should be happy to suffer, because it meant that God thought so highly of you, God was sending the suffering so that you could prove to yourself and others how pious you were. So when Rabbi Yohanan asks the question, ‘Are your sufferings welcome to you?’ He’s really asking, do you believe that, on some level, you SHOULD be suffering?
When we see his question in this context, we see that it’s really a very sophisticated question! How many of us believe that on some level, we should be suffering? How many of us have a cycnical belief about life, that suffering is inevitable. How many of us, when a moment of loss and suffering comes, simply don’t question it at all, we simply suffer in misery, because we don’t believe that it can be any other way? Indeed, whenever any of us suffer, we can ask ourselves the question, Is OUR suffering welcome to us? Are we just accepting our suffering, or are we WILLING to find a way out of our suffering?
And so Rabbi Hiyya responds very bravely, very wisely to his master from his sickbed. He say’s ‘No, my sufferings are not welcome to me. Neither they nor their reward.’ He bravely, and very radically says, I’m not willing to accept this situation I’m in for how it appears to me. I’m not willing to suffer even in this moment of illness on a sickbed. I’m not willing to believe in a God who would send me this kind of suffering just for the reward of being a pious person. No, said R. Hiyya, I’m not willing to accept a belief in a God who sends cancer and any other illness or tragedy expressly for the purpose of my suffering! If I might extend R. Hiyya’s defiant expression at this moment, he is, in essence saying, cancer, illness, tragedy, and death are all facts of life. They are things that happen. But I’m not willing to believe that these things exist in the world in order to bring about suffering for me, or for anyone else. No, this suffering is not welcome to me!
Then R. Yohanan responds very simply. He says to R. Hiyya, ‘Give me your hand.’ R. Hiyya gives him his hand, and in that moment, he is healed. What just happened in that moment? The healing wasn’t in R. Yohanan’s words. It was in the silence that followed his words. It was in the silent gesture of one human hand taking another. In that silent, knowing moment of touch, of love itself, R. Yohanan joined with R.Hiyya in his defiance of suffering. In a sense, that moment of joining hands was a kind of spiritual awakening for R. Hiyya: right there, on his sickbed, in the midst of illness, there was a moment of the purest of most loving joining of hands between master and pupil. Right in that moment, there was the outstretched hand of one suffering meeting the strong, reassuring hand of another. In that moment of joining hands, there was NO SUFFERING. There was still sickness, the sickbed, there might have even been pain, but in that moment of joining, there was no suffering. R. Hiyya healed in spirit in that moment because he realized the Truth, that even though there is sickness, tragedy, loss in this world, there is the presence of an outstretched hand in ALL MOMENTS, a hand that can give us the strength not to suffer at all even with the limitations of life.
Like it says in Psalm 145, “Poteach et Yadecha, umasbiah lechol chay ratzon,” You, God, open your hand, and you satisfy the will of every living thing.” That beautiful line of the Ashrei tells us that every living thing in this world has, as its deepest yearning, the wish not to suffer, to be free. And the psalm affirms a very deep and magnificent Truth: that in every moment, God’s hand is OPEN to us to show us that we don’t have to suffer in this world; we don’thave to ‘welcome’ suffering as inevitable, even with the loss. In that story in the Talmud, R. Yohanan is a conduit for this Truth. His open hand extending to his suffering student IS the hand of God reaching out to him, providing relief from that suffering even in the midst of illness, suffering, even death.
Our story in the Talmud ends on an ironic note. Some time later, it says, R. Yohanan, the healer himself, fell ill, and was on the sickbed. His colleague R. Hanina went into visit him. And they had the same exchange: R. Hanina said to R. Yohanan, are your sufferings welcome to you? Neither they nor their reward, said R. Yohanan. Give me your hand, said R. Hanina. R. Yohanan gave him his hand, and he was healed. The Talmud then asks the obvious question: Hey, wait a minute! Didn’t R. Yohanan heal his student just that same way? Doesn’t he already know the wisdom about how we heal when we can transcend suffering? Let the healer heal himself! The Talmud protests. But then, the Talmud provides the answer to this problem by saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”
R. Yohanan is not a god. He is only human. Life is hard. Suffering, illness, tragedy and loss are so very hard. It’s one thing to understand deep spiritual truths. It’s one thing to teach them, to believe in them, to help others with them. But each of us who have lost a loved one know that we can never, ever be prepared for the enormity of such a loss. No matter how brilliant or insightful or wise we are, tragedy and loss can overpower us. And yet, the beauty of this story is that even though the most wise teachers can fall prey to suffering over loss and tragedy, this doesn’t mean that the spiritual Truths are invalid. All the great ideas and teachings and philosophies are one thing. But all of these pale in comparison to the power of a moment of chesed, a moment of an outrstretched hand reaching out in love and taking the hand of one who is suffering over tragedy and loss. In every moment, so long as there is Chesed, kindness, the hand of another reaching out, there is always the possibility to defy suffering. There is always the possibility to find peace and strength and freedom from the prison of suffering right in the middle of loss itself.
And in this insight, we have the deepest answer to that young woman’s question at my seder: What kind of a God is it who sends cancer to good and innocent people? The problem is the question itself. If we focus on the question phrased this way, then we are ‘welcoming suffering’ into our lives. We are not questioning the belief that God “sends” cancer, which is suffering. What if we re-phrase the question as, “Does cancer prove that God and human beings are not good and innocent?” Where does that question take us? Phrased this way, we defy the suffering that cancer and tragedy pose to us. Can we absolutely know, indeed, that cancer proves that goodness and innocence are obliterated because there is cancer? In fact, we know that this is NOT true: there is always the possibility of an outstretched arm, there is always Chesed, there is always the possibility to be in the midst of cancer and to know the purest kind of love, of compassion, of joy, of freedom from suffering even as cancer ends our lives and the lives of those whom we love.
Death and loss are the way of this world. But as long as we continue to believe that Death is the end of happiness, the end of joy, the end of freedom, then we are ‘welcoming suffering.’ Look deeper into the Truth, and you will see that the death of your beloved in no way ends their love, their joy, their freedom. All of that is right here with you, even at this moment. Cancer, tragedy, even death itself is just the end of a story. It is not the end of the Truth, which is always kind, because it is always filled with the possibility of healing, of caring, of redemption.
Let’s remember this. Even as our pain and suffering well up as we long for our loved ones who have passed on to be physically with us, let us remember that neither this suffering, nor its reward is welcome to us. Instead, let us open our hearts and reach out for the love and joy and peace of our loved ones that is the Truth of their Presence that is always with us, despite the reality of their loss. May we come to know the Truth that they are indeed always reaching out to us. Let us take their hand, and let us be healed.