Three Essential Prerequisites
First — Definition of Yissurim
The Hebrew word yissurim deals with the classical theological and philosophical issue — “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
While yissurim is often translated as “suffering,” if we examine a verse in the Torah containing the word yissurim, we will see why that translation is problematic.
Devarim 8:5 tells us — “And you should know with your heart, that just like a parent gives yissurim to his child, G-d your L-rd gives you yissurim.” It is obvious that we should not translate this verse as — “And you should know with your heart, that just like a parent causes his child to suffer, G-d your L-rd causes you to suffer.” The Torah is teaching us the meaning of yissurim. Just as a parent will sometimes give something painful to a child, for the benefit of the child and from the love of the parent, G-d will also sometimes give us something painful, but specifically for our benefit and from His love.
Second — Asking Questions about Yissurim
People sometimes think that it is wrong to ask questions about the topic of yissurim. After all, who are we to question or challenge G-d about this complex theological subject? This is not, however, a proper Jewish perspective. The Talmud (Brachot 7a) tells us that Moshe himself asked G-d about the righteous who appear to suffer and the wicked who appear to prosper. G-d’s response seems to have been that, as a human being, Moshe couldn’t possibly understand how every single detail made sense for every particular person and every specific situation.
It is perhaps this degree of specificity regarding how yissurim impact different people and situations that the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:19) is referring to when it says it is “not in our hands [to understand] the tranquility of the wicked and the yissurim of the righteous.” What is possible, however, and what we should strive to do, is to try to understand the general principles of yissurim as much as we can.
Third — Challenge or Support to G-d and Religion?
The widespread perception is that the issue of yissurim may be the greatest difficulty or challenge to belief in both G-d and religion. Paradoxically, however, the situation is almost exactly the opposite. Why are we so bothered by the righteous who seem to suffer and the wicked who seem to prosper? What are we expecting to occur? Obviously, that the righteous should not suffer and the wicked should not prosper.
Rabbi Asher Resnick serves as a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah’s Executive Learning Center, and is a senior training lecturer for Aish’s Rabbinical Ordination program. As a close student of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, he developed a special expertise in addressing fundamental issues in Judaism, as well as in bringing classical texts to life. As a bereaved parent, Rabbi Resnick’s extensive writings on loss, suffering and trauma provide a sensitive Jewish perspective on coping with these fundamental life cycle issues. Olami & NLEResources.com is happy to highlight several essays over the coming months featured on his website JewishClarity.com.