In our own lives, we all go through different periods of hardship. Sometimes we ask aloud to our Creator, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why are You sending me these hardships? There is nothing wrong with asking these questions. [Yet, Rabbi David Aaron tells us, “When life gets rough, ask not ‘why’ this is happening to me but ‘what’ this happening is asking of me. In every painful situation choose to find opportunities for growth and humbly reserve judgment of the Master Mind of the universe.”] Nevertheless, the Talmud says, “A person whose suffering causes him to challenge G-d is not sinful.”
Then, why does G-d send us hardships? Is it to make us miserable? The Chofetz Chaim tells us that the reason G-d sends us hardships is, “…in order to test you, to do good for you in your end.” Yes, to test you! Nevertheless, most of us would rather take a written or oral test, than to have G-d test us in life.
Yet, the Medrash tells us something astounding: “G-d does not elevate a person to greatness until He first tests him – with a small matter.” For tests and challenges are not an unfortunate fact of life, but a sign of G-d’s trust and confidence in our ability to prevail.
Yes, He ‘knows’ how difficult things are for us. For the Talmud states, “G-d does not make matters difficult for His creatures. However, He does expect a person to perform according to his capacity.” As King Solomon says, “Whatever you are capable of doing with your own strength do it.”
G-d gave us free will. Therefore, if we fail a challenge that He sends us, don’t give up! Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein of Lublin writes, “Just as one must believe in G-d, so too, one must believe in himself. G-d wants us to believe in our strengths, capabilities, ability to overcome evil and achieve greatness.” In the words of Rabbi Scheinberg, “Serving the Almighty properly involves constant challenges, which takes consistency and persistence to succeed… Only fools give up hope.”
What about suffering? Why do we suffer? The Chofetz Chaim cites a Medrash which states that our forefather Isaac asked that man should endure suffering as atonement. No one can escape suffering. As the Medrash states, “There is no man who goes through life without afflictions!” Still, the Talmud says, “Pain that a person suffers in this world atones for sins.”
Speaking of atonement, the Talmud asks, “Why are the righteous removed before their time? In order to atone for sins of the generation; for when the wicked flourish in the world, the righteous among them are seized for their sins.” Then, there is the universal question of, “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” Rashi answers that in the wicked person’s lifetime G-d pays him that which is coming to him for the good that he has done, in order ‘to make him perish’ from the World to Come.
The verse said, “In order to test you, to do good for you in your end.”
What does, “in your end” mean? It’s referring to the World to Come. We create our ‘estate’ in the World to Come based on how one deal with the challenges and situations that He send us in This World. As the Path of the Just states, “Our purpose in this world is to serve G-d by overcoming challenges and thereby earn the World to Come.”
For the Talmud says that the World to Come is one of the three good gifts that G-d gave to Israel that only comes through suffering. Furthermore, the Chofetz Chaim states, “Whenever a person suffers in any way for the honor of G-d, he is lifted to a higher station in the World to Come.”
The Talmud says, “The entire forty days that Moses stood upon Mount Sinai, he would learn Torah and then forget it…”Can we even begin to comprehend Moses’ mental anguish?! We all study material and sometimes forget it. Nevertheless, to study material day after day and then forget it, we would start to mentally crack! The Talmud concludes, “In the end, it was given to him as a gift.”
Elsewhere, the Talmud states that one of the three good gifts that G-d gave to Israel only comes through suffering. Which gift is that? Torah. The word gift in Hebrew is ‘matana’. Every morning in the blessing before learning Torah we say, “Blessed are You, G-d… Who selected us from all the nations and ‘natan’ gave us (gifted us) His Torah…” What’s the connection between the words ‘matana’, gift, and ‘natan’, gave? They both contain the root word of which means to give. G-d is telling us, “I gave you the Torah as a gift. However, don’t think it will come easily to you.” As Avot says, “Prepare yourself to learn Torah because it is not an inheritance for you.”
Rabbi Jonah and Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz both say that: “When a person tries to mix spirituality (i.e. Torah) and materialism, he will find they constantly compete for his attention…” In addition, one who is accustomed to all forms of pleasure will have a hard time forcing himself to invest the necessary effort to acquire to true Torah knowledge. Rabbi Jonah continues: “You will never master the Torah’s wisdom until you make the effort to acquire it. Torah is not an inheritance that is passed down from father to son.”
How does one acquire Torah? By accepting suffering. As the Medrash states, “Fortunate is the man for whom the Torah is the source of his affliction.” As the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.” For instance, one is in middle of learning Torah and suddenly, he gets a headache, stomachache, bodily ailment or a situation came up that deprived him of sleep; don’t stop learning! Why? Because “The reward for keeping G-d’s commandments is increased in proportion to the effort and discomfort one experiences in its performance.” Therefore, “If you learn Torah when it is difficult for you, your reward is one thousand; when things are going smoothly for you; the reward is [only] two hundred.”
Yet, Torah is the best pain reliever! As the Talmud states, “Anyone who engages in Torah study, afflictions keep away from him.” In addition, whoever engages in Torah study, the Torah makes him great and exalts him above all things.
What’s the “best type” of suffering to endure? The Talmud answers, “When a person ignores insults, Heaven ignores his or her sins.”
Rabbi Moses Cordovero points out that it is far better to achieve atonement for a sin by suffering an insult in silence than to undergo physical punishment which may interfere with one’s ability to perform mitzvoth or study Torah.
We already mentioned that Moses stood on Mount Sinai for an entire forty days. He would learn Torah and then forget it. The Talmud says, “One who reviews a subject forty times, is guaranteed it will be rooted in his memory as if it were placed in his pocket.” However, reviewing forty times only applies to when one is learning with a partner, whereas a person learning by himself must see something 101 times before he will remember it. Since G-d was transmitting the Torah to Moses, G-d, so to speak, was like Moses’s study partner and therefore he only needed to be taught forty times. Perhaps, when Avot tells us, “Forty is the age when man attains insight,” Moses attained true insight of the Torah on the 40th day.
That’s Moses. However, I wasn’t in heaven for forty days?
Picture the following: You’re in class and might be learning Torah, the Prophets, Talmud, Mishna or Halacha. You’re getting really frustrated because it’s half an hour and you still don’t understand the material that you just learned. On the other hand, your friend understands the material in just twenty minutes. You might think to yourself, “I wish I was as smart as them.” Don’t be swayed by this mindset. Why not? Because behind closed doors, you have no clue of what challenges they face. In fact, your friend may think, “My friend thinks that I’m so smart. Still, if they knew what challenges I face, they would never be jealous of me. In fact, I would rather be in their situation and not have to deal with my challenges.”
Rav Dessler tells us, “When a person overcomes some desire, pushing himself to ignore its call, this does not eliminate the desire. It has only been pushed away temporarily. Later, when he recalls his desire, his urge to fulfill it returns twice as strong as before. The original urge joins together with the new to form an overpowering urge much greater than what he encountered originally… It is like pushing on a coiled spring; the more one pushes against it the harder it pushes back. This is what Talmud mean when they say, ‘the greater the person, the greater his evil inclination.’ The spiritually accomplished person has certainly overcome his desires many times. This makes his evil inclination push back that much more strongly against him.”
The verse says, “If you will walk in My statutes…” Rashi explains, “The commandment is that we toil in Torah study.”
The Chofetz Chaim says, “…The commandment is that we toil in Torah study, as it is written, ‘If you will walk in My statutes’” and Our sages explain, “If you will toil Torah.” The promised blessings are for the toil – the effort – even in the end, we have not completely understood what we studied. As the Talmud says, “A man does not come to grasp words of Torah unless he first misunderstands them.”
G-d wants out efforts to study, even if we don’t succeed. This is what we mean when we say, “We toil and receive reward” – because the toil is what G-d wants from us – “and they toil, but do not receive reward” – because, for them, the toil is not the important thing, but rather the finished product.
With G-d’s help, in the merit of facing our daily challenges and putting in our sincere effort to acquire the Torah, may He soon fulfill, “Torah shall go forth from Zion and on that day, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d’s glory”!
This article is dedicated in loving memory of Altah Soshah Devorah bas Aryeh Leibush and Mashah Tzivyah bas R’ Shlomo Zalman.