A love that causes suffering
Thoughts on parashat Vay’chi
The brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did with their malice and hatred
There are at least several answers to the problem of human suffering in Judaism. They can be broadly divided into two groups: the first includes basically one concept (although it has some variations), namely the deuteronomic doctrine of retribution (or ‘of a just punishment’), according to which there is no suffering that is undeserved. In other words, all suffering is the result of some sin, which means that if you suffer, you must have done something bad or wrong. The second group includes concepts that recognize that there is undeserved suffering in the world, which usually means that human suffering can and should be explained in some way. One of the concepts belonging to this second group is the Talmudic doctrine of yisurin shel ahava, which can be translated as afflictions of love or punishments/corrections of love. According to this concept, God causes suffering to those He loves in order to perfect them. Suffering in this vision is not seen as evil, but paradoxically, a kind of good that leads to perfection:
A potter does not test defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. Similarly the Holy One blessed be He, does not test the wicked, but only the righteous. (Genesis Rabbah 32:3)
Referring to a flax worker, R. Jose b. R. Hanina notes that the more the craftsperson beats quality flax, “the more it improves and the more it glistens.”(Genesis Rabbah 34:2, 40:3, 55:2) God tests only that which can withstand a beating. He administers only those blows that a strong pot, good flax, and a righteous person can endure. Afflictions of love strengthen those who suffer by cleansing them of sin. As Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish is recorded to have said, “Sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.” (Talmud Berakoth 5a.)
This concept also has its popular version sometimes expressed in the words “suffering ennobles”. The rabbis, however, distinguished the sufferings that can be considered the results of the Divine love from those that cannot be, namely, the sufferings that would prevent a person from praying or studying sacred texts. Therefore, this concept has a limited application and cannot be used to explain the monstrosities of the Holocaust or to justify God in its context.
However, it can be successfully applied to the story of Joseph: the humiliation and suffering he endured from the moment he was sold by his brothers, through the humiliation by Potiphar’s wife, as well as through all the years he spent in the Egyptian prison definitely shaped his character. And although Joseph was struggling with various dilemmas when he met his brothers, ultimately there was no trace of resentment or desire for revenge in him. The Torah bears witness to this process several times, which includes this week’s parashah, where the brothers, fearing Joseph’s retribution after their father’s death, are planning to commit one more lie/deception:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father’s [house].” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21).
As Thomas Mann put it:
Joseph is the ideal manifested, as the union of darkness and light, feeling and mind, the primitive and the civilized, wisdom and the happy heart – in short as the humanized mystery we call man.