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Accepting Suffering With Love?

abracad, · Categories: externally authored, religion, spirituality
Rabbi Allen S. Maller

The following discussion comes from the Talmud. It is deeply concerned with making suffering more bearable by making suffering more meaningful. But also teaches us not to be too pious when encountering other people's suffering.

What is the lesson from (the life of) Rabbi Nahum the optimist?  This is his story:
Rabbi Nahum the optimist had bad vision, and arthritis in both his hands and his feet. Once his disciples asked “Rabbi, how can it be that someone as kind hearted and good as you should suffer such misfortunes?” 

He replied, “I brought it on myself. Once I was traveling to my father-in-law’s house with 3 donkeys loaded with food and drink. A poor scabby looking man came to me and said, “Rabbi, help me stay alive.” I replied, ”Wait until I unload the donkeys.” While I was unloading the donkeys he died. I felt terrible. 

In remorse I said, “May my eyes that didn’t see his needs grow dim. May my hands and feet that cared for my wealth before his health, bring me pain.” His disciples said, “It is awful to see you suffer so.” He said, “For me it would be awful if you didn’t see me suffer so.”

(Is Rabbi Nahum overly strict on himself? Do people with very high standards for themselves suffer more? Do you admire someone who is overly sensitive more than someone who is insensitive? Why? Which way would you want to lean?)

Some time later Rabbi Akiba visited Rabbi Nahum the optimist. Akiba said, “It is awful for me to see you suffer.” Rabbi Nahum the optimist replied, “It is awful for me to see you reject my example.”  

(“I can bear my fate why can’t you? I am positive about my circumstances, why can’t you see the virtue of my accepting suffering as part of life and love. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Admire how I bear my burdens, do not pity me.” Does no pain, no gain apply only to exercise? to cancer? to sudden crib death? 

In the end, Rabbi Akiba came to agree with his teacher and accepted from him his way of accepting suffering with love and not with anger or hate. (Talmud Ta’anit 21a)

Rabbi Maller adds; the Talmud also says, “The life of an overly sensitive person is no life.”(Talmud Pesach 113b). Perhaps that applies to those who are overly sensitive about themselves and not about others. Perhaps Rabbi Nahum is a saint who goes far beyond the normal requirements of our duties, and is not to be copied. Perhaps Rabbi Nahum is an extremist on one side just as Gautama Buddha is an extremist on the other side. 

Would you choose to suffer from too much conscience or choose others to suffer because you have too little conscience?  How do you find the correct balance between “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?” (Talmud Avot 1:14). This is why we need community ethical and ritual rules to set the norm. 

Not every Rabbi welcomed suffering as the following story shows: Rabbi Heeya was very ill. Rabbi Yohanan visited him and asked. “Is your suffering of any gain for you?” Heeya replied “Neither it nor its reward.” Yohanan said, “Give me your hand.” Heeya gave him his hand and felt much better.  (Talmud Berachot 5b)

Those who visited Rabbi Nahum expressed pity first. Rabbi Yohanan asked first. This is very important. People handle pain, their own or others, in different ways. How do you respond when in pain, or seeing others in pain?

How can one know when Rabbi Akiba is correct or when Rabbi Heeya is? 

Is there a great difference between physical and emotional pain?              

Judaism teaches by questioning. What other questions do these stories stimulate?

Rabbi Maller’s web site is:



Filed in: externally authored, religion, spirituality

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