The perfect storm I feared yesterday was not so bad, although I still have a few more days to get through.

I had trouble sleeping again last night. I went to bed so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, but an hour later I was still awake. I’m not sure what is going on there.

The commute on the bus (because of the Tube strike) was crowded and tiring. I read a bit, but found it hard after a while and eventually started getting travel sick. But I got through it. I arrived a bit late in the morning. I usually get to the office between 9.15am and 9.30am, but today I arrived at 9.45am, which wasn’t too bad. J let me leave early so I didn’t get home too late, even after doing shopping.

Work was OK, although I nearly went crazy spending two and a half hours staring at spreadsheets this morning. And I obviously did not stick to my plan of not going online after work, not least because I skyped E, but I did try to minimise time online, and to avoid going online soon after getting home. I did lose all self-control in the evening and read politics and religion sites that frankly have too much arguing to deal with at 11pm.

I did some preparation for Shabbat this evening. I have quite a bit to do tomorrow, but hopefully I should get it all done in time, even if I end up too tired or late to go to shul (synagogue). I have been feeling a bit self-critical the last few days, though, the sort of mood where I blame myself for every bad thing I’ve ever done since childhood. I haven’t been doing it a lot, but I catch myself doing it from time to time. I guess the thing to do is to catch myself and think about other things rather than dwell on it.

***

I saw an article on Chabad.org the other day about there not being such a thing as being “stuck.” I sort of see the point, that wherever we are, God has put us there for a reason. There must be a task to perform there. At the same time, it’s the type of attitude that, if it doesn’t inspire, can really annoy and even upset, especially if people can’t easily see the positive side or find the task to perform. It can even seem like victim-blaming: if you are feeling stuck, that’s because you’re too wicked (or stupid) to see the positive. That’s without analysing the question of rigid autistic thinking making it hard to find a new perspective.

Something else I’ve wondered about for a while is possibly related to this question of suffering and finding a purpose in it. In Bereshit (Genesis), there are various genealogical lists. The trend is for the genealogies of the “off-shoots” of the covenantal family, the “cousins” of the Israelites who aren’t going to end up in the covenant and part of the Jewish people, to be rattled through very quickly, putting a lot of information into a short space. I mean the genealogies of Avraham’s (Abraham’s) brother Nachor, Yitzchak’s (Isaac’s) half-brother Yishmael (Ishmael) and Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) brother Esav (Esau). These families are listed relatively briefly compared with the long narratives of the covenantal family and it gives the impression that not much happened to them, that they grew very quickly and easily. The covenantal family, however, grew much more slowly, with frequent problems with infertility and difficulty finding a wife (or marrying the right one) as well as rivalries between wives and concubines. It seems that the covenantal family simply has more suffering and angst than the branches that opted out of the covenant, or were never part of it in the first place.

Is this real, I have asked myself for some time, or is it just a by-product of literary technique: that because we focus on the covenantal family, we hear more about their suffering, whereas because we aren’t interested in the other branches and skip over them, we necessarily don’t see their tzores (angst). We don’t know if Yishmael’s wife had fertility issues or if Esav’s wives got along because the Torah simply isn’t interested in telling us either way. Or is the Torah telling us that the road to spiritual greatness is paved with suffering?

I incline towards the latter view, even though the evidence from Bereshit is circumstantial at best. Certainly the Talmud states that “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, all of which were given only by means of suffering: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.” (Brachot 5a, translation from the Steinsaltz Talmud via Sefaria with changes.) The pinnacles of the religious life: Torah study, the Land of Israel and the afterlife, can only be achieved through suffering. There is also the slavery experience of the Israelites in Egypt, which seems to be a necessary precondition of covenant and land. There is a lot more that could be said about this (tzarich iyun).

I feel I should have some kind of take-home moral or practical point from this, but I don’t.

6 thoughts on “Suffering

  1. The bigger problem I have with the “you’re never stuck” / “you always have a mission if G-d put you there” is that I just don’t think it applies in all circumstances. Some situations are just bad and one should get out rather than try to find the good in them.

    I agree with you that lack of focus on the non-covenantal family happenings is more likely a literary decision than proof that nothing happened to them. But I don’t like the idea that the road to greatness is paved with suffering. This is because I haven’t experienced suffering really, and don’t particularly want to (my coping and problem-solving skills are largely nonexistent).

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  2. I tend to think it comes down to literary technique. They’re telling the story of those in the covenant and therefore care more about telling that story than about the detailed lives of the others. We know that people of all faiths and no-faiths nowadays have trouble, so I don’t know why it would have been any different back then.

    I see what you mean about the Chabad statement. It does feel a little victim-blaming or just not listening to those who have underlying conditions that lead to their feeling stuck. Sort of pollyanna. Perhaps that’s not how they meant it, but that’s what it feels like when you’re the one feeling stuck. Plus, my brain immediately said, “What if God didn’t put me in my present circumstances, but I did, so there’s no divine reason and I’m feeling stuck because I put myself in these circumstances?” (perhaps a thought related to OCD).

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