This is the first installment of a regular column that will follow the Daf Yomi calendar and mine the Babylonian Talmud for new and unexpected insights.

The Talmud, which we begin anew this week after having just completed the seven-and-a-half year cycle of reading it one page at a time, opens with a blast. In its very first pages, it raises the same question anyone comforting a loved one battling with cancer, say, is asking themselves urgently: Why do bad things happen to great people?

The longest Talmudic discussion about how people react to pain is found near the opening of the Talmud Bavli in tractate Berakhot 5a. Drawing from the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the fourth century CE sage Rava explains the paradoxical concept of “suffering of love.” Such chastisement is not punishment for a misdeed but rather a test directed to the innocent: “whomever God finds desirable, he afflicts.” In this view, undeserved Jobian oppression presents an opportunity reserved for the ultra-righteous to deepen their commitment by persevering in their faith even in the face of tribulation. An early midrash from Rabbi Akiva and his students glorifies suffering as, “beloved,” “better than receiving good,” and an expression of closeness to God, “as a man chastises his son.”

This may sound too archaic and harsh to us, but remember that Rabbi Akiva and his school thrived within a philosophical Greco-Roman culture that they shared with early Christianity and that expressed similar teachings. Consider, then, the wisdom of Seneca (4BCE – 65CE), the Roman Stoic philosopher, who, when asked to address the same topic, wrote:

Do you not see how differently fathers and mothers indulge their children? How the former urge them to begin their tasks early, will not suffer them to be idle even on holidays, and exercise them till they perspire, and sometimes till they shed tears—while their mothers want to cuddle them in their laps, and keep them out of the sun, and never wish them to be vexed, or to cry, or to work. God bears a fatherly mind towards good men, and loves them in a manly spirit. “Let them,” says He, “be exercised by labours, sufferings, and losses, that so they may gather true strength.”

This solution to suffering may not resonate well with modern scientific and humanist sensibilities, but if we can suspend our disbelief and enter the ancient world of magic and miracles, then we can more successfully journey into the Talmudic mind and return safely to the 21st century, hopefully gaining worthwhile souvenirs along the way.

To do that, we’d do well to begin with Rabbi Akiva, whose martyrdom remains the most moving story about the glorification of suffering. As the Romans were raking his flesh for the crime of teaching Torah, Rabbi Akiva prepares to recite Shema, provoking the astonishment of his students:

His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged his uttering of the word: “One,” until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: “One.” (Berakhot 61a)

This story at the end of the tractate exemplifies the ability to accept and even look forward to torture and martyrdom as a means to express total devotion and love of God. This approach may fulfill a zealous temperament like that of Rabbi Akiva. However, can this reaction be expected of everyone who experiences undeserved misery? What if someone in their pain rejects the test and opportunity that God sends through these affectionate afflictions? Before analyzing the Talmud’s response, let us first turn to a midrash, or ancient commentary on the Bible, that likely served as the source material for the Talmud here. Song of Songs Rabbah 2, 16 questions the value of suffering through the experiences of two Galillean sages, Rabbi Hanina and his student Rabbi Yohanan:

[A] Rabbi Yohanan was afflicted and became sick with a fever for three and a half years. Rabbi Hanina arose to visit him.

He said to him, “What do you have?” He responded, “I have more than I can bear.” He said to him, “Do not say that. Rather say, ‘the faithful God.’”

When his suffering became more severe, he said, “the faithful God.”

When his suffering became more severe than needed, Rabbi Hanina arose and said a formula upon him and he got better.

[B] After some time, Rabbi Hanina became sick. Rabbi Yohanan arose to visit him.

He said to him, “What do you have?” He responded, “How difficult are these afflictions!”

He said to him, “But how great are their reward!” He responded, “I do not want them nor their reward.”

He said to him, “Why don’t you say that formula that you said upon me and you will get better?” He responded, “When I was outside I could vouch for others. Now that I am inside, surely I need someone else to vouch for me!”

He said to him, “Scripture teaches, Who grazes among the lilies – the rod of the Holy One, blessed be He, comes down only upon people whose hearts are soft like lilies.”

Rabbi Eleazar said, “This is like a landowner who had two cows, one strong and the other weak. Which one does he make work hard, is it not the strong one? So too, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not test the wicked. Why? Because they would not stand up to it.”

When Rabbi Yohanan complains about his disease, Rabbi Hanina encourages him to accept them with faith. Rabbi Hanina applies his healing powers only after he deems that Rabbi Yohanan has suffered sufficiently. With the tables turned, however, Rabbi Hanina finds it difficult to follow his own advice and prefers to be healed immediately and forego his rewards. Rabbi Yohanan cannot or does not want to magically heal his colleague. He instead gives Rabbi Hanina a taste of his own non-medicine: your great suffering indicates that God recognizes your great righteousness, so be proud that God loves you so.

The explicit moral of both stories remains consistent: the suffering of the righteous is a sign of God’s loving guidance so accept it with redoubled commitment. It is natural to complain, but a good friend will root you on until the powers that be decide you have completed your treatment. However, the doubling of the story with the roles reversed highlights that this advice is easier said than done. The irony that Rabbi Hanina cannot heal himself nor follow his own advice subtly satirizes this approach, especially when a healthy person imposes it on the suffering patient. One may accept pain upon oneself with perfect faith if one chooses; but the duty of a visiting friend is only to sympathize and do anything one can to relieve the patient from their symptoms.

With the Song of Songs text, Rabbi Akiva, and Seneca in mind, we can move from the Roman Empire back to Persian Babylonia and Bavli Berakhot 5b, where the limitations on the Akivan approach becomes bolder. Rava, cited above, continues his teaching regarding “suffering of love” with a caveat that affliction cannot be forced upon the righteous recipient. The test requires the willing acceptance of pain by the recipient, an idea not expressed explicitly in texts from the Land of Israel. The Bavli dramatizes this lesson in its alternate, likely reworked, version of these narratives. Here is the text based on a Cairo Geniza fragment (the printed Talmud presents the two stories in opposite order):

[A] Rabbi Yohanan fell ill. Rabbi Hanina came to visit him and asked about him. He said to him, “Are affliction desirable to you?” He responded, “Not them and not their reward.” [Rabbi Yohanan] gave him his hand and [Rabbi Hanina] lifted him to health.

[B] But let Rabbi Yohanan pick himself up to health? Behold, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill. Rabbi Yohanan came to visit him and asked about him. He said to him, “Are afflictions desirable to you?” He responded, “Not them and not their reward.” He gave him his hand and [Rabbi Yohanan] lifted him to health.

A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.

The Bavli’s truncated version of the story not only incorporates a third character, Rabbi Hiyya the student of Rabbi Yohanan. It significantly omits the encouragement by each colleague to continue to endure their pain with faith and perseverance. Instead, both visiting sages simply heal the sick the moment they complain, without a hint of negativity for rejecting God’s tough love. The story as preserved in Song of Songs Rabbah includes only an implicit criticism of Rabbi Hanina for imposing acceptance of suffering upon his colleague rather than healing him immediately. The Bavli narrators, in contrast, alter the story to unequivocally downplay the value of suffering considering that even the greatest sages opted-out of this opportunity to prove themselves and straightaway healed by their teachers.

Rava describes suffering of love as affliction without any fault, purely to test a person, but therefore completely optional. The Bavli editors feel free to modify the original stories about Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yohanan because they transmitted them not as historical records but rather as moral tales. Rava’s qualification and the updated versions of the stories are part of a larger Bavli trend to admit that not all suffering results from deserved punishment (Shabbat 55a-b) but sometimes can simply be a matter of bad luck (Moed Katan 28b) or mistaken identity by the angel of death (Hagiga 4b-5a). Babylonian rabbis may have been more open to such possibilities because they lived in a culture further removed from Christianity and instead dominated by Zoroastrian dualism where suffering is understood to derive from forces of evil, thereby exculpating Ahuramazda, the god of the good.

Modern society understands the concept of “no pain, no gain” when it comes to working out or building a career. But we do not tend to glorify suffering per se as a religious or moral value, much preferring painkillers and the miracles of modern medicine. In that sense, the Bavli viewpoint resonates best for most of us, “not them and not their reward.” When treatment fails, or when we struggle with physical, financial, or emotional difficulty, we may choose to contemplate the redemptive possibilities of suffering with Stoic courage. As Victor Frankel wrote:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances to add a deeper meaning to his life.

Nevertheless, both the versions of the story in Song of Songs Rabbah and that in the Bavli agree that when we confront the suffering of others, our role is not to moralize but to empathize, extend a hand, and help lift them up in any way we can out of their suffering.