(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...kabbalat hay'surim, accepting the suffering
(Leviticus 4:9) ...v'et hayoteret al hakaveid al haklayot y'sirena; ...and the protuberance on the liver he shall remove with the kidney.
For those of us who take Judaism and its teachings seriously (and I presume that includes all of us), no two problems are more vexing than the ones reflected in these snippets from Mishnah and Torah.
When Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his best-selling book _When Bad Things Happen to Good People_, he tapped into the great unease with which even the most deeply religious people struggle. The Talmud calls it "a righteous person beset by bad, a wicked person bestowed with good." Rabbi Kushner posited a universe that is incomplete – unfinished pockets without God's presence are randomly distributed. People suffer as they encounter these places to which God's presence has yet to penetrate. Millions – including me – have taken great comfort from his compassionate words of empathy for those who undeservedly suffer.
The Talmud itself posed two different solutions to the dilemma almost two thousand years before Rabbi Kushner's book. The first is the notion that no one suffers undeservedly. The righteous, say some rabbis, are judged by a higher standard than the wicked. The punishment for a minor infraction by a good person may be more severe because the good person has, in effect, set the bar so high. By the same token, a righteous act by a reprobate may be disproportionately rewarded since it is so uncharacteristic. While the argument recognizes human diversity, it doesn't offer much encouragement to be good!
The second notion is that suffering is endearing to God. Though faith is tested by seemingly unjust punishment, God is nearer to those who suffer. And while nobody would seek pain and sorrow, within those two inevitabilities in every life is a chance to feel the intensity of God's presence. This approach offers a certain comfort, but nothing approaching an explanation, unless we posit God as possessed of a peculiar cruelty, as if it were possible.
But this much is true: it is the rare person who does not wonder in the midst of suffering, "what did I do to deserve this?" The question itself and the answers we posit have less to do with theology or even comfort, and more to do with fear. When pain comes to the body, mind or spirit, it inspires a nearly universal response. The sufferer feels out of control. And feeling out of control, he or she is willing to assume responsibility for the pain as a means of taking back control. Better to be hurting for missing maariv or eating a cheeseburger or withholding a quarter from a beggar than to face an unpredictable and impersonal world.
Our teaching, kabbalat hay'surim, means accepting the suffering, that is, accepting it for what it is, plain and simple: suffering. Be it punishment, endearment or the luck of the draw, only by accepting the fact of suffering do we stop trying to rewrite the rules to our mental satisfaction. And when we embrace instead of resist, it leaves room for Torah.
The particular verse from Torah is taken from the ritual of expiating sin. The word that seems to connect it to y'surim, y'sirena, is actually not related at all. Its root means "to remove," and it is part of the other vexing problem of Judaism, the sacrifices. So much of the Torah is taken up with descriptions of sacrifices and the Tabernacle, and yet we find the notion of animal slaughter as religious devotion to be anathema. We mourn the destruction of the Temple, yet we have no real desire to see its ritual practices reinstituted. As such, we rarely take a serious look at what those sacrifices were meant to convey.
Unlike suffering (which is a result), sin is an action over which people actually do have control. "Sin" is a less popular word than "sacrifice" among Jews these days, but sin is what we commit when we do wrong. Sin separates us from God and opens up a gap that (at least symbolically) creates the kind of void that is absent of the divine presence. Shades of Rabbi Kushner!
The atonement sacrifices that were offered on the altar were designed to close the gap. (Sacrifice is called korban in Hebrew, from the root meaning "near.") By offering up something we own, something we presume to control, the misdeeds that created the empty spaces between us and God are, like the "protuberance on the liver" and the "kidney," removed.
Relinquishing control can be terrifying, and it means sacrificing something jealously guarded. The consequences of sin are often hard lessons, but they must be embraced for what they teach. The uncertain origins of suffering are different kinds of hard lessons, but they, too, must be embraced for what they teach. In both cases, for different reasons, the lesson is the same.
"The Lord is near to all who call."
How can you practice kabbalat hay'surim? Whatever you do, please do not seek out suffering! As you know, it will find you in the course of your days. And, in fact, there is no one without his or her suffering. Find a quiet and private place and as comfortable a position as possible. Think about the pain or suffering in your life – a physical pain, an emotional ache, an interpersonal distress. Allow the suffering to identify itself; embrace it as part of yourself. Think of all of the ways you have addressed this suffering with thoughts beginning "if only I..." Remove those protuberances from your mind; offer them on an altar of yearning for God. Close the gap as you let God in.