Last week, we saw that human suffering results from man’s actions, rather than part of Hashem’s intention for His ideal world. This week, we will explore how man’s actions generate suffering.

Natural Consequence

Suffering is often a natural result of our actions.[1] Eliphaz makes this point in Sefer Iyov, where he explains that “man reaps what he sows.”[2] Like one who plants weed seeds and, therefore, harvests weeds, those who live dangerously ultimately experience the natural consequences of their behavior.

The gemara[3] teaches that “all is in the hands of heaven, except for common colds.” We are responsible for living healthfully. If we do not, we suffer the consequences. Smoking, overeating, and other behaviors damage our health, and pollution, deforestation, and burning fossil fuels harm the environment. We have no one but ourselves to blame for the natural effects of our actions.

Many Torah-prohibited foods and actions have similar naturally harmful consequences. The gemara[4] teaches that eating certain prohibited foods “blocks” one’s heart and mind. Modern science has identified many harmful activities; the Torah teaches us about many more.[5]

Divine Reaction

Sometimes, suffering is decreed from above — often as a punishment for sin. Hashem punished the first man and woman for their sins on their first day of existence and has continued to do so ever since. The Torah is full of promises of reward and threats of punishment, and Nach tells the stories of those rewarded and punished accordingly. Though the ultimate reward is only in the next world,[6] certain rewards and punishments are allotted already in this one.[7]

Despite being a response to sin, these punishments are meant to benefit us. We learn this from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu compares Hashem’s punishment to a father disciplining his child.[8] Like a father’s rod, Hashem’s punishments are not vengeful; they aim to help us.

Chazal explain that Hashem’s punishments repair the damage of past sins.[9] Sins, even those committed unintentionally, contaminate both our bodies and souls.[10] In addition to atoning for our sins, suffering also cleanses us from their physical and spiritual impact.[11]

Divine Intervention

Suffering often serves an additional, future-oriented purpose. Hashem causes us to suffer not only because of what we have done in the past but also to inspire us to improve. Hashem’s goal is not only to repair the impact of past sins but also to help us change course.[12] This is why the Hebrew word for suffering, yisurin, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for rebuke, mussar. Suffering aims to teach us how to improve.

For this reason, Hashem punishes middah k’neged middah — He makes the punishment fit the crime,[13] so we can understand what behavior we need to repair.[14] This is why the gemara[15] encourages one experiencing suffering to investigate his actions. He should consider what inappropriate behavior Hashem is encouraging him to change.[16]

Elihu[17] made this point to Iyov, who felt his suffering was unjustified. Elihu explained that suffering is not always a punishment for sin. Sometimes, it is Hashem’s way of communicating with us, of encouraging us to change course before we come to sin.

Realizing this, when experiencing suffering, we should make sure to ask l’mah (for what purpose did Hashem send suffering) instead of (just) wondering lamah (why/what in the past justifies our suffering). We should seek Hashem’s message and the direction He encourages us to head in.

Growth Stimulant

Suffering can also be totally disconnected from sin.[18] It can be part of our personal growth process.[19]


Suffering experienced in the process of reaching a goal helps us appreciate the accomplishment. This is why Hashem arranged for His three greatest gifts to us — Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and Olam Haba — to all be nikneis b’yisurin, acquired through suffering.[20] We appreciate the difficult missions; the tza’ar we experience helps us value our accomplishments.

The mishnah in Avot[21] makes a similar statement. “L’fum tza’ara, agra” — the more we suffer for something, the more likely we are to appreciate it. The pain helps us appreciate the gain.[22]

Suffering also aims to nudge us out of our comfort zone. When we live comfortably, we often do not consider the higher levels we should strive for. Suffering shakes us up and makes us question our habits and routines and realize that we can accomplish more.

This is why the aforementioned gemara[23] encourages one who cannot identify a sin responsible for his suffering to attribute his suffering to bitul Torah.[24] The person may not have sinned, but he is also not maximizing his life and opportunities. Hashem sends suffering to inspire him to take more advantage of his life.

Suffering also stimulates reflection and the search for meaning. It inspires us to ask real questions about the world and our place within it. Victor Frankl famously observed how the Holocaust caused many to search for deeper meaning in their lives and reality. People in concentration camps needed some way of understanding and explaining their circumstances.

This is how suffering can strengthen our connection to and relationship with Hashem. Suffering causes us to consider the bigger picture and appreciate and focus more on Hashem’s involvement in the world and our relationship with Him.[25]

Life is not meant to be about comfort, but, rather, about reflection and maximizing growth. Suffering can be a powerful way of inspiring this reflection and growth.

Suffering Properly

Suffering is a bothersome and frustrating experience. Sadly, people often respond by trying to merely alleviate the symptoms without determining and addressing the true cause.

We should make sure to understand the real reasons we suffer and respond by seeking to improve ourselves.


Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi.

Rav Taragin's new sefer, “Essentials of Judaism”, is now available for purchase here:

[1] The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:12) classifies most suffering in this category. See also Mesilat Yesharim 1 who also seems to describe natural consequences.

[2] Sefer Iyov 4:8, 5:6.

[3] Ketubot, 30a.

[4] Yoma 39a. See Rashi D”H Metamtemet who focuses on wisdom (the mind). See Nefesh HaChayim 2:8 who compares the damage of sin to that caused by poisonous or unhealthy food.

[5] Derech Hashem 2:2.

[6] See Kiddushin 39b, Chulin 142a, and Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 8:1-2.

[7] See Derech Hashem 2:3 who explains that punishments may also be for sins committed in a different lifetime of a soul that returns as a gilgul. This is one explanation for why some people are born with physical or mental challenges and why young and innocent people suffer.

[8] This point is developed more in Derech Hashem 2:8:1.

[9] Berachot 5a. Note the two formulations of the gemara — yisurin cleanse sins or cleanse the body from sins.

[10] Ramban, Shemot 22:30, Vayikra 11:13, Devarim 14:3, and Sha’ar Hagemul pg. 269.

[11] See the Ramban (ibid) who explains the concept of yisurin shel ahavah (Berachot 5a) this way.

[12] See Menachot 53b which explains that the Jewish people are like olives because just like crushing brings the oil out of the olive, so crushing (suffering) steers us back on the right path.

[13] See Sotah 8b.

[14] See Rashi Berachot 5a D”H Pishpaysh with the explanation of the Rosh Yosef (D”H Haynu) and Nefesh HaChayim 4:29.

[15] Berachot 5a.

[16] See Berachot 5b for an example of how the rabbis helped Rav Huna accomplish this.

[17] 33:19-22. See the preceding pesukim (33:14-18) in which Elihu explains that Hashem initially uses dreams as a painless way to communicate.

[18] See Shabbat 55a which discusses whether there is a concept of suffering without sin. (See also Mishlei 12:21 which seems to unequivocally link suffering to sin.)

The category of yisurin shel ahavah (Berachot 5a) may be an example of such suffering. See also Bereishit Rabbah 92:1 which contrasts yisurin shel tochachah with yisurin shel ahavah.

Many Rishonim disagree with the possibility of suffering not rooted in sin. See the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17), the Ramban (Sha’ar HaGemul pg. 269), and the Meiri Shabbat 55a and Berachot 5a. 

[19] See also Shemot Rabbah (1:1) which explains that Hashem caused us to be enslaved in Mitzraim in order to help us grow through suffering.

[20] Berachot 5a.

[21] Avot 5;22.

[22] The test we pass when showing faith despite suffering also earns us greater heavenly reward. See Ramban (Bereishit 21:1 and SHa’ar HaGemul, pag. 269).

[23] Berachot 5a.

[24] See Ramban (Torat Ha’Adam 117) expands this to apply to mitzvos asei generally; bittul Torah is used as a paradigm because it is something we can devote any time available to.

[25] See approaches along these lines in Drashot HaRan 10, Maharal (Netiv HaYesurin 1), Pnei Yehoshua (Berachot 5a), and Michtav Mei’Eliyahu (Vol. 1, pg. 21).