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 connection is there between the two parts of the verse, between suffering and Torah study?
The Talmudic sages discussed at length the meaning 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 we should respond to adversity and suffering.
“If you find that you are subject to afflictions, you should examine your conduct.... If you have examined your actions and found no wrongdoing, then you should attribute your suffering to neglect of Torah study (bitul Torah). As it says, “Fortunate is the person whom You, God, afflict; You teach him from Your Torah.”
And if you find that you are not guilty of neglecting Torah study, then these afflictions must be “Afflictions of Love.” As it says, כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה’ יוֹכִיחַ — “God rebukes those whom He loves” (Proverbs 3:12).” (Berachot 5a)
In other words, the Talmud interprets the verse in Psalms 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 should be diligent and 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 most of their 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 average person?
We all have 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 we succeed in internalizing its teachings, we will strengthen 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 sensitivity to the needs of others, and increases awareness of one’s own limitations. Those who fail to correct their personality traits through Torah study may very well find themselves undergoing the less pleasant form of refinement that comes from suffering.
The Sages recognized that there are no pat formulas to explain all examples 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 flaw 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 sensitivity is through “Afflictions of Love” — a gift granted by God that enables a person to attain a spiritual level beyond his natural capabilities.
It is this concept of “Afflictions of Love” that sheds light on the psalmist’s assertion: “Fortunate is the person whom You, God, afflict.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 15-16)
Illustration image: Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630)