Suffering and exile

Our relief from exile will come either way, the question is what we will have gained from our time in the darkness.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Courtesy

We are in the last part of a time of year called the Three Weeks, at present in what is called the Nine Days, the days from the 1st of Av to the 9th. During this time, Jerusalem was sacked twice, once by the Babylonians circa 420 BCE (ed. some sayt 586 BCE) and again by the Romans in 69 CE. Each time, our enemies struck directly at the Jewish heart by destroying the Temple. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, and the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

The number three is a symbol of permanence in the Torah. King Solomon wrote that a thrice threaded rope is not easily undone. In Jewish law, when you own something for three years, there is a presumption of ownership. Three is a mark of stability and permanence. It is not likely to fade or deteriorate. It is here to stay.

Yet, there is nothing stable or permanent about our state of exile. The prophets foretold that our state of exile would be temporary and will end with the coming of Mashiach. He will gather in our exiles and will rebuild the Temple. If so, one wonders why the period of Jerusalem’s destruction played out over three weeks. G-d couldn’t have been trying to tell us that our exile would be permanent because it was G-d who informed the prophets that it would be temporary.

Division and Peace
Another problem: Three is a symbol of peace. When two people or countries argue, they are divided. Peace breaks out when a third party, a mediator, leads them to reconciliation. The mediator doesn’t choose one party over the other. The mediator finds a solution that satisfies both. Rather than vanquishing either party, both find permanence in reconciliation.

Two parties at war seek to destroy each other. In this state, neither is stable or permanent. Each is fighting for its life. The same is true of any argument. Though you are not fighting for your life, you are fighting for the ascendency of your ideas. The victor’s ideas will prevail, the victim’s ideas will be overruled, marginalized, and forgotten.

Similarly, our state of exile is one of division. We are here and our home is there. We are on earth and G-d is in Heaven. The state of Mashiach is one of reconciliation. The Jew rejoins the land, and the children rejoin their father. It is a state of peace and permanence.

Symbolically, it would have made more sense for the period of destruction to last two weeks rather than three. So, what message was G-d trying to send us by prolonging our suffering for three weeks?

Complete Darkness
Suffering comes in many forms. There is the national suffering that we experience in exile, then there is individual suffering that we experience in our personal lives. When we are in financial straits, or when illness strikes, or when friends betray us, or when we fail ourselves, we suffer. It is a personal state of exile.

Exile, whether personal or national, is a place of darkness. It isn’t pleasant to be in the dark. It is a gloomy place where one can easily grow melancholy. But sometimes the darkness is not overwhelming. Though it is intense, we can still see a light at the end of the tunnel. We still have reason to hope. Like a drowning man in a vast sea who has a straw to grasp. He still has hope.

But then there is a complete darkness from which you see no way out. You can’t see the light and you have nothing left to grasp. There is no hope.

The difference between these two kinds of darkness is that when we see the light, we ignore the darkness. We focus all our attention on the light and reach for it with all our might. The flip side is that we overlook whatever treasures our dark place holds. We are so intent on reaching the light that we miss the opportunities of the dark.

When we can’t see the light, we are stuck in the dark. We have no choice but to flail about and feel our way around. And when we do, we discover what only the darkness can give us. A new perspective on life that is impervious to despair. No matter how helpless our circumstances, no matter how fixed our crisis appears, it is not permanent. It too shall end.

If it is meant to end, why does G-d hide our avenues of escape and allow us to think that all we have is darkness? Because He wants us to explore the darkness and find its treasures. When we can see light, are focus on our release. When we can’t see light, we focus on the dark.

Our relief will come either way, the question is what we will have gained from our time in the darkness. If there is a sliver of light, we will gain somewhat from our time in the dark. If there is no light at all, we will gain much from our time in the dark. The more intense the darkness, the more hopeless the circumstances, the heavier our exile, the more we stand to gain from our redemption. A partial exile brings a partial benefit. A total exile brings a total benefit.

To ensure that we understand this, G-d gave us a three-week period of suffering. Three is a symbol of permanence. G-d’s message is, even when you see total darkness, an exile that seems permanent, don’t despair. Don’t imagine that your exile is endless. Realize that every exile has an end, it only appears endless so that you can gain more from it on the other end.

Conclusion
The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe suffered terribly in the Soviet Union where he was persecuted, imprisoned, and exiled for the crime of spreading Judaism to Jews in Communist Russia. When he fled the Soviet Union, someone asked him to share his perspective on suffering. He replied, “if someone would offer to sell me a moment of suffering for a billion dollars, I would not buy. If someone would offer to buy a moment of my suffering for a billion dollars, I would not sell.”

No one wants to suffer, but once we suffer, we want to extract every possible benefit. The greater the suffering, the greater the benefit. Suffering cleanses us. It leaves us nobler and more refined. It elevates us from the usual morass of social interaction and gives us a higher perspective.

While we suffer, we do all we can to escape it. But once we escape it, we don’t take it back because in retrospect it gave us much. So, when you encounter problems in life, when your verve is sapped, your joy is drained, your sun has dimmed, and the light has gone out of your day, remember that no matter how dire your circumstances, there is no reason to despair. G-d is watching over you and will extract you the moment you need to be extracted.

You are suffering only because there is something to be gained from it. Focus on the darkness, probe its mysteries, plumb its depths, and explore its secrets. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by because you have a limited window. Your suffering won’t last forever. G-d will redeem you. But in the meantime, you must make the most of it. The moment you do, the moment you collect the benefit intended for you, your suffering will come to an end.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.



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