Yissurim weaken our attachment to physicality, to purify us in preparation for Olam Haba
The Gemara Brachot (5a) discussed a sequence of three ways to understand and relate to Yissurim:
First, one should examine his deeds; Second, he should attribute them to bitul Torah (wasting time from learning Torah); and if neither of these make sense as the cause of these yissurim, then one should view them as yissurim shel ahavah (difficulties from love). Rashi explained [regarding yissurim shel ahavah] that — “G-d afflicts those whom He loves, even if they have not committed any chet, in order to give them greater benefit in Olam Haba than their merits would otherwise have justified.”
The Maharal (Netiv HaYissurin — aleph) explained this Gemara:
When a person transgresses, and [necessarily becomes] deficient [i.e., the first possibility that the Gemara spoke about], it is appropriate that yissurim should come upon him.
If one is lax with learning Torah [i.e., the second possibility], then even though he isn’t inherently lacking, he is still considered deficient because he is lacking the perfection which it was possible for him to have gotten from the Torah, and [therefore] yissurim will come upon him.
[The final possibility of the Gemara] is to assume that they are yissurim shel ahavah. The explanation is — When a person is a tzadik, and fitting for the most exalted level, but in terms of his body and connection to the physical, there is an aspect that is not fit for that level, G-d brings yissurim upon him in order to cleanse the nefesh (soul) until he becomes purified. Since G-d loved him and wanted to bring this person closer to be able to cling to Him, and he was the one preventing and blocking this because he was not fit for this close connection, they were, therefore, called yissurim shel ahavah — it was because of G-d’s love that He brought them upon this person. Therefore, they should [also] be accepted from love, otherwise there will be no connection (d’veikut) in them.
The Maharal then quoted the continuation of this Gemara:
“When Rebbe Yochanan was ill, Rebbe Chanina went to him and asked him — ‘Chavivin alecha yissurin (Are these yissurim precious to you)?’ and he answered him — ‘Neither them nor their benefit!’ which sounds like he felt that these yissurin were [really] not valuable!”
The Maharal explained:
This is not a difficulty (kashe), since a tzadik may certainly worry that he will not be able to stand up to the yissurim, and will [end up] doing what Iyov did [i.e., cursing and blaspheming G-d]… And it is very clear that they will only be chavivim when one can bear them, since they will then purify the soul, until they bring the person to cling to G-d.
The Maharal (Netiv Hayissurin — gimmel) explained further:
Yissurim are more precious than all other levels, since they cleanse, purify, and elevate the soul, until it becomes removed from the physical, and the one with yissurim becomes separate from the material until he becomes a ben Olam Haba (one fit for the world to come).
When yissurim come upon Yisrael, they are humbled and they cry out to G-d. As long as the yissurim continue to come on them, their [physical] deficiency that distances them from G-d is removed until they become close to G-d. When the physical body is [minimized], they cling to G-d, and therefore they call out to G-d in their time of distress. And as long as yissurim continue to come on them, they acquire more of a connection (d’veikut) to G-d.
The Zohar focused very strongly on this purifying quality of yissurim:
Come and see, at the moment that G-d desires to enlighten the neshama (soul) of a person, he strikes the body in order to empower the neshama, because as long as the neshama and the body are equal, the neshama is not able to be in control. And when the body is broken, the neshama is in control. (Toldot 90).
A person needs a weak body and a strong soul to overpower it, and then G-d will love him… G-d [therefore] gives difficulties to the tzadik in Olam Ha’zeh to give him merit in Olam Haba. (Vayeishev 27).
Rebbe Elazar said — All that G-d does is with judgment (din), and if he brings yissurim on a tzadik, [it is] in order to purify his soul to bring him to Olam Haba… and to remove from him the physical impurities (zuhama) that he received in Olam Ha’zeh. Therefore, the body is broken and the soul is purified. (Vayeishev 36).
These are called yissurim shel ahavah, because they are [from] love, and not because of the person himself (Vayeishev 41).
The Ramban explains that yissurim shel ahavah help the tzadik to fix some small flaw, and are motivated by love, not judgment.
The Torat Avraham (Shleimut v’Yissurim — dalet) wrote:
One of the most powerful means for controlling physicality, which is the source of all bad middot (character traits), is yissurim. Yissurim intrinsically weaken our desires, and gradually separate us from our attachment to all physical matters. We see that it is possible to live without desires, comforts, petty arrogance, and illusory honor. Bit by bit, we free ourselves from our soul being enslaved and our limited perspectives until we are finally able to see our true essence.
Just as an excess of physical matters influences us to increase our arrogance and to forget our Creator, similarly will a limitation in these matters enhance our humility and our connection to our Creator.
In this manner, even yissurim without teshuva can bring us to shleimut (completion) — first of middot, and then of both deyot (character traits) and hashkafot (perspectives). This is because middot are the root of our character.
However, while yissurim with teshuva can achieve shleimut quickly and directly; without teshuva and contemplation, it is a slow and difficult process.
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu — 4:240–246) explained:
Once a person has transcended and nullified his physicality to the point that it no longer has any hold over him… he is then able to receive the light from the upper realms of wisdom.
In order for a person to be able to grasp the hidden exalted wisdom through yissurim requires three conditions:
One must have emunah that the hashgacha pratit (Divine supervision) from Hashem covers every single aspect of his life… as the Sages teach — “No person [even] stubs his toe below unless it was decreed upon him from above” — Chulin 7b.
It is clear to him that the judgments of G-d are absolutely true in every single detail.
One grasps that — “Kol mai d’avid Rachmana, l’tav avid — All that the Merciful One does is for the good.” In other words, one must believe in his heart that everything G-d does for him is absolutely good, and its purpose and intention is exclusively for the benefit of man, even if he doesn’t always grasp what this hidden good is.
The deepest secret of yissurim is that the yissurim we need to deal with are exclusively in this illusory world, and only for those who relate to these illusions [as real]. While this is [the situation] with the enormous yissurim for the greatest tzadikim, we can also fulfill this on our own lower level.
Every aspect of freeing ourselves from under the yoke of the body and its leanings, will uncover the light of the redemption. One sees something that was very difficult for him yesterday, and [really] bothered him yesterday, which is [now] merely an illusion. With this, he redeems himself with a spiritual redemption. This is the path of elevation from level to level — to see and to discern that what previously, on his lower level, appeared to be insurmountable, is [now] only an illusion, and to cling to a life of spirituality where he really lives the truth and is fully alive.
Is our primary frame of reference — Olam Ha’zeh or Olam Haba?
Pirkei Avot (4:21) stated:
Ha’olam Ha’zeh is like a passageway leading towards Ha’olam Haba; prepare yourself in the passageway in order to be able to enter the palace.
Understanding that the fundamental purpose of Olam Ha’zeh is to prepare us for Olam Haba will shift our focus away from Olam Ha’zeh, and thereby help us to deal much more effectively with whatever yissurim we have in our lives.
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:19–20) expressed this critical focus on the reality of Olam Haba very beautifully:
Every believer knows that [it is] through our good deeds in Olam Ha’zeh that we will merit life in Olam Haba, which is the main life and the eternal life. However, there are those who think that life in Olam Ha’zeh is also a life.
Therefore, we come to all of these great and difficult questions — Why does this person merit a wonderful life while this other lives a life of difficulty? Why does this tzadik need to endure many yissurim and a life of Gehenom (pain and difficulty), while all of the days of this rasha are like a holiday?
There are those with a complete emunah who don’t have these questions. Since the Judge [of the world] is G-d, and we are simply human beings, how can we think that with our limited intelligence we would be able to understand the depth of the justice of G-d? However, there are also many who don’t [find] this clear answer to be sufficient. Their hearts are questioning G-d’s traits — since He is good and compassionate, why is our life so bitter? And if He is punishing us, why is the punishment so great for the tzadik, while nothing [seems to] happen to the evil ones? There is a great danger that through the enormous [difficulties] people have to bear, they will come to complain about the justice of G-d.
There are people that this question bothers greatly in their [ability to] serve G-d from their hearts; [in fact] these complaints come out from the depths of their hearts, and they think — “What will we gain by serving [G-d]?”
However, all of this comes to us because we see Olam Ha’zeh through the perspective that we mentioned [that it has an independently significant existence]. However, for those who aspire to be able to see the world from the perspective which the Sages taught us, then these questions automatically disappear.
Pirkei Avot (4:21) taught us — “Olam Ha’zeh is compared to a passageway and Olam Haba to the palace.” Every action that a person does is to attain whatever purpose he is aspiring to. When we see something as a great achievement, we are willing to work for it, even if it is very difficult.
The purpose of the entire creation, and necessarily the purpose of all of Olam Ha’zeh, is Olam Haba. And even if our path through this passageway is very difficult, and filled with obstacles and stumbling blocks, it is fitting for a person to go through it with a positive outlook, since there is no other way in front of him to reach his destination.
On a deeper level, every aspect of the substance of Olam Ha’zeh is exclusively as a passageway for Olam Haba; it is not an independent world. One who builds for himself a passageway without a palace [as its destination], didn’t build anything, since it is [then] not even a passageway. This is exactly the situation with all of Olam Ha’zeh, and all that happens to us in it. All of it is only what is necessary for us to enter into Olam Haba.”
The Gemara Kiddushin (40b), therefore, told us very simply that:
G-d brings yissurim upon tzadikim in Olam Ha’zeh in order [to help them] to inherit Olam Haba.
The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:2 — Mishnat Chachamim) explained:
David HaMelech asked G-d (Tehilim 16:11) — “Show me the path of life” — Which path leads straight to life in Olam Haba? G-d answered him — “If life in Olam Haba is what you need, then you need yissurim.”
And on the flip side, the Orchot Tzadikim (Sha’ar Simcha) warned us that:
Whoever worries [and focuses excessively] about Olam Ha’zeh will have no menucha (tranquility) his entire life.
Rav Yeruchem Levovitz (Ohr Yechezkel — Michtavim, pg. 184) pointed out that:
When G-d sends yissurim, many people become depressed and full of anxiety. Our attitude [toward yissurim] is the litmus test to know just how strong our emunah [and internalized belief] is in Olam Haba and only one who really acknowledges Olam Haba is considered [fully] part of the Jewish people.
Rav Simcha Zissel (Darkei Mussar, pg. 58, quoted in Gateway to Happiness, pg. 253–4) expressed this with a simple mashal (analogy):
When one travels to the wedding of a close friend, he is happy the entire trip. Though the ride might not be comfortable and the food may be a bit stale, he still feels simcha because his mind is focused on the goal of the trip, where he will greatly enjoy himself.
Similarly, when a person focuses on the goals of his life, he is able to overcome the difficulties involved. When one’s focus is on Olam Haba, he lives in a state of happiness even though he experiences many difficulties along his relatively short trip.
Three concluding essays:
The Torat Avraham (Simcha b’Yissurim) wrote:
The truth is that one who understands the goal of yissurim and strives to reach it, won’t desire to eliminate yissurim, but rather to fulfill them, to thereby hear their message and to achieve a true shleimut. The verse (Tehillim 94:12) declares — “Ashrei hagever asher t’yasrenu Hashem, u’m’Toratecha t’lamdenu — Fortunate is the one who gets yissurim from Hashem, and whom You teach from Your Torah.” The one who understands this treasure (of yissurim) and learns from them, will have no desire to abandon this wealth.
This concept of Simcha b’Yissurim, however, is not only for special individuals, but rather for all of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people). We see this clearly from the Mishnah in Brachot as explained by the Gemara — that accepting yissurim with simcha is an obligation on every single Jew. This simcha comes through two different approaches — proper recognition of gashmiyut (physicality) and proper recognition of ruchniyut (spirituality).
It is obvious that we are incapable of evaluating what is truly tov (good) and what is truly ra’ah (bad) even when it comes to gashmiyut — the physical dimension. People are cognizant only of their immediate surroundings, and only in terms of the present moment.
Simcha b’yissurim [is] simcha from the awareness of our limitations in knowing what may be close by or what may occur quite soon. The very ra’ah that we find ourselves in may certainly be a mistaken [perception] — it may be what is actually forming the tov that will be evident soon.
After all, everything originates from the same source, from the source of boundless tov and chessed. This is the first approach to simcha b’yissurim, based on the proper recognition of gashmiyut.
The second approach to simcha b’yissurim, based on the proper recognition of ruchniyut, is based on our awareness [that every single person] is beloved in the eyes of Hashem. The verse says — “et asher ye’ehav Hashem yochiach — G-d chastises because of His love for a person”. In order to try to rescue the rasha from his transgressions, [even he is given] yissurim in the hope that he will turn from his evil path and be able to merit eternal life. Yissurim are the final attempt to get one to do teshuva.
This ahavah, which expresses itself in yissurim, is not limited to trying to rescue the reshayim from Gehenom, but also works to elevate [everyone else] up to higher and higher levels of positive development.
It is specifically because of G-d’s great love for the tzadik that He gives him yissurim shel ahavah — as a nisayon (test), and to elevate him through the yissurim to a much higher level than he could have ever gotten to without them.
Nisyonot (tests) as a means of elevation are an entirely separate matter; they are the path to elevation for the greatest of human beings. This path to elevation can also involve yissurim, and is included in the verse — “et asher ye’ehav Hashem yochiach — G-d chastises the one that He loves.” A special love can be seen in yissurim, love for the tzadikim and [even] love for the reshayim.
One must, however, be very careful that simcha b’yissurim not become mivat b’yissurim (a type of rebellious apathy in regard to yissurim)
The difference between the two is one’s feelings. Simcha b’yissurim means one that feels the yissurim, with all of their intensity, as ra’ah and not tov, emmet (truth) and not chessed, din (judgment) and not rachamim (mercy), and he therefore makes the bracha, “Dayan HaEmet” (“The True Judge”) and not “HaTov v’HaMeitiv” (“The One Who is good and does good”). But at the same time he is also obligated — “likbulinhu b’simcha” (to accept the yissurim with simcha) — to feel as much simcha on the ra’ah as he feels on the tov [since both come from Hashem’s love]. A full simcha together with a complete recognition of the [pain and difficulty of the] ra’ah is a true simcha shel ahavah (of love).
One who doesn’t really feel the [pain and difficulty of the] yissurim, however, and has simply become accustomed to them over a long period of time, until they have become like second nature to him, like the Churban (destruction of the Temple) and galut (exile) today, and is content to continue living a life like this; this person is not same’ach in his yissurim, but rather mivat (apathetic) in them. He is rebelling against these agents of Hashem and against the tangible tochacha (rebuke) which he has been given, besides making himself deaf to hearing their messages. At the same time, however, he thinks in his heart that he is a tzadik since he seems completely uninterested in all matters of this world. It doesn’t bother him that he is living a life of pain and difficulty, since [he thinks] this shows that he is neither finicky nor arrogant.
In truth, however, this is not a person who is minimizing his importance in a positive way, but rather one who is maximizing his insignificance in a very negative manner.
He is actually closing his ear from listening and preventing his heart from understanding — not only ideas, but also feelings. He is not only very distant from one who truly loves Hashem, he is far removed from regular people with normal feelings as well.
Simcha b’yissurim first of all requires feelings and sensitivities towards life, where even the smallest pain will be significant to him. He needs to appreciate that Yisrael are b’nei melachim (the children of royalty) and, therefore, no one even stubs his toe in this world without an explicit decree above, in Shamayim (Heaven). Consequently, “when one puts his hand into his pocket to take out three coins but manages to remove only two” [Gemara Arachin 16b] — even such a small discomfort like this is considered a subtle aspect of yissurim. One who lives like this and is same’ach in his yissurim through recognizing just how limited the physical world is, or through his recognition of the great love that is expressed through them, this is one who has true simcha b’yissurim.
The Torat Avraham (Shleimut v’Yissurim — aleph) continued:
Up until this point we have spoken about the greatness of utilizing our thoughts and our feelings to attain very lofty goals. However, these types of ideas that Chazal (the Sages) tell us — about accepting yissurim — are not so obvious to the masses. The majority of people aren’t such deep thinkers and most don’t have enough time to contemplate such things. They do, however, still receive yissurim. Aren’t their yissurim also included within the verse — “et asher ye’ehav Hashem yochiach — G-d chastises the one that He loves?” If so, we need to understand what type of a love can be found within yissurim to those who are largely devoid of thinking.
Yissurim contain two different benefits:
- They push a person to examine his ways and to do teshuva(return to G-d).
- Yissurim[inherently] provide a kaparahfor one’s aveirot in this world [similar to how Gehenom purifies the neshama after death], sometimes before teshuva and sometimes following teshuva, through the weakening of the body and its desires.
It is self-evident that if one understands the real purpose of yissurim, one will examine his ways and do teshuva. Then, even the mildest of yissurim will be able to help cleanse the most severe of transgressions. However, even one without understanding, who lives his life like a horse racing through a battle, never stopping to think or consider his actions, and certainly never engaging in teshuva, will still benefit and be elevated from yissurim. Yissurim always have the inherent ability to perfect the nefesh of every single person.
This special quality of yissurim to elevate will be effective even when the yissurim become “melumada” (habitual) and lack both thinking and feeling. This lack of [both] thinking and feeling is relevant only to the first goal of yissurim — the examination of one’s ways. In terms of the second goal of yissurim, however, shleimut (completion or perfection) of the soul of the person through the weakening of the body and its desires —this occurs automatically, independent of whether one does or does not think about the yissurim.
However, not only when one’s yissurim become habitual will they still benefit him in terms of this second approach; they will benefit him even when he doesn’t want their impact at all, and they only pain him greatly, leaving him broken-hearted. We might think that this type of a person would get no benefit at all from these yissurim, neither a benefit from thinking about them, nor from the actual yissurim themselves. On the contrary, we might think that these yissurim would simply cause him more anger and destruction. However, when we do look into this, we see that even one like this will be elevated through his yissurim. Was there ever anyone more bitter than Iyov? His continual cursing and complaining actually turned him into a transgressor, even though he was never held responsible for these “transgressions of the heart,” since no one is ever held responsible for his pain.
In the end, however, it was actually the yissurim that helped Iyov to remain steadfast in his nisayon (test and challenge) and not to transgress with his lips. And this allowed him to continue receiving nevuah (prophesy) all throughout his long nisayon, even though he was filled with anger and bitterness without limit. Even these yissurim ultimately help one to acquire a higher level of shleimut, and are also in the category of — “G-d chastises the one that He loves.”
Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote in the Alei Shur (Savlanut, vaad t’shi’i):
Those with simcha in their yissurim are described as… being totally fulfilled… Our Sages have revealed to us that the one who has achieved “total fulfillment” is specifically the one who can bear his burden. The person who can bear yissurim, and also have simcha in them is the strongest one of all… The entire world is established specifically in the merit of one who is able to bear his burden quietly.
One who bears yissurim is viewed by the world only with pity; they certainly wouldn’t attribute strength to him. [However,] it is possible that he is even greater than one with many [good] deeds. G-d should protect us from yissurim — but we need to know that one bearing yissurim, and even carrying them with simcha without allowing his spirit to be broken by them, is actually the greatest of the great.
We can [also] apply this to the Jewish people during their exile. “Our Rabbis taught — We ask one who comes to convert during [the exile] — “What did you see that made you want to convert? Don’t you know that during this time Yisrael is afflicted, pressured, oppressed and torn, and that yissurim are coming upon them?” If he says, “I know and I feel unworthy of this,” then we accept him” (Gemara Yevamos 47a). Rashi explains his reply — “I feel unworthy” — as “I am unworthy to share in their suffering. If only I would merit to do so!”
Behold, this is the state of the Jewish people during the exile — to bear the burden of difficulties — and this is specifically the greatness of this holy nation. They can deal with their pain and not be broken by it. This is their strength. And only one who recognizes this greatness is able to become a proper convert.
We must know that this itself is the greatness of the Jewish people — that they can deal with their yissurim and [still] carry the Torah with exalted strength and without fear, and without minimizing nor rejecting the yissurim of the exile.
Hashem should protect us, our families, and all of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) from difficult and painful yissurim.
But at the same time, we need to know and remember that He will give us whatever yissurim we require — for our benefit, and because of His great love for us.
Sometimes we may see that benefit clearly in Olam Ha’zeh, and sometimes we may have to wait until Olam Haba to see it.
In all cases, however, we also need to know and remember that yissurim teach and guide us, provide a tremendous kaparah, help us to actualize our potential, bring us closer to G-d, and weaken our attachment to physicality in this temporal and transient Olam Ha’zeh, to purify us in preparation for the eternity of Olam Haba.
Through the understanding which is possible to get only from the Torah, Hashem should help us, in the words of the Shabbat davening (prayers), to feel satisfaction from even this type of goodness, and simcha from even this aspect of salvation. He should help us not merely to endure our yissurim, but to actually grow and gain from them in both Olam Ha’zeh and Olam Haba.
This should be l’zechut ul’illuy nishmat Ruchama Rivka, a”h, bat Asher Zevulun.