“אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר-תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּ-הּ, וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ. (תהילים צ"ד:י"ב)
“Fortunate is the one whom You, God, afflict. You teach him from Your Torah.” (Psalms 94:12)
What a peculiar statement! Why did King David think that troubles and afflictions are so wonderful?
And what exactly is the connection between suffering and Torah study?
The Talmudic sages discussed at length the phenomenon of suffering in the world. While they wrestled with the theological challenges of this subject, they were equally concerned with the more practical question of how one should respond to suffering.
“If a person sees that he is subject to afflictions, he should examine his conduct.... If he has examined his actions and found no wrongdoing, then he should attribute his suffering to bitul Torah — neglect of Torah study. As it says, “Fortunate is the person whom You, God, afflict; You teach him from Your Torah.”
“And if one finds that he is not guilty of neglecting Torah study, then these afflictions must be ‘Afflictions of Love.’ As it says, כי את אשר יאהב ה’ יוכיח — “God rebukes those whom He loves” (Proverbs 3:12).” (Berachot 5a)
In other words, the Talmud interprets the verse as associating afflictions with, not Torah study, but rather its neglect. Still, one may ask: of all the numerous human faults and foibles in the world, why should bitul Torah be a likely cause for heavenly-ordained suffering?
While bitul Torah is a serious transgression, there is no expectation that the entire nation will be constantly immersed in Torah study. Scholars are expected to devote themselves to Torah study; but the average person is not required to maintain such levels of dedication. It is understood that people will spend time earning a livelihood, and even acquire possessions beyond their bare necessities. Such activities are not considered bitul Torah.
What does bitul Torah mean for the regular person?
We are all born with character flaws which we are expected to correct. Ideally, we should refine our personality traits through Torah. As we engage in Torah study, we are exposed to its values and ideals. If one succeeds in internalizing its teachings, one strengthens positive traits such as integrity, sensitivity, and compassion.
The nature and degree of Torah study that is expected from each of us is a function of the flaws that we need to correct. This is the meaning of bitul Torah for non-scholars. Those who fail to invest the necessary time and effort to refine themselves through Torah study are guilty of neglecting Torah.
Now we can better understand the connection between afflictions and bitul Torah. Suffering refines and humbles. It heightens one’s sensitivity to the needs of others, and increases awareness of one’s own limitations. One who fails to correct his personality traits through Torah study may very well find himself undergoing the less pleasant refinement that comes from suffering.
The Sages recognized that there are no pat formulas to explain all forms of suffering in this world. There may be completely righteous individuals who are innocent of all misconduct — including bitul Torah — and still they endure troubles and suffering. Therefore, the Sages introduced an additional factor called ‘Afflictions of Love.’ These afflictions are not a form of punishment; nor do they come to correct some fault on the part of sufferer. Rather, they are an expression of Divine love. But what kind of love is this?
There are some aspects of character refinement that cannot be attained by any other means. Not by individual effort, not by good deeds, not even by Torah study. The only means to ennoble the spirit and attain a higher ethical perfection is through ‘Afflictions of Love’ — a gift granted by God that enables one to attain a spiritual level above and beyond one’s own natural capabilities.
It is this concept of ‘Afflictions of Love’ which sheds light on the psalmist’s assertion: “Fortunate is the person whom You, God, afflict.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 15-16)