Shabbos | Part XVII - Finding Comfort In The Face Of Suffering
Updated: May 6
The Gemara (Shabbat, 119a) records an interesting conversation between the Caesar of the time and Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya, one of our great Torah sages. The Caesar said to Rabbi Yehoshua, why does your food on Shabbat smell so good? Rabbi Yehoshua answered him that there is a very special spice we put into the food, which makes it smell good. That special spice is Shabbat. (Certainly we can all testify that the food on Shabbat smells and tastes special.) The Caesar then asked him if he could have some, and Rabbi Yehoshua answered that he will not be able to attain it unless he observes Shabbat.
On the surface, this is a very strange discussion. Yet the meaning of it is that Shabbat adds taste to life and enables us to enjoy this world. How do we understand how Shabbat achieves this?
Appreciating G-d’s world
An answer can be gleaned from the writings of Rav Achai Gaon, who lived over a thousand years ago, during the time following the compilation of the Gemara. He brings an interesting reason for the mitzvah of Shabbat, and explains it with the analogy of a king who has built a beautiful palace and now wants to inaugurate it. He wants people to appreciate what he has built, and so he sets aside a special day for people to come and celebrate. This, says Rav Achai Gaon, is actually what Shabbat is about: the king – G-d – has created this magnificent world and once a week we pay tribute to Him for having created it. As G-d said when He saw everything that He had made, vehiney tov me’od “and behold it was very good.” Once a week, on Shabbat, we step back and appreciate the magnificence of G-d’s artistry, the beauty of nature and the perfection of Creation.
There is no question about the world’s magnificence. Yet how can we say the world is tov me’od, very good, when there is also terrible pain, disease, suffering and death? How do we make peace with that and endorse what G-d said, vehiney tov me’od, “behold it is very good”?
The secret to understanding the goodness of the world
Our Sages ask this very question. The Midrash on this verse vehiney tov me’od, “behold it is very good,” says tov me’od, even death, even suffering, even gehinom (punishments in the next world). Our Sages list the most painful and difficult parts of existence and say even those are tov me’od, very good. The Sages then debate how these things can be tov me’od. Rabbi Yochanan gives the analogy of a king who has built a palace. When a human being builds a palace, each floor is looked at separately. Yet in G-d’s palace – the world – the upper floor and the lower floor are all viewed b’re’iya achat, “in one glance.”
This is a very puzzling comment. What does it mean to view the upstairs and the downstairs all “in one glance”?
The secret to understanding life and how to view the world is contained in this phrase, “in one glance”. G-d’s house is comprised of the lower world – olam hazeh, the physical world we know – and the upper world – olam haba, which is the spiritual world of the souls. They are both part of one house and we need to view them with one unified vision, b’re’iya achat. We mustn’t look at the world in a disjointed way, as though the physical world is disconnected from the spiritual; rather, it is all part of one palace.
This idea enables us to understanding how this world can be tov me’od. If we look solely at what G-d created in this physical world, we will see suffering – the person who dies tragically at a young age, the person bedridden with disease, and all the other pain in this world. Indeed we wonder how it can be tov me’od. But when we see this world in context of the next world and understand that death is not the end of life but part of the process of reaching eternal life in the next world, we see things from a much broader perspective.
Of course, this does not mean that we can explain everything that happens in this world. It is very important to know that no one can explain suffering or the Divine rationale for any particular event. In fact, according to the Gemara, one of the questions that Moses asked G-d when he was on Mount Sinai was why the righteous suffer, to which G-d answered him, lo yir’ani ha’adam vachai, “no man can see Me and live.” Human beings, mere flesh and blood, cannot understand the answer to this question. And if Moshe did not know the answer and G-d refused to tell him, certainly we cannot come along with any glib, simplistic answer to the most difficult existential questions.
Viewing the world as one palace does not answer why a specific tragic event took place, but it does contextualise it. We live in this physical world, but in the scheme of eternity, life does not end in this world; it merely continues in another level of G-d’s house. And the continuation of life means that at that point all debts are settled. A righteous person, who may have suffered terribly in this world, will get great reward in the next world; and a wicked person, who may have prospered greatly in this world, will get his due punishment in the next world.
If we look at this world as isolated from the next world, there is pain, suffering and injustice. But when we look at it b’re’iya achat, “in one glance,” and see that it is all part of one palace of Hashem, our perspective is completely different. We are not only taking into account the short amount of time we have in this physical world, we are looking at eternity.
How does this connect to Shabbat?
Shabbat: a taste of the World to Come
Shabbat gives us a taste for the pleasures of this world. Shabbat is a celebration of G-d’s creation of the world, but it also gives us perspective on the next world; as our Sages say, it is me’ein olam haba, “a microcosm of the World to Come.” It is the bridge between this world and the next. It is a day of spirituality and of seeing things from a broader perspective. It teaches us that the physical world we see is not everything; there is more than what meets the eye. It is the one day a week that we are able to see life not just in a narrow, constricted sense of olam hazeh, but with the broader perspective of olam haba. And when we see things from a broader perspective, we can taste the ultimate joy.
With this in mind we can now understand Psalm 92, which says, Mizmor shir leyom hashabbat, “a psalm for the Shabbat day.” We say this psalm in the Friday night davening as well as in the Shabbat morning davening. Interestingly, if you look through the psalm you will not find any direct mention of Shabbat. It talks about singing to G-d for His kindness in the morning and faith in G-d during the night. The psalm describes how the wicked prosper like grass and the righteous are like a cedar tree. Though it looks like they are prospering, the wicked wither away and there is no trace left of them like grass when it dries; whereas the righteous endure for eternity in the world-to-come.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl says that the psalm confronts the flourishing of the wicked in this world, and it is teaching us that we have to look at the bigger picture. If we focus on the present we may see the wicked flourish; but then they disappear as if they never existed. The righteous, however, are like grand cedar trees; they take much longer to flourish but they endure forever in the next world.
Every week, on Shabbat, we celebrate the world G-d created and we endorse his assertion vehiney tov me’od, “behold it is very good”. But we do so with the recognition that we live in His palace, which encompasses not only this physical world, but the World to Come as well. We can accept suffering in this world if we expand our vision beyond the physical world, which can sometimes be a place of darkness, but to the whole of G-d’s palace, including the next world. And Shabbat is the bridge that connects the two worlds. On Shabbat we are able to taste the sweetness of this world and celebrate it fully, because we see it in its larger context. This is the meaning of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya’s words to the Caesar: if you want to taste this world, you must have a taste of Shabbat. When you experience Shabbat and understand what it is, you can taste real joy in this world and celebrate G-d’s goodness.