The Inevitability of Human Suffering
Jacob loses his beloved wife Rachel in this week’s Torah portion. Rachel died young, while giving birth to her second son Benyamin. Jacob is surely devastated. Jacob’s life was replete with tragedy. He had to leave his parental home, and run for his life. He was exploited and manipulated in business by his crooked uncle Lavan. He spent years in mourning for Joseph, the son who never died. I think we can agree that Jacob “didn’t have it easy”. Jacob’s life was replete with crisis, pain, loss, trauma and heartache. And yet, our sages hail Jacob as a veritable spiritual giant, as “The choicest/the finest of the patriarchs” (בחיר האבות).
How can we account for the striking dissonance between Jacob’s tragic life, and the loftiness of his monumental soul?
One thing we can learn from this striking dissonance, is that “The Torah is not in Heaven”, as Moses asserts in the Book of Deuteronomy. The Torah does not portray some idyllic picture of human existence and the human condition. The Torah acutely reflects the complexity of human existence, with all its beauty and grandeur, but also – with its fair share of pain, suffering and heartache.
Sarah and Rebecca suffered and struggled, due to an inability to conceive and have children. Israel’s first king, King Saul, struggled with depression. King David lost a child conceived by his beloved Bathsheba. The great judge Sampson suffered a cruel and painful death by the hands of Israel’s enemies. And Moses did not live to enter the Promise land.
No doubt, life has its fair share of pain and loss, irrespective of who we are. The Torah neither purports to hide it, nor offers immunity from it. Rather, the Torah calls upon us to serve God precisely in this world as it is, with all its difficulties and tragedies.
What the Torah demands from each and every one of us, is to live up to our Divine potential. And the reward that the Torah offers us is by no means a pain-free existence. Rather, the Torah’s reward for us is intimacy with God and with people, and the reward is also Simcha. Simcha is the antithesis of fleeting pleasures and ephemeral joy. Simcha means inner contentment; simcha is the incalculable blessing of a deep rooted sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, which derives from the knowledge that we are leading a good, meaningful and noble existence.
May we reconcile ourselves to life’s inevitable difficulties, and at the same time work hard to emulate the ways of our forefathers and bring more of the Divine presence to our lives, and illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds as best we can.