“Happy is the man…”
|Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli Greenbaum|
“It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous
or the prosperity of the wicked.”
—Pirkei Avot 4:15
This is the way that I view it; life is precious and suffering is a scourge on us, an evil visited on humanity. I do not see any reason for it, although I understand why people throughout history have attempted to find reasons for pain and suffering, including C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (1940) and in a more personal confessional, A Grief Observed (1961), first published under a pseudonym. Both books are well written and argued, but along with others on the subject, they fall short in providing closure to a difficult question. I am not surprised, since there is no satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.
For example, Christianity views suffering as a problem of original sin and, also, of personal sin. Such was the view of Job’s “friends” and “comforters, who despite Job being “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1), concluded that he must have committed some horrible sin to suffer the way that he did. Job maintains his innocence in the face of tragedy and the accusations of wrong-doing from his comforters. They could not have known of the cosmic wager between God and Satan (1:8–12), the true and only reason for Job’s change of fortune and suffering.
Later on, we read that God spoke out of the whirlwind in anger (Job 38:1–42:6), but made no apologies for his capricious actions. He also offered no explanation. We are left with the idea, however uncomfortable, that God’s ways are mysterious—and thus are not completely known to man. Such is the general view of Judaism today, yet Maimonides [1138–1204] (also called Rambam), the great Jewish medieval thinker takes the position in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190) that suffering can be attributed to human failings, in line with contemporaneous Christian thinking.
There is no sense in this medieval argument that Job, who was a pious man, might have learned more about God without causing him to suffer unjustly, especially since God’s speeches do little or nothing to explain himself, his intentions or his cosmic wager with with Satan, the adversary. Rationally, it would follow that there was no need for the suffering, except for God to win the bet. This does nothing to place God in a majestic position.
Such thinking, however, is still prevalent today among both evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews, usually among the more fundamentalist sects who view the bible (or Torah) as a literal unchanging document that is timeless. Such people, who tend to cling to past traditions, including those of dress and mannerisms. have no problem making judgments on the failings of others, but not their own. Such is a weakness of mind, a failure of the heart.
Yet, modern man views pain and suffering as cruel, chiefly because it is; it is for this reason that modern man, in his decency and dignity, tries to find ways to alleviate suffering. I am, of course, applying human standards and I make no apologies for it. I expect better of God, notably since it says in the Bible, “God created man in His own image”(Genesis 1:27). I also make no apologies for condemning as cruel and barbaric the suffering that humans too often inflict on each other and for the suffering that humans often inflict on animals. One such act is too much, but we know that such acts are multiplied by numbers far higher than this. Very large numbers that numb the senses.
This is tragic; and the real tragedy is that those of us who are sensitive are incapable of preventing suffering and pain. We can’t understand the purpose of suffering, but we can act as true comforters, which is what I view as the chief theme of a movie I recently viewed on Netflix. You’re Not You (2014). It is about a young woman, a classical pianist dying from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ravages her body and takes away who she was/is. In the end, she receives human comfort from another. Predictably, it received mostly negative reviews for being overly sentimental.