Perhaps the first point to understand in terms of Judaism’s emotional perspective on yissurim is a halacha in Shulchan Aruch which states that it is considered to be cruelty if one doesn’t mourn properly when a close relative passes away (YD 294:6). One might have imagined, with all we have said until now in trying to understand yissurim, that one should not even be sad when one close to us passes away. And if G-d runs the world, and everything is for the best, why should we even need to mourn?
Thinking vs. Feeling
The answer is that there is a fundamental distinction between how the Torah wants us to think about yissurim and how it wants us to feel about them. As we discussed, the verse in Devarim 8:5 teaches us very clearly that all yissurim are for our benefit and from G-d’s love. At the same time, however, yissurim can be horrifically painful, and often involve a terrible long-term loss. To not recognize and acknowledge this pain and loss would be to fundamentally deny our very humanity. That would certainly not be healthy, and may not even be possible.
While these thoughts and feelings may sound somewhat contradictory, it is actually possible to experience both simultaneously. An extreme example of this involves Avraham. A very powerful Medrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:8) tells us that Avraham both cried and rejoiced as he was on the way to the Akeidah — where G-d had seemingly commanded him to offer his son Yitzchak on the altar. He was crying because he understood that he was about to lose his beloved son. But he was also rejoicing because he was successfully overcoming the greatest test of his life. We must be true to our feelings and pain, while recognizing that the greatness being actualized within us will benefit us forever.
Many Benefits in this World
As much as many of the classical sources emphasize Olam Haba (the World to Come) in terms of dealing with yissurim, it is important to recognize that there are also many different purposes and benefits that apply specifically in this world. Yissurim are humbling. They shift and elevate our values. They help us to mature and grow, to redefine our lives, and also to develop many important sensitivities, such as the value of life and the ability to feel the pain of others. And they often bring us much closer to G-d than we would be likely to experience otherwise. As the well-known expression goes — “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
“You Are Children to G-d Your L-rd, Don’t Cut Yourself”
One of the 613 commandments is the prohibition of “lo titgodadu — don’t cut your flesh.” We are forbidden from cutting or slashing our flesh as an expression of grief over the death of a close relative. Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on the Torah, asks why we are supposed to tear our garments when a close relative passes away, but are prohibited from cutting our skin. By tearing our garments, we are expressing the fact that the pain we are feeling is as close to our bodies as our clothes are. If, however, we would actually slash the skin itself, that would be sending a very different message. Mutilating our bodies would be saying — “I have lost my value and significance.” That is something we should never think, and certainly never communicate with our actions. The Torah beautifully expresses this by placing the prohibition of “lo titgodadu” within a particularly inspiring context (Devarim 14:1,2):
“Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem, lo titgodadu, v’lo tasimu karcha bein eineichem, lameit. Ki am kadosh atah laHashem Elokecha, uv’cha bachar Hashem lehiyot lo l’am segulah mikol ha’amim asher al p’nei ha’adamah — You are children to G-d your L-rd, don’t cut yourself, and don’t make a bald spot between your eyes, for the dead. For you are a holy nation to G-d your L-rd, and G-d chose you to be His treasured nation from among all of the nations which are on the face of the earth.”
Why is the Torah telling us to “not cut ourselves and not make a bald spot (i.e., rip our hair out) between our eyes, for the dead?” Because we “are children to G-d… a holy nation to G-d… and G-d chose us to be His treasured nation from among all of the nations which are on the face of the earth.” This awareness that G-d is our loving parent is specifically what gives us the emotional strength to deal with even the most painful personal losses.
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.