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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Is Suffering “Good for the Soul”?—BT Baba Metzia 85a—#24

[The sufferings] of R. Elazar b. of R. Shimon were superior to those of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] because they came to him through love and departed in love, while those of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] came to him through a certain incident, and departed likewise. They came to him through a certain incident—what is it? As a calf was being led to slaughter it broke away, hid its head under Rabbi's garment, and lowed [in terror]. He said [to the calf], “Go, for this were you created.” Thereupon [the angels in heaven] said: “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.” And departed likewise—how so? One day Rabbi's maidservant was sweeping the house. [Seeing] some young weasels lying there, she was about to sweep them away when [Rabbi] said to her: “Let them be. It is written, and His tender mercies are over all his works (Psalm 145:9).” [In heaven] they said: “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate toward him.”

Here and elsewhere, the Talmud explores the ins-and-outs of suffering, and in particular painful physical suffering. I would imagine that in the ancient world, which lacked the medical treatments, cures, and analgesics we enjoy (and all too often take for granted) unrelieved physical pain was a source of fear and agony, and even more frequently than in our age inspired the question: Why me? In this reality, the Rabbis propose and thoroughly analyze the theological claim that suffering can be beneficial (BT Berakhot 5): If one accepts their suffering as a loving gift from God through which they pay off the debt of their sins in this world, they will merit a greater reward in the world-to-come. While this may sound alien and troubling to many of us, please keep in mind that making suffering meaningful is one way to make it more bearable.

The context for our passage is a lengthy account of R. Elazar (son of R. Shimon bar Yochai), who spent years and expended enormous effort to insure that he would suffer in this world. The descriptions are strange, extreme, and disgusting—they fall into the realm of the carnivalesque. Interposed into this extended treatise on R. Elazar’s sufferings is a comparison to those of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (who is called “Rabbi” in the Talmud because of his singular importance). Impressed by R. Elazar’s effort and exploits in the realm of suffering, Rabbi exclaims, “How beloved is suffering!” and thereupon enters a 13-year period of suffering. Gemara objects to this framing of Rabbi’s suffering: Rabbi did not summon suffering as R. Elazar had done; rather, it came about due to his behavior.

The righteous care for the lives of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)

The calf being led to slaughter is deeply fearful. It attempts to hide beneath Rabbi’s robe. Rather than express concern or offer comfort, Rabbi responds callously that the animal was created to become food for people. In response to a failure to show compassion, heaven visits Rabbi with suffering. 

Several commentators ask: What’s wrong with Rabbi’s response to the calf? The basis of their question is the presumption that everything in the universe was created for human benefit. The substance of what Rabbi says, therefore, is correct. The problem, they conclude, is not with the veracity of Rabbi’s claim, but rather with his failure to visibly and verbally demonstrate compassion for the calf. If this were the case, the next part of the story is confusing. When Rabbi’s maidservant prepares to sweep away a nest of newborn weasels (presumably killing them in the process), Rabbi quotes a verse from Psalm 145 to say, in essence: Just as God’s attitude toward all living creatures is tender mercy, so should ours be, as well. If heaven’s objection is that Rabbi failed to show compassion, then telling his maid to “Let them be,” is unnecessary; merely making a show of compassion should be sufficient if all animals exist to serve human needs. Actually acting compassionately to save their lives is not necessary—but Rabbi does not make a mere show of compassion; he saves their lives.

The Talmudic commentator Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) further reasons that heaven was responding to the substance of Rabbi’s claim concerning the calf, interpreting it to mean that all creatures are destined to die and therefore so should he. But then heaven granted Rabbi suffering to exempt him from a premature death. There is a flaw in the logic of this interpretation, as well: Why, then, does heaven relieve Rabbi’s suffering precisely in response to his compassion toward the weasels, rather than after he has suffered sufficiently to avoid an early death?

Torah requires that animals be permitted to rest on Shabbat. It prohibits muzzling an ox while it threshes grain. It requires that the mother bird be dismissed from the nest before eggs or nestlings are collected. It requires us to relieve the load of an overburdened animal. It forbids animals of different sizes to be yoked together.

I understand this story to be subtly rebutting the notion that animals exist purely for the sake of human appetites, needs, and desires, as many commentators claim.


  1. Does the adage, “What goes around comes around,” apply to this story?
  2. Can our own painful physical suffering sensitize us to recognize the pain others experience? Is that what happens to Rabbi, and is this possibly a lesson of the story? Is it possible that suffering is, in this sense, “good for the soul?”
  3. The view that all creation is meant to serve our needs derives from a particular reading of Genesis chapter 1. In light of what we know about the universe as a whole, and the ecosystem of our planet in particular, is this idea still tenable and moral? What are the implications for our consumption patterns, food choices, and factory farming?

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