Shabbat Va’Era/ MLK Day 5775: What is Suffering Good For?

SelmaHeschelMarchEarly in the outstanding new film Selma, there is a tense meeting set in January 1965 between pastors of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and young organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The students, who have already been organizing locally since 1963, resent the intrusion of national leaders who come to lead protests and marches and then leave town, but the pastors feel that the students are not making headway, and need more national support. Finally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, representing the SCLC and SNCC respectively, work out an agreement, and the two groups join together for the marches.

In the film, Dr. King (played brilliantly by David Oyelowo) asks the local organizers what kind of man local sheriff Jim Clark is. Recalling a prior experience in Albany when the sheriff avoided confrontation and the protests were ineffective, Dr. King asks whether Jim Clark will make the mistake of reacting violently to peaceful protest. John Lewis assures King that yes, Sheriff Clark is likely to respond with violence, and this convinces King that Selma is the right place to advance the cause of voter registration for African Americans. The events of “bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when police and local bigots savagely beat John Lewis, march organizer Amelia Boynton and others, capture the attention of the nation and the world, leading to successively larger protests and then to President Johnson’s sponsorship of the Voting Rights Act one week later. (For an overview, see the Wikipedia article on the Selma to Montgomery marches.)

The question I wish to pose here is whether all of this violence and suffering was really necessary? What if Sheriff Jim Clark had not “made a mistake” and had instead left the protestors alone? How many of them would really have made the march 54 miles to Montgomery? If no one had been beaten, would the world have paid attention? In other words, would it have been possible to eliminate the racist barriers to voter registration without exposing the violent injustice that supported them? Were the injuries and even the deaths of these brave protestors necessary to shock the world, to soften the heart of a nation, and to correct an injustice?

The same questions may be posed in our Torah portion—was the suffering of Israel, including brutal and lethal abuse at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters, a necessary stage for the redemption? How about the suffering of the Egyptians through plague after terrible plague? The way the story is told it seems that, unfortunately, suffering was indeed instrumental. Israelites needed to suffer before becoming convinced that the affliction of slavery was intolerable, and that the risks of escape were worth bearing. Egyptians suffering lead to the realization that the enslavement of Israel was destroying their country. And perhaps even God had to witness Israel’s suffering, and even to experience their suffering, before the scales of justice and mercy would shift, allowing for a historic change, and redemption to follow.

Religious thinkers of different faiths have long struggled over the utility of suffering. Was this extended saga helpful, and if so, then how? One line of interpretation is represented by the Hasidic writer Kalonymos Kalman HaLevi Epstein (Cracow, 1751-1823). In his book Ma’or Va’Shemesh he argues that the extended suffering of Pharaoh and of his people was necessary to unmask their true evil. Throughout the plagues Pharaoh plays a game, making strategic retreats but quickly reversing himself and never letting go of his slaves. He is like the sheriff in Albany who avoided confrontation as a strategy to preserve an unjust status quo. Rabbi Epstein notes that the word for “I have hardened,” [his heart] hikhbadati, has the same gematria (numerical value) as emet, or truth. According to his reading, God did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart, but rather, simply showed all the world how hard it was all along. With this midrashic move, Ma’or VaShemesh cleverly sidesteps two theological problems—predestination (that Pharaoh lacked free will) and injustice (that he and his people were punished despite their lack of agency). Pharaoh sought to present himself as reasonable and just, but the extended confrontation forced him to reveal his true evil, just as the marches in Selma forced the Alabama authorities to reveal the hardness of their hearts. The suffering of Egypt and of Israel was necessary in order to unmask the evil core of Pharaoh, and to set an example of resistance to tyranny for all time.

A very different approach is taken by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810) in his book Kedushat Levi. This reading is remarkable because it admits to the possibility that Pharaoh is capable of religious growth through suffering. There is a well known midrash that the 600,000 letters of the Torah correspond to the 600,000 souls of Israel. The idea is problematic, and not only because the math isn’t precise; only the adult men are included in this counting—didn’t the women and children who left Egypt also have souls?  Still, it remains beautiful to think of each soul of Israel as indispensable, just as each letter of the Torah is necessary. The Berditchiver adds another level to this midrash. He notes that some letters are “open,” such as the regular mem מ, while others are “closed” such as the final mem ם and also the samech ס. This indicates that some people’s souls are naturally “open,” to receive divine light and holiness, while some souls are closed off. Yet even the closed letters are capable of miraculous development. Reb Levi Yitzhak cites Rav Hisda in Bavli Shabbat, who explains that in the stone tablets on Mount Sinai, the letters were carved all the way through the tablets, which made the “closed” letters a miracle—what held up their middle portions? Rabbi Levi Yitzhak says that just as the closed letters were miraculous, so too are “ closed” souls capable of miraculous change. The same Pharaoh who said last week, “Who is the Lord—I do not know him!” will say this week, “I have sinned this time—the Lord is righteous and I and my people are evil.” What caused this transformation? It was the plagues. Pharaoh needed to experience the plagues not because they caused suffering, but because they were miraculous. According to this reading, the plagues arrive in order to crack the shell of isolation, and build connections between people.

These two hasidic readings are opposite in one sense—the first reads Pharaoh as an intransigent villain who must suffer in order that his villainy be exposed. The second reading is more redemptive—even the closed soul of Pharaoh was capable of change. But both readings see the utility of suffering as a catalyst for change.

Do not misunderstand me—I certainly am not claiming that all suffering is redemptive and necessary! Indeed, much of the experience of suffering in this world is destructive and horrific. But there are situations in which an experience of suffering, tragic though it may be, may lead to change. I would like to think that we are in such a moment. The scourge of terrorism by extremist Muslims has reached a level of indecency that has shocked the entire world. While one necessary response is more effective counter-terrorism efforts, the problem will not be resolved until there is a massive protest movement led by Muslims against terrorism. As has frequently been pointed out, Muslims are themselves the greatest victims of Muslim terrorism, though we cannot ignore the fact that Jews are also a favorite target of the terrorists. What can we Jews do about this problem? By maintaining relations with Muslims who oppose these fanatics and support the pluralistic ideals of open societies, we can provide encouragement and resources for the necessary change. We can also model a moderate religious path that pairs deep dedication to religious identity with true openness and love for others.

As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King this weekend, let us heed his message of the need for courage and self-control, the utility of some suffering, and the possibility that righteous coalitions will ultimately overcome the forces of evil in every generation.

שמות פרק ט, כז

(כז) וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם יְקֹוָק הַצַּדִּיק וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי הָרְשָׁעִים:

מכילתא דרבי שמעון בר יוחאי פרק טו פסוק יב

(יב) נטית ימינך תבלעמו ארץ מגיד הכת’ שכל הנפשות בכף מי שאמר והיה העולם אשר בידו נפש כל חי וגומ’ (איוב יב י) בזכות מה ניתן להן קבורה שאמ’ ייי הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים (שמ’ ט כז). אמ’ להן הקדוש ברוך הוא אתם צדקתם עליכם את הדין אני אתן לכן קבורה שנא’ נטית ימינך תבלעמו ארץ לפי שהיה הים זורקן ליבשה ויבשה זורקתן לים הים אומ’ ליבשה קבלי אוכלוסיך ויבשה אומ’ לים קבל אוכלוסיך אמ’ לו יבשה ומה אם בשעה שלא קבלתי אלא דם הבל יחידי נאמ’ בו ועתה ארור אתה וגומ’ (בר’ ד יא) עכשיו היאך אני יכולה לקבל דם כל ההמון הזה עד שנשבע לה הקדוש ברוך הוא שאין אני מעמידך בדין שנא’ נטית ימינך וגומ’ אין ימין אלא שבועה שנא’ נשבע ייי בימינו וגומ’ (ישע’ סב ח).

מאור ושמש שמות פרשת בא ד”ה הנה אצל

הנה אצל מכת הברד אמר פרעה (שמות ט כז) חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם ה’ הַצַּדִּיק, והראה עצמו כאילו שב בתשובה; והקב”ה ידע האמת – שאין פיו ולבו שוין. גם משה רבינו ע”ה אמר לו (שמות ט ל) וְאַתָּה וַעֲבָדֶיךָ יָדַעְתִּי כִּי טֶרֶם תִּירְאוּן וגו’. אמנם המון העם לא היו יודעין האמת, ורצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לְאַמֵּת דבריו, ועל כן הכביד לבבו רק לפרסם רשעו כאשר הוא האמת. לכן אמר למשה בא אל פרעה – כי אי הכבדתי וגו’, הכבדתי גימטריא אמת, שתבוא אליו כדי שאודיע לַכֹּל האמת – שהוא רשע גמור ויתקדש שם שמים, שֶׁיִּרְאוּ שעדיין מַקְשֶׁה עָרְפּוֹ, וּמִשְׁפְּטֵי ה’ אֱמֶת.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קד עמוד א

דאמר רב חסדא: מ”ם וסמ”ך שבלוחות בנס היו עומדין.

קדושת לוי ליקוטים ד”ה ויש ס’

ויש ס’ ריבוא נשמות ישראל, וס’ ריבוא אותיות לתורה, וכל נשמה אחוז באותה אות מן הא”ב. ואותן הנשמות אשר הם נתאצלו באלו אותיות הפתוחות מאיזה צד, אז אלו מקבלין חיות מן הלבנינות השופע לתוך האותיות, והם קרובים אל הקדושה, אבל אלו הנשמות אשר הם אחוזים במ”ם סתומה או בסמ”ך אז אינם מקבלים שפע לובן הקדושה, כי הם סתומים מכל צד ואין בהם חיות הקדושה, לכך הם קשה עורף, כמו פרעה שהיה סתום ולא ידע משפע חיות של האותיות, ואמר מי ה’ (שמות ה, ב). לכך מי שיש לו אחיזה באותיות מ”ם וסמ”ך וכו’ – אינם טובים, אבל מכל מקום על ידי שרואים נסים ונפלאות אשר עושה השם יתברך, יכולין להתעורר ולהיות להם קיום, כמו פרעה אף שהיה סתום ולא ידע משפע אלהות ואמר מי ה’, על כל זה כשראה הנסים והנפלאות והגבורות והיד החזקה, אז הודה ואמר ה’ הצדיק (שמות ט, כז), ועל ידי זה יש להם קיום והעמדה, כשמתעוררים על כל פנים על ידי הנסים שרואין מהשם יתברך אז הם מתעוררים. וזהו כונת חכמינו ז”ל ‘מ”ם וסמ”ך שבלוחות’ שהם סתומים מכל צד, אין חיות להנשמות אשר נאחזים בהם זולת ‘בנס היו עומדין’, רוצה לומר על ידי הנסים יש להם קיום והעמדה בעולם: