Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] said, “How precious is suffering!” He accepted upon himself thirteen years [of suffering]: six years of kidney stones and seven years of scurvy, and some say seven years of scurvy and six years of kidney stones. The stableman at Rabbi’s house was wealthier than King Shapur [of Persia]. When he would throw fodder to the animals, the noise [they made] could be heard three miles away. He would arrange to throw [fodder to the animals] just as Rabbi entered the bathroom. Even so, [Rabbi’s] cries were louder than the noise [of the animals] and were heard by seafarers. Nevertheless, the suffering of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon was greater than that of Rabbi, for whereas those of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon came through love and departed through love, those of Rabbi came as the result of a certain incident and departed as the result of an incident. [His sufferings] came as the result of a certain incident—what was this? A calf was being led to slaughter. It tried to hide in the folds of Rabbi’s garment and it lowed. He said to it, “Go, for this you were created.” They said [in heaven], “Since he does not show mercy, let suffering come upon him.” And [his sufferings] departed as the result of an incident—one day, Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house. There were baby weasels there and she [intended] to sweep them away. [Rabbi] said to her, “Leave them be. It is written, [God’s] tender mercies are upon all [God’s] creatures (Psalm 145:9).” They said [in heaven], “Since he shows compassion, let us show compassion to him.”
Human suffering is both ubiquitous and troubling. It is therefore unsurprising that the Rabbis frequently discuss why it happens, what it means, and how to cope with it. Given the limited physical and mental health options in the ancient world to alleviate suffering, the Rabbis’ capacity to mitigate suffering lay in their ability to reframe it, often in positive terms. Hence, viewing suffering as a gift from God that will be repaid many times over is one strategy employed by the Rabbis to explain suffering. This passage, however, suggests that suffering can be God’s punishment for offensive behavior—here, a failure of compassion.
For the Rabbis, suffering could be punishment from heaven,
atonement for sin, or it could be a gift from God that will be repaid with interest.
The passage above follows a long treatise on the self-inflicted sufferings of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon and the merit that accrued to him for accepting these sufferings willingly: after he died, his body lay in an attic for many years without decomposing (84b). Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (whom Gemara refers to as “Rabbi”) understands this to be a sign of R. Elazar’s greatness.
Having seen that suffering marked R. Elazar as righteous, Rabbi pronounces suffering “precious” and seeks to accept upon himself suffering to gain similar merit in the eyes of God. The nature of his suffering is disputed: tz’mirta means stones in the kidneys or urinary tract; tz’farna is understood as scurvy or thrush. The precise length of each ailment is less important than the claim that Rabbi brought it upon himself willingly and that his pain was so intense that his cries of agony were louder than the intensely loud noise made by the animals, whose keeper provoked them to make noise in order to drown out Rabbi’s cries of pain—all this functions to inform the reader that Rabbi suffered greatly.
The Gemara then undercuts the claim that Rabbi accepted suffering willingly by comparing the merit of his suffering unfavorably to that of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon. Whereas R. Elazar’s suffering came about through love (that is, he accepted suffering as a token of God’s love), Rabbi’s suffering came about, and also ceased, due to particular incidents. What were the incidents? Both involved Rabbi’s attitude toward the suffering of animals: His failure to show compassion toward a calf being hauled to slaughter compounded by his callous and erroneous claim that the animal existed only to become food for human beings provoked heaven to punish him with suffering. This is divine retribution: middah k’neged middah (measure for measure). The incident that ended Rabbi’s suffering is the appropriate bookend to the onset of his suffering: when he treats mere weasels with compassion and saves them from his maidservant’s broom, and even more when he quotes Psalm 145:9 as not merely descriptive of God’s compassion toward living creatures but as prescriptive for people’s obligation to show compassion for all animals, he demonstrates that he has repented the fault that brought on his suffering. Therefore heaven repays his compassion to the weasels by showing him compassion—his suffering ceases.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- How do you view suffering? Do you consider it a natural part of life that is divorced from questions of behavior and righteousness? Do you think it results from ethical choices and behaviors? Do you believe it is an objective experience or a state of mind? Given your answers to these questions, how should one who holds your views approach their own suffering?
- The Rabbis had ample opportunity to observe the residue of suffering on the soul. Does it leave one more compassionate and resilient, or more fearful and bitter? What has been your experience of suffering? Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about the possibility of positive personal growth in the aftermath of painful trauma, which they term “post-traumatic growth.” This includes “improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development.” Have you witnessed this in someone else or experienced it in yourself?
- Why do you think that the story about Rabbi portrays a failure of compassion as the cause of suffering and the development of compassion as the “cure” of suffering? Is there an inherent connection between suffering and compassion?