“Avot d’Rabbi Natan,” a Talmudic midrash on the more familiar “Pirkei Avot,” teaches:
“הוי למוד לקבל את הצער” — “Learn to accept [or: receive] suffering.”
Most of us don’t have to learn to “receive” suffering. It comes pretty much on its own. What the midrash is teaching here, of course, is that we should learn how to “receive” suffering.
How, then, should we receive it?
We must first see that we usually receive it with resignation, at best. At worst, we receive it with shock, hurt, anger, sadness; feeling that it is undeserved. We resist and resent it.
Yet, the other meaning of “(l’)kabel” is to “accept.” The implication is clear: instead of passively receiving suffering with sadness, we should “accept” it; experience it without questioning its fairness. More specifically, we should recognize that its ultimate source is G-d, and we should receive it without questioning G-d’s fairness.
Simply recognizing that the source of our suffering is G-d means that we see that G-d is the Only Source of All That Is and All That Happens, and that G-d is present in the things and events of this world, too. This recognition itself reflects an admirable degree of spiritual growth. It means that we have come to a level of awareness, knowledge and understanding that transcends the “data” gleaned by the physical senses alone. We’ve recognized the reality of the Spiritual and seen its primacy over the material.
The Mishnah says: “A person must say a brachah for the bad, even as one must be said for the good.” In modern parlance, it means: we should thank G-d for the “bad,” just as we thank G-d for the “good” that happens to us. Most people would agree that we should thank G-d for “the good;” the radical aspect of Jewish Monotheism requires that we acknowledge G-d as the Source of all that happens to us – even the things we don’t like.
But why shouldn’t we question G-d’s fairness? Isn’t the whole import of Voltaire’s “Candide,” which many of us read during our most intellectually impressionable years, to ask, in outrage born of compassion for human suffering, “How can we not question G-d’s fairness?”
The rabbis created two brachot — formulas of “thanks” to G-d: “…Ha-Tov v’Ha’Mei’tiv” (“Bless/Thank You…The Good One Who Does Good”), said when “good” things happen to us, and “…Dayan Emet” (“Bless/Thank You…The True Judge”) when “bad” things happen. In doing so, they were showing empathy by conceding that from our human viewpoint, some events seem desirable (“good”) and some seem undesirable (“bad”). But the gemorrah also teaches that in the “World-to-Come,” only “…Ha-Tov v’Ha-Mei’tiv” will be said. We’ll eventually see G-d’s Goodness in every event – even the ones we thought were “bad.” This is the higher, truer perception.
A similar lesson is taught with reference to two Divine Names: “YKVK” and “Elokim.” According to the rabbis, the first indicates G-d’s “midat Hesed” – G-d’s quality of Kindness or Love. The second indicates G-d’s “midat Gevurah” – G-d’s quality of “Might” or “Judgement.” These qualities might seem “opposite,” but the rabbis understand verses like “Ha-Shem [YKVK] hu ha-Elokim” to mean: G-d’s quality of “Judgement” is actually an outgrowth of G-d’s “Love.” Thus, G-d is always expressing Love, even in “Judgement.”
I once gave a sermon on “faith,” after I’d seen people on an “awards” show on TV thanking G-d for winning. In my sermon I said: “Any fool can thank G-d when you win an award. The person of real faith thanks G-d when you lose it.”
Along similar lines, Nachum ish Gamzo used to say, whatever happened to him, “Gam zu l’tovah” – “This is for the good, too.” His student Rabbi Akiva learned this from him and taught, “All that the All- Merciful One does is for the good.” Applied in our own lives, it means: if – G-d forbid – we experience suffering, we can first know its Divine Source. Then, we can know that Source to be Only, Always Good. Truly seeing the Good, we’ll find ourselves in the loving, serene, joyous Presence of G-d.
If we know with all our heart that all is in G-d’s hands for the good, we can do more than “receive” suffering; we can remain profoundly calm in its very midst.