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TW: Suicide, Holocaust
When I was in rabbinical school, I took a course on the theology of the Talmudic tractate Brachot. One day we were talking about the claim made (Brachot 5a-b) that when we suffer, it’s out of divine love—in other words, that suffering happens for a reason.
During class and then into the beginning of our break, my hevruta—my study partner—and I began to argue (as we are wont to do) about this. He really wanted to affirm that there is inherent meaning in suffering, whereas I said—which I believe—that while we can choose to make and find important, transformative meaning in suffering, that the suffering itself is ultimately… just… hard. Sometimes, there’s no redemption.
I think it’s condescending to try to say that genocides and enslavements and war and systemic injustice and horrific illnesses and many of the other causes of terrible, terrible suffering around the world are there because they have to be.
I think, all too often, people suffer when they should not have had to—when human free will could have stopped and interrupted the course of actions that brought about that pain. Or when human actions have a hand, even if it’s not as obvious—people get cancer because we poisoned the air and water with toxic chemicals, some communities have been hit harder by COVID because of systemic racism, or government disinformation, or unjust distribution of resources.
And sometimes, of course, suffering happens and we just don’t know why. Maybe someday when we die we’ll get some sort of answer sheet that explains the secret logic underlying our own personal suffering, and the suffering of so many innocents. Or maybe we can figure out how to live with the fact that the answer may never come. Maybe there is an answer, maybe there isn’t. I really don’t know.
What we choose to do with the fact of the suffering, once it arrives, is an entirely different question. Choosing to use suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth is the way to personally redeem the things that happen to us, but I personally do not believe that there is any inherent value in experiencing horrible things. Sometimes, it’s just hard.1
My study partner and I got back to class and the instructor then taught us an incredible text about the Biblical matriarch Sarah by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known as the Aish Kodesh.
He was an early 20th century rebbe in Poland who gave over many important teachings both before World War II and then from the Warsaw Ghetto. (He was eventually murdered by the Nazis in a mass shooting in 1943). In the intervening weeks between his sermon on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, delivered September 16, 1939, and his teaching on the Biblical matriarch Sarah’s death in November of that same year, the Nazi army had undertaken the Siege of Warsaw.
They had shelled the city night and day with heavy artillery, guns and aerial bombardment, attacking both military and civilian targets—decimating large parts of the city and killing 30,000 people, including Shapira’s only son, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. By the time he was giving this next sermon, the German Army had taken the city, installing the SS and Gestapo killing squads into power and appointing Josef Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw,” as chief of police.
The Aish Kodesh began his commentary on Genesis 23 with a comment from the Rimonover rebbe, who lived in late 18th and early 19th. Century Poland. The Talmud text we had already looked at—which, again, came down in favor of the belief that suffering has meaning—had likened sufferings to salt. Just as salt sweetens and seasons meat, the Talmud suggests, suffering sweetens and seasons a person.
The Rimonover noted that, just as salt can render meat inedible if it’s administered in too-large quantities, so too do sufferings—they must be tempered with divine compassion for a person to withstand them.
Beyond a certain point, there’s no meaning that can be had.
The binding of Isaac takes place in Genesis 22. Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies in the first two verses of Genesis 23.
“Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2)
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, summarizes a midrash, a legend, (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 32) that connects these two events:
“The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the Binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the Binding — that her son had been made ready for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed — her soul flew from her and she died.”
Hearing about the Binding killed Sarah. This is a fairly well-known reading in the Jewish world.
The Aish Kodesh, however, pushes us out into new terrain. He suggests that the binding story and Sarah’s death are juxtaposed in order to suggest that “if the anguish is, God forbid, unbearable, then death can result.” What he implies is, I’ll admit, shocking to hear from a teacher of Torah.
“It is also possible to argue that Sarah the Matriarch, who was so heartbroken with the binding of Isaac that her soul burst forth, did so for the benefit of the Jewish people, to demonstrate to God how it is impossible for the Jewish people to tolerate excessive afflictions…. It seems that Sarah may have sinned by forsaking the remaining years of her life, had she not chosen to be so heartbroken over the binding of Isaac. Since, however, she forsook them for the benefit of the Jewish people…”
then it is not a sin.
The key word, here, is “forsaking.” This death, he implies, is not from natural causes.
And, he continues, “if she, Sarah, was unable to bear such pain, how much less so can we.”
This is the story of a woman hearing that her intimate partner bound her child and nearly murdered him. This is the story of the trauma Isaac must have carried after his father tied him to the altar and raised the knife to his throat, horrifyingly reenacting his own father’s hurling him into the fiery furnace.
This may also be the story of a woman who finally understands what she did to another woman, and another child. Who understands what it means that she, too, was guilty, that she, too, cast them out into the desert, another kind of furnace--that she, too, sent a child to his death. That’s not in the Aish Kodesh’s reading, but perhaps it should be.
Sarah, the Aish Kodesh suggests,
“died in order to show God that a [person] should not be expected to suffer unlimited levels of anguish.”
The amazing thing about this text for me is that it creates space for people’s suffering to also to be inside the story of God. Sarah’s reaction, the Aish Kodesh tells us, is a legitimate and understandable one given her story.
Not everybody finds deep meaning in their suffering. Not everyone finds suffering to be redemptive. Sometimes people’s pain becomes an opportunity for spiritual growth, but sometimes it breaks them. (I don’t believe that he was endorsing suicide—which, one assumes, was happening all around him in Warsaw and would happen even more in the Warsaw Ghetto—so much as regarding those who did end their own lives with compassion and understanding.)
For the Aish Kodesh, this is a God who crosses lines, who makes mistakes, who goes too far.
The Talmudic passage mentioned above assumes that God is innocent. But here, for the Aish Kodesh--reading Genesis from the rubble of his city, his family, and his freedom—God is guilty.
This is a text about telling God that God has gone too far.
Again, my own theology doesn’t presume that God is responsible for the Gestapo; I’m pretty sure human indifference, fear, and complicity enabled the human beings who chose to become Nazis to rise to horrific power.
But the Aish Kodesh understands that not everybody is able to bear the most profound horrors of humanity with a full sense of self intact. Sometimes a person, he notes, survives atrocities and
“his mind, and his spirit are forever broken and, as a result of his ordeal, lost to him.“
Sometimes suffering is simply horrible and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Sometimes there’s too much salt for the meat to be edible.
The question still remains, however:
How can we find ways to redeem what we can?
Whether the meaning we find is of our own creation or from God, what enables us to hold on to what we have, to allow the evil that besets us to not take us over completely?
Abraham reenacted his trauma on his children. Sarah’s trauma engulfed her completely.
How can we find our way out? What are the models that we need to heal from our traumas, our pain, our suffering?
How can we move forward out of these cycles into something that can help us grow into a more whole version of ourselves? How can we heal our own personal wounds so that more of us can be available for the world beyond us that needs us so desperately?
Despite his own formidable pain and losses, the Aish Kodesh persisted in working on behalf of others.
When interned in the Warsaw Ghetto, he ran a secret synagogue, teaching regularly there, officiated marriages, and even managed to arrange access to a ritual bath—all of which were impossibly risky under the circumstances. He gave over of himself, even from a place of darkness, even from within his own suffering.
He reached out.
In some of his last sermons in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, the Aish Kodesh spoke at length about the pain all around him, about those who had been murdered, about depression and despair. And he spoke at length in several places about the difference between bringing down from above—getting spiritual help, as it were, in prophetic actions and great deeds—or in a yearning from below, from one’s own effort.
I suspect that much of what motivated him to keep going, to keep fighting, to work through his pain on behalf of others was his belief that he was, simply, commanded to do so, obligated by God and Torah. But I wonder how much was a feeling of needing to pull out something from deep within, to find and connect to the light no matter what raged outside the door where his community gathered to pray in secret.
His penultimate recorded sermon ends with a note that Moses’ greatness came from the fact that he “brought the prophecy about with his own effort.”
It didn’t come down whole from on high; it demanded a tremendous effort indeed.
And the Aish Kosdesh exerted himself. Despite his pain. Despite the suffering.
Not everybody is able to, the Aish Kodesh knows.
But maybe the work is in the effort to try.
To do everything we can to offer light and love to others, in spite of everything we might be going through.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255 and their website is https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org; they’re available by phone or chat 24/7. We need you. Please reach out to get help if your own sufferings are feeling a bit too unbearable these days. You are not alone.
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I want to note that there is a famously powerful trio of stories on Talmud Brachot 5b, at the end of this “suffering has meaning” discussion, that I think is something of an internal repudiation of all this philosophizing. In each of these stories, a great rabbi comes to visit a colleague who is ill. “Are your sufferings dear to you?” the visitor asks. That is—knowing that there is divine meaning to your suffering, are you glad to be enduring this? And the ill person, each time, replies, “Neither them nor their reward.” That is, suffering is terrible, and even if there’s some metaphysical reward waiting for me in the World to Come, I don’t want it. No thank you; this sucks. Lived experience sometimes breaks the abstract theorizing that happens in the house of study.