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Monday, 1 January 2018

How to survive prison

Brachos 5

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba was ill.  Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. 
He asked him, “Do you appreciate Divine affliction?”
He responded, “I don’t care for it or the accompanying reward!”
“Then give me your hand,” said Rabbi Yochanan.  Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand and he healed him.

 Rava taught in the name of Rav Sechora in the name of Rav Huna: Any person that the Holy One blessed be He desires, He strikes with afflictions, as the verse [Isaiah 53:10] states, “And the one whom Hashem desires, He struck with sickness.” 
Now, I might think that one continues to be afflicted even if one does not accept the afflictions lovingly.  Therefore, the verse continues, “If his soul accepts asham,” meaning just like an asham (guilt) offering must be made willingly, so too must afflictions be accepted willingly.
And if he accepts them, what is his reward? He will see offspring and merit long days, and furthermore, he will remember his learning well, as the verse concludes, “and the desire of Hashem will succeed in his hand.”

The greatest, most challenging question that any spiritual person has ever been faced with is the matter of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people?  How could a good G-d allow the righteous to suffer?  No mortal human being has ever managed to sufficiently answer this question, despite many a lifetime of attempts to do so.  Even Moshe stood atop Mt. Sinai and pleaded with G-d to elucidate His ways, but to no avail. “You shall see My back,” replied the Almighty, “but My face you shall not see.  For no man can see My face and live.”  In other words, human beings can not fathom the ‘face’ of G-d – we do not see the big picture and can never fully appreciate His dealings.

Rava teaches here that one of the reasons that righteous people suffer is specifically on account of their righteousness.  The Holy One blessed be He afflicts those whom He is particularly fond of.   But that makes no sense!  If He likes you, why would He want you to suffer?

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why we’re even here to begin with.  Before you came down to Earth, your soul was enjoying life up in Heaven, basking in the rays of the Shechina (Divine presence).  One day, an angel walked in and said, ‘Who wants to go down there?’ And like you’d done a million times prior, you hid under the table, hoping you wouldn’t be chosen to descend into the rotten, physical world.  But then, one day, your time came.  You couldn’t say no any longer and so down you went.

Why?  You’re here for seventy, eighty, one hundred twenty years, and then you’re going back up to Heaven.  Seems a little futile doesn’t it?  If you’re going back to where you came from, why bother coming down to begin with?

The answer is that yes, you’re going back to Heaven, but hopefully you’re getting to an even better place than you started.  You see, Heaven is not a single destination.  There are myriad levels of Heaven.  The more you accomplish during your lifetime here on Earth, the higher the level of Heaven you’ll gain entry to.

So how do you accomplish great things on Earth?  Well, first off, you commit to the commandments G-d has set out for us in the Torah.  The more mitzvos you do, the stronger your bond with Heaven.  But the second aspect to building your soul-power is the development of your faith in Heaven.

It’s hard to maintain your faith when pain and suffering come your way.  Whether it’s health issues, financial difficulties, or relationship woes, sometimes life’s just too much to bear.  When life’s not treating you right, you wonder where G-d has disappeared to.  Has he forgotten you?  You don’t deserve these travails!

Here’s the thing: Hashem never forgets His children!  Any time he sends hardship your way, it’s in order to strengthen your soul-power.  When you maintain your faith in Heaven through all the challenges, your soul is elevated.  That’s why the Gemara calls it ‘afflictions of love.’  Our forefather, Avraham, the Mishnah tells us, was tested ten times, culminating in the instruction to sacrifice his own child.  Why?  Explains the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers: because Hashem loved him so much!  The more tests one passes, the stronger one becomes both in this world and the next.

Is it bad if I don’t always welcome G-d’s afflictions with love?  Well, as we see from today’s Gemara, even Rabbi Chiya rejected the test!  He didn’t want to be ill any longer.  He just wanted to get better.  Sometimes we can bear it, other times we pray that G-d gives us a break.  But the main thing to remember always is that good or bad, everything that happens to us comes from G-d.

When the butler was leaving the Egyptian prison, Yosef asked him to remember him and get him out of there.  After all, he’d been placed in jail for no good reason.  The Talmud says that as a result of his lack of faith in Heaven, it was decreed that he remain there a further two years.  What does the Talmud mean when it says he lacked faith in Heaven?  Obviously, he couldn’t just sit around waiting for a miracle to happen –  didn’t it make sense for him to ask the butler to help him? 

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that Yosef’s lack of faith wasn’t at the moment of his request, but over the preceding number of years.  If Hashem had him incarcerated, it was most certainly for a good reason.  In this case, explains Rabbi Meir Simcha, Yosef was imprisoned in the royal prison so that he could learn the mannerisms of royalty from the other prisoners in preparation for his imminent elevation to the position of viceroy of Egypt.  You see, every trial and challenge Hashem sends our way, He is simply making us stronger, physically and spiritually.

Nobody goes looking for a life of suffering.  But when challenges do appear, feel honoured – the Almighty has chosen you for strength and power.  May you maintain your faith in Heaven and grow ever stronger and more powerful as you pass the tests of life!