Spirituality and Suffering

As I read more about Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, who served as a rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto during the years of Nazi occupation, “The Years of Wrath”, I arrive at his thoughts regarding the connections between spirituality and suffering. This is a man who was forced to experience not just a depth of human suffering, but, as he put it, a depth within a depth. I would do well to pay close attention to what he has to teach.

To begin with, he makes the connection between hearing or reading about suffering and actually experiencing it. The two are completely different. This I know from my own experience, so I know that the kinds of suffering I have not endured are academic only to me. Nevertheless, those who endure those sufferings can describe methods they used to cope with it. Should I face that suffering, I can rely upon their teaching in order to pass through it myself, with my soul and identity intact.

I know this because of how I used those methods and teachings to help me through my times of deep loss and crisis. When Rabbi Shapira speaks about areas of his sufferings in common with my experience and how he worked through them, I find that what worked for me also worked for him. So, when he speaks of areas where I do not have common experience with him, I trust in what worked for him. Heaven forbid, should I have to endure such things as he did, I will strive to endure them in the way he endured them.

While there are discussions about how sufferings can make us more spiritual once we have finished with that suffering and can reflect upon it, a sort of reflection upon answered prayers and tiny miracles, what do we do when our prayers for deliverance are answered with deeper suffering, the depth within the depth? What do we do when we think we can go no further, and then the road before us appears to be longer than we think we can survive? What do we do, to put it in raw setting, when we find ourselves in the Warsaw Ghetto on the eve of its liquidation, after having passed through plagues of Typhus, starvation on rations of a hundred calories a day, brutal murders in plain sight, horrors of the unrestrained and unfiltered brutality and hatred expressed by the Nazis? What do we do?

Rabbi Shapira’s answer is that we not consider the worldly end of the suffering. He turned to the martyrdom of Akiva, which happened in the Roman persecutions after the Bar Kochba revolt: Akiva said that he had always been willing to give his life for God – why should he turn away when that moment actually arrives?

More than that, Rabbi Shapira wrestled with questions about the existence of evil. While some have felt that evil is incompatible with the idea of a just and loving God, or even a God at all, Rabbi Shapira passed through that very evil and was able to state that evil did not matter. There is still a God, and it matters not what choices others may have made: those choices and their horrific impact do not negate or invalidate the existence of God. Nor do they invalidate the existence of a just and loving God. He is who he is, and we await the day of His judgment.

Rabbi Shapira taught that as persecution deepens, we must ourselves deepen our study and commitment to God. He noted that such deepening of study and commitment was next to impossible, especially as the repeated atrocities numbed the soul. It was to fight against that numbness that he encouraged the study and the commitment. Who is left to save if the body has become just a shell for the inner organs, the spirit within having perished from the psychic battering of repeated, unrelenting horrors?

No, we read more, we pray more, we make our observances more. We must fight that darkness that seeks to encompass us, in our depths within our depths. Even if we know we are to go to our deaths, we go to our death with our soul intact.

Will I go through such things as Rabbi Shapira endured? Maybe. I’m a member of a religious minority in a nation flirting with fascism. Such things could come to pass, where I cry out for rescue and deliverance, only to be faced with depth within depth of suffering. But if I can cry out from a depth, I can cry out from the depths, but I must prepare myself now, that I might have the spirituality developed in a time of peace to draw upon during years of wrath.

Spirituality does not end suffering. It does not mitigate the pain. It can, in fact, sharpen the pain and make us more aware of what we are enduring. But it does give us a path to draw ourselves up to face that suffering with dignity and faith. It gives us the ability to be patient and long-suffering. It gives us the ability to see to the eventual end of that suffering, even if it is in a day that comes after our own physical death. As long as we go to our death with our spirits still alive in faith, we are victorious over that suffering.

I believe in God, and I trust Him to be just and loving. I have had too many spiritual experiences in my life to believe otherwise. Yes, I have lost a son in a senseless tragedy. But my faith teaches me where he is, who he is with, and how to get there. Why should I refrain from finding joy in God’s mercy, even when I endure such a depth? Even so, if I am plunged into a depth within a depth, why should I be any less of a man than Rabbi Shapira or even Akiva? Their example, their wisdom, and their teaching, may that all be part of my life and how I endure all things.

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