The 48 Ways: 23-25
Accepting Our Limitations
Chapter 6, Mishna 6
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (23) acceptance of suffering, (24) knowing one's place, (25) being happy with one's lot..."
This week introduces a number of different qualities, all of which relate
in some way to personal contentment. As we will see, one must be patient,
long-suffering and satisfied with his lot in order to accomplish in Torah
study. Without this mindset, one can easily become too preoccupied with
his aches and pains or frustrated with his circumstances to focus on
spiritual goals. Therefore, we must be able to bear suffering -- the
invariable fate of man in this world, to know and accept our place in the
world and society, and to be satisfied with our lot. If we can accept who
we are and who we are not, we will be able to forgo the mundane pursuits
of this world in favor of the spiritual ones of the next.
There is a much deeper idea behind these qualities, in particular the
acceptance of suffering. They are not just a matter of not being
distracted by physical want. Our mishna already taught us that scholars
should not be overly indulgent in worldly pleasures (Ways 14-19,
suffering is in a sense far more noble and profound. It implies that we
accept G-d's will even beyond what we are capable of understanding -- even
when life does not make sense to us. We rarely "understand" our personal
suffering or the injustices of the world. Only the rarest of individuals
can endure harsh suffering and sincerely feel he or she deserves it --
even if we accept on some abstract level that G-d's ways are just. And in
a way, we are not so very wrong.
Shortly before I wrote the first version of this class, a victim of a
terrorist attack (of the 2001-05 intifada) came to our door asking for charity. Just seeing the young man was painful enough for us (with screws in his legs he may or may
not be able to walk unaided again), though it hardly mattered to him as he
described his son's condition (who at the time was only beginning to
regain consciousness enough to say "mommy" and "daddy" again). (For our
part, my wife and I could not even remember the months-old news item of
the terrorist attack -- which ruined his and his family's lives.) Needless
to say, my wife's heart melted (I was just returning home at the time),
and we found ourselves giving a sizable donation. (This in spite of the
fact that the faltering company I was then working for was already a month
behind in paying its employees' salaries. At the time all we could think
of is how fortunate and blessed we were -- something we must all be
reminded of from time to time.)
Now we could imagine that on some level this man deserved his fate, that G-
d, with His Superman-like vision, can see faults where the rest of us see
an honest and G-d-fearing Jew, hardly any different from the rest of us.
But not really.
The amount of suffering we witness in this world, both individual and
national, just does not lend itself to rational thought or explanation.
The world as we see it is not an understandable place, and very few of us -
- being the truth-seeking, concerned Jews we are -- possess the mindset to
accept that. When we see what appears to man senseless tragedy, the
success of evil so twisted as to glorify suicide for the expressed intent
of killing and maiming as many innocents as possible, our minds and hearts
cry out. And it is not only a cry for revenge. It is something much
deeper. It is a cry for truth -- and for reality. The world is too dark
and too painful, and it just does not make *sense*. Should not the world
be a place of truth and goodness -- a reflection of the all-good and
benevolent G-d who created it? But instead we see evil, suffering and
distance from G-d, and our very faith in the world and humanity is
shattered -- along with the shattered glass, bones, and lives in a world
in which evil reigns.
And yet our mishna's words cry out.We must accept such givens -- that we
cannot make sense of the world. For only then may we begin to study Torah.
For the most part, we study Torah in order to make sense of the world.
Torah study is perhaps the surest manner of infusing our lives with
meaning and understanding, of bringing G-d's light into an otherwise dark
and terrifying universe. The more we study, the more everything fits in,
and G-d's plan for the world and for each individual within begins to make
sense and form a pattern.
But there are limitations. We cannot go into Torah study assuming that it
will answer all of our questions -- at least in a manner we can
understand. Even worse, there are those who -- millennia after the Torah
was given -- attempt to "judge" the Torah's wisdom, even making their own
observance dependent upon what makes sense to them, as if advanced and
sophisticated 21st century man can behave as arbiter over all which
Thus, the Sages here warn us: The means to fulfillment in Torah study is
through the acceptance of suffering and of our lot. There are things in
life we will simply not understand. Good people suffer -- in fact, as King
Solomon tells us, often those most precious to G-d suffer the most
(Proverbs 3:12) -- and we will never entirely make sense of it all. (Of
course we've discussed approaches in many past classes, but that is hardly
our purpose here. At time we must just throw up our hands and submit
ourselves to G-d's will.)
But this is the prerequisite required to study
Torah. If we approach Torah study expecting "answers", we will invariably
be disappointed. There is no magic bullet. There is no way any amount of
knowledge will allow us -- in this world at least -- to fully comprehend
and appreciate G-d's wisdom. The Sages state it frankly: "It is not in our
power to explain the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the
righteous" (earlier, 4:19). Thus, we study Torah for understanding and enlightenment -- and
we get it -- but we must at the same time approach from humble submission.
There are givens -- painful givens and inequalities -- in life we must
simply accept. I accept that the suffering I and others endure is
purposeful. Ultimately, it emanates from an all-knowing and all-merciful G-
d. With this in mind, we may begin, humbly and submissively, to understand
what we may from the Torah and from life.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.