The Limits of Radical Compassion
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The Limits of Radical Compassion

The Rabbis’ focus of understanding God punishing people with illness for their own good has thankfully changed to one of compassion and helping those who need care to find it.

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

I am not an academic but have studied Gemara with my father, in High School, in college and during my four year of study at Yeshivat Maharat. Very often when confronted by the seeming tangled web of halakhic discourse, I like to zoom out for a moment to contemplate either the historic or human element of the discussion. I often tell my students to remember the Gemara is not a legal code but rather a discussion  across time of lived lives through the lens of Halakha and Torah. So forgive the lack of technical rigor here as I think the philosophical discussion here is what the Rabbis really wanted to talk about.

The Daf (Berakhot 5ab) deals with the most difficult topic of theodicy and the concept of ‘yisurin shel ahava’  or ‘punishments of love ‘, the idea that God only gives real punishments to the righteous out of love and as a way to motivate them to further improve their behavior. The most difficult – which thankfully the rabbis push back on- is the idea that somehow loss of children falls into that category. And perhaps that was the reality of that time that infant and child mortality was so high as evidenced by Rabbi Yohanan’s unimaginable loss of ten sons that required a response to something so tragic. For parents who have lost children, like myself, these passages are particularly difficult.


What’s most interesting here that the discussion of how to conceptualize such suffering is left in the hands of the sufferer who can either see it as God purifying the suffering soul for the next life or as simply an illness from which to recover. Physical suffering can be seen as punishment or special care from God or not. It is all in the mind of the sufferer. When Rabbi Yochanan (5B) comes to visit Rabbi Elazar, he assumes that his teacher has resigned himself to die and that the pain he is experiencing now will be compensated in the next world. But when Rabbi Yochanan finally stops to let Rabbi Elazar talk, he responds,‘lo Hain v’lo s’charan’-not them and not their reward. Rabbi Elazar is not ready to die and just wants to recover and get better.

What’s most interesting here that the discussion of how to conceptualize such suffering is left in the hands of the sufferer who can either see it as God purifying the suffering soul for the next life or as simply an illness from which to recover. Physical suffering can be seen as punishment or special care from God or not. It is all in the mind of the sufferer.

The Rabbis of the Talmud also have a sensitivity that is somewhat foreign to us in that they believed that improving their behavior could directly impact the natural world, whether that meant rainfall or physical health. Today when someone is gravely ill, we still pray but we seem to focus on finding a cure or at least comfort. We don’t try to find meaning in the suffering or at least wouldn’t say to a deathly ill person that the reason they are suffering is because they have sinned. With mental illness (which is a physical illness of the brain and its chemistry) we are more likely to try to see meaning in  the suffering or try to find insights. This conceit very often prevents suffering from getting the help they need and their suffering continues needlessly. While the Rabbis of the Talmud were more likely to look for meaning in human pain, our tradition has moved away from the idea of suffering for suffering sake. And although some elements of that ascetic tradition remain in parts of our tradition, as actual remedies to illness have emerged the emphasis has changed. We are encouraged to find help so as to prevent violating the Torah directives to keep oneself alive and to guard one’s soul and body. 

We don’t try to find meaning in the suffering or at least wouldn’t say to a deathly ill person that the reason they are suffering is because they have sinned. With mental illness (which is a physical illness of the brain and its chemistry) we are more likely to try to see meaning in  the suffering or try to find insights.

On a lighter note, sometimes the Gemara presents us with anecdotes to improve our behavior by precisely showing what not to do. Rabbi Yochanan’s visit to Rabbi Elazar -a sick visit, bikkur cholim-starts off in the worst possible way. Rabbi Yochanan seems to be coming with his canned speech assuming R. Elazar is understanding his physical suffering as down payment for the next life, Olam HaBah. It seems, however, R. Elazar is not quite ready to die. His best comeback to R’ Yochanan to get him to stop talking is to cry and say that  R’ Yochanan would also die and his beautiful body would turn to dust. (R’ Yochanan was known for his physical beauty so much that his skin just glowed). Then the visit reboots and becomes an example of what a compassionate visit should be.

The Rabbis’ focus of understanding God punishing people with illness for their own good has thankfully changed to one of compassion and helping those who need care to find it.

I will forever bristle at the idea of romanticizing or finding meaning in illness or tragedy — my own or others’ alike. The Rabbis’ focus of understanding God punishing people with illness for their own good has thankfully changed to one of compassion and helping those who need care to find it.

We might not understand why God brings us suffering and tragedy but our tradition demands of us not to meditate but to do whatever is in our power to alleviate and cure pain and prevent tragedy whenever possible.

Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women’s Tefillah Group.

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