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Responding to Suffering

09/10/2021 01:45:39 PM


There is a Buddhist teaching that if an arrow strikes you as you wander in your garden, it hurts. However, this initial injury might not signal the end of your distress.

Even if you don’t get hit with another blow, you might still experience pain again from that initial attack.  This second pain is called the second arrow.

In June we emerged from our homes and ventured out to our garden.  We began to feel a hope and optimism that had been missing for so long.  We saw a light at the end of the tunnel, a signal that our suffering from Covid-19 was near an end.

We dared to dream of eating meals indoors with our loved ones’ maskless. 

We dared to dream of a world where we would not have to go into quarantine again for fear of getting sick.

We dared to dream that we would be sitting shoulder to shoulder today here in the sanctuary.

Then we got hit with an arrow.  On the arrowhead it read, “Delta Variant,” and we found out that our dreams were for naught. 

We now find ourselves in what seems to be the same spot we were in a year ago, and it is painful.

What might be most frustrating is that the initial pain might be replaced with other pains.  The pain of the first hit might be replaced by a second arrow.

But the second arrow carries with it hope.  With this second arrow we are prepared.  We know it is going to hurt, so now we are able to react differently.  We can take control back and move beyond the pain.  The pain is still present, yet it need not define us.  Our reaction to the pain can define us.

Before knowing how to react to suffering it might be helpful to explore some different ideas for why we suffer.

Judaism offers four explanations to frame the reasons for suffering.

The first is Yisurin shel ahavah- Suffering as an act of divine love.  We experience pain in this world as a way to enjoy the rewards of the world to come.  When Rabbi Akivah’s teacher was suffering an ailment he said, “.. now that I see my teacher overcome with suffering, I am happy. He is receiving punishment in this world for the few transgressions that he might have committed, ensuring that he will receive a complete reward in the World-to-Come. Sanhedrin 101a:11-17

Yisurin Shel Ahavah, perhaps, explains why bad things happen to good people, or why good things happen to bad people, but it can’t explain why good things happen to good people and bad things that happen to bad people.

The second way to frame our suffering is Eyen Tachat Eyin, ”An eye for an eye”. The Buddhists call it karma – that you get what you deserve. Or, as the psalmist puts it, “You reap what you sow.” Or, in popular parlance, “what goes around, comes around.”  Karma is the idea that the universe has an awareness of human justice.  The problem with looking to Karma as a reason for suffering is that it has its limits.  With Ayen Tachat Eyin, or Karma, death becomes a punishment, which can’t be the case because everyone dies regardless of moral behavior.   Or, to look at I differently, if everything is just, then why do good people suffer? This does not mean that there is no connection between what you do and what results. Exercise and watch your diet, you are likely to lose weight and be fit. Study and do your assignments, and you are likely to earn good grades. Smoke packs of cigarettes every day, you are likely to get lung cancer. But, sometimes people smoke and they remain healthy. Sometimes you do your work, and you do not get rewarded. The issue is that there is no direct correlation, cause and effect, that emerges each time.   Karma, if it is a valid explanation for suffering at all, has limits as an explanation.  

The third explanation for suffering is offered by the book of Job.  In the book of Job, job is visited by catastrophe after catastrophe.  His family, livelihood, and even health are taken from him.  His friends come and offer him different explanations for his suffering.  Finally, Job confronts God and yells at God for all the suffering he has endured.  God chastises Job by saying, “Who is this …  Speaking without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding!”  According to Job the reasons for our suffering ARE BEYOND OUR ABILITY TO UNDERSTAND.  IN SHORT -You don’t and can’t understand God’s plan.

The last explanation for suffering is that we have Free will.  IN DUETERONOMY MOSES SAYS TO THE PEOPLE “I PLACE BEFORE YOU TODAY BLESSING AND CURSE, LIFE AND DEATH, CHOOSE LIFE SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE”.  In this explanation our suffering and joy are random and the result of free actions of everything from viruses to humans. In this model, the mosquito who bites you is not a punishment for bad behavior, and killing it is not divine retribution but the result of the natural world.

In the end, however, the reasons for suffering are nowhere near as important as how we respond to suffering.  The first arrow hurts, how we choose to respond to the second one is what matters.    This suffering will end, who will we be when it is over.

Our world is not simply littered with stories of suffering.  It also contains stories of redemption, empowerment, transformation and growth.  Everyone who suffers gets hit with two arrows, but everyone is also transformed by the process.  The stories that inspire are the ones where suffering turns into hope and show how powerful we can be against outside forces.

Formed in 2011, the Red Brigade is a 100-strong vigilante group of karate-trained girls aged 11-24 who patrol the city of Lucknow in India protecting vulnerable girls from local predators…Apparently “a standard punishment for a man who gropes a member is to be hoisted out into the street, pinned down and hit with shoes while everyone looks on and laughs”.  By doing so the women of the Red brigade have deterred sexual assaults against women in their province. (

The women of the Red brigade were hit long ago with the first arrow but chose power over complacency, agency over victimhood, when the second arrow struck they learned karate and fought back.  They did not say, as so many of us do, “it is what it is”.

The second arrow is what happened to Dr Maya Shankar.  According to an article from NPR, “As a young girl, Maya Shankar was well on her way to a promising career as a classical violinist. . . Itzhak Perlman had taken her on as his private student at The Juilliard School at the age of 14, and she was accepted to his prestigious summer program on Shelter Island. But not long after, she injured her finger while playing … She tore a tendon in her hand, bringing her musical career to an untimely end.

"I was really devastated to lose something that I was completely in love with, and so passionate about, and that had really constituted such a large part of my life and my identity," she says. "I was first and foremost a violinist."

[fast forward a many years later and] At the age of 30, she served as a senior adviser at the White House, working to create better policy using insights from behavioral science. ..

It's a new calling, and one she couldn't have anticipated at Juilliard, where she dreamed of being a concert violinist”. 

In June we were walking in our gardens and in August we were hit with an arrow.  Our plans changed. 

It is true it hurts. 

It is true it is not fair. 

But it is also true that you are strong. 

You are the hero of this story. You will figure out how to overcome.  You will do what you have done, and what our ancestors have done for generations, you will find a way. 

You will find a way to live. 

You will find a way to thrive and survive. 

You will grow and become stronger. 

You may fall along the way. 

You may fail in some ways.

 You may have to change your definitions and understanding of success. 

But you will overcome this suffering.

I want to remind you of two fundamental truths about the Jewish people: First, we are resilient.  Second, our prayers are often in the plural, reminding us that our fates are tied together.  Being Jewish means you never have to go at it alone. Together we will write our own present.  We will build our new future.  We are far from beaten. 

We didn’t plan on being hit with arrows, but we can decide how we want to respond to them.


Suffering causes us to grow.  A diamond is only made when pressure is applied.  A butterfly only emerges when it struggles to get through the cocoon.  Growth is the result of struggle brought about by pain and suffering. But suffering only makes us stronger.

Today on Rosh Hashanah let this coming year of 5782 be the year that tells the story of how we responded to suffering.  Time has placed before us life and death, blessing and curse. Let us choose life, let us choose blessing, let us choose joy and peace so that we may live”.

Shanah Tovah!

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782