Meaning in Suffering (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Second Isaiah related this general principle to the experience of his people by envisioning a day when the nations of the earth would see that the tiny nation they once scorned (here personified as an individual) had actually been suffering on their behalf.

From the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E., during which Israel and Judah tottered before the aggressive power of Syria, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, the prophets found meaning in their predicament by seeing it as God’s way of underscoring the demand for righteousness. God was engaged in a great controversy with his people, a controversy involving moral issues not evident to the secular observer. To correct a wayward child a parent may coax and cajole, but if words fail action may prove to be necessary. Similarly, in the face of Israel’s indifference to God’s commands and pleadings, Yahweh had no alternative but to let the Israelites know who was God—whose will must prevail. It was to make this point that God was using Israel’s enemies against her.

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
Therefore an adversary shall surround the land,
and strip you of your defense;
and your strongholds shall be plundered. (Amos 2:6; 3:11)

Jeremiah takes up the refrain. Because the Jews had forsaken righteousness, it is God’s decision to “make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth” (Jeremiah 26:6).

The prophets of Israel looked at their adverse predicament to be the anger of God at them for having forsaken righteousness.

We can appreciate the moral courage required to come up with this interpretation of impending doom. How much easier to assume that God is on our side, or resign oneself to defeat.

The climax, however, is yet to come. Defeat was not averted. In 721 B.C.E. Assyria “came down like a wolf on the fold” and wiped the Northern Kingdom from the map forever, converting its people into “the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” In 586 Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was conquered, though in this case its leadership remained intact as Nebuchadnezzar marched it collectively into captivity in Babylonia.

If ever there was a time when the possibility of meaning seemed unlikely, this was it. The Jews had bungled their opportunity and in consequence had been brought low. Surely now the prophets might be expected to concede their people’s doom with a self-serving “I told you so.”

The prophets always encouraged the Jews to take responsibility for their actions even at the worst of the times.

This retort, a blend of vindictiveness and despair, was not in the prophets’ vocabulary. The most staggering fact in the Jewish quest for meaning is the way in which in this blackest hour, when meaning had been exhausted in the deepest strata the Jews had yet mined, the prophets dug deeper still to uncover an entirely new vein. Not to have done so would have amounted to accepting the prevailing view that the victors’ god was stronger than the god of the defeated, a logic that would have ended the biblical faith and the Jewish people along with it. The rejection of that logic rescued the Jewish future. A prophet who wrote in sixth century Babylonia where his people were captives—his name has been lost, but his words come down to us in the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah—argued that Yahweh had not been worsted by the Babylonian god Marduk; history was still Yahweh’s province. This meant that there must have been point in the Israelites’ defeat; the challenge was again to see it. The point that “Second Isaiah” saw was not this time punishment. The Israelites needed to learn something that their defeat would teach, but their experience would also be redemptive for the world.

The Jewish people never accepted the prevailing view that the victors’ god was stronger than the god of the defeated. They believed that there must have been point in the Israelites’ defeat; the challenge was again to see it.

On the learning side, there are lessons and insights that suffering illumines as nothing else can. In this case the experience of defeat and exile was teaching the Jews the true worth of freedom, which, despite their early Egyptian captivity, they had come to hold too lightly. Lines have come down to us that disclose the spiritual agony of the Israelites as displaced persons—how heavily they felt the yoke of captivity, how fervently they longed for their homeland.

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.(Psalm 137:1–6)

In this case the experience of defeat and exile was teaching the Jews the true worth of freedom, which, despite their early Egyptian captivity, they had come to hold too lightly.

Sometimes a single phrase is enough to convey the poignancy and pathos of their plight: “Is it nothing to you, oh you who pass by”; or “How long, O Lord, how long?” 

When Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon in 538 and permitted the Jews to return to Palestine, the prophets saw another lesson that only suffering can fully impart: the lesson that those who remain faithful in adversity will be vindicated. In the end their rights will be restored.

Go out from Babylon, declare this
with a shout of joy, proclaim it,
send it forth to the end of the earth;
say, “The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob.”
(Isaiah 48:20–22)

The way events unfolded, the prophets saw another lesson that those who remain faithful in adversity will be vindicated. In the end their rights will be restored.

But what the Jews might themselves learn from their captivity was not the only meaning of their ordeal. God was using them to introduce into history insights that all peoples need but to which they are blinded by ease and complacency. God was burning into the hearts of the Jews through their suffering a passion for freedom and justice that would affect all humankind.

I have given you as a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6–7)

God was burning into the hearts of the Jews through their suffering a passion for freedom and justice that would affect all humankind.

Stated abstractly, the deepest meaning the Jews found in their Exile was the meaning of vicarious suffering: meaning that enters lives that are willing to endure pain that others might be spared it. Second Isaiah related this general principle to the experience of his people by envisioning a day when the nations of the earth would see that the tiny nation they once scorned (here personified as an individual) had actually been suffering on their behalf:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

The deepest meaning the Jews found in their Exile was the meaning of vicarious suffering: meaning that enters lives that are willing to endure pain that others might be spared it.

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