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Suffering and God's Plans


Torah Portion: Parashat Vayigash (“and he drew near”)

Shabbat: Dec. 31, 2022 / Telvet 7, 5783

Torah: Gen. 44:18 – 47:27

Prophets: Ezek. 37:15-28

New Covenant: Matt. 1:18-25 ; Luke 2:1-21 ; Phil 2:5-11


Priestly Blessing

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26


Jacob's son Benjamin (בִּנְיָמִין) served as a living link to his beloved wife Rachel (who had died earlier while giving him birth). If Jacob had initially regarded Joseph as the bechor (firstborn) of the family, Benjamin surely assumed his "coat of many colors" after his older brother was assumed to be dead. Indeed, Benjamin represented the last thread of Jacob's original vision and hope in this world. The children from Leah and the concubines were of course important to him, but Rachel always remained his first love, and after she died giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob could not help but hold him close...

In Hebrew, Benjamin means "son of my right hand" (from בֵּן, "son" + יָמִין, "right hand"), though in the Samaritan Torah the name is written as Benjamim (from בֵּן, "son" + יָמִים, "days"), meaning "son of days," perhaps alluding to the age of Jacob when Benjamin was born (Rabbinic tradition says he was 100 years old). As the last link to Jacob's deceased wife Rachel, Benjamin had taken Joseph's place as Jacob's favorite son, and Jacob was unwilling to part from him. Perhaps Jacob secretly feared that God would command him to sacrifice his "only begotten son," just as He had earlier tested his grandfather Abraham regarding his father Isaac. But wasn't the loss of Joseph enough of a sacrifice? Would he also be required to "offer up" Benjamin? Whatever he was thinking, it is clear that Jacob was unwilling to let go of his son - and his lack of trust created an abiding insecurity and heartache within him....

In last week's Torah portion (Miketz), we read that when Jacob asked the brothers to return to Egypt for more food, they said they could not do so without taking Benjamin. Jacob then replied, "Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?" (Gen. 43:6). The Midrash Rabbah (Bereshit 91:10) states that Jacob never spoke inappropriately except for here. God said, "I am busy establishing a kingdom over Egypt and Ya'akov is asking why he was treated so badly?" The LORD was busy putting all the pieces together, though Jacob could not see beyond his own personal fear and pain...

The nisayon (test) of Jacob reminds us of the principle: gam zu l'tovah (גַּם זוּ לְטוֹבָה), "this too is for good" (cp. Rom. 8:28). Notice, however, that the principle is not stated, gam zu tovah - "this is good," but rather gam zu l'tovah - "this, too, is for good." The little preposition here (-ל) is crucial. The heart of faith does not affirm that "whatever happens, happens" and therefore we should passively accept the injustices and pain of life without any form of protest. Unlike some other religions, the LORD God of Israel does not demand slavish "submission" to His will, much less does He desire "karma-like" indifference to the suffering we see in the world (Phil. 2:4; 1 Pet. 5:7; Heb. 4:16, James 4:9, etc.). Having faith that God will one day "wipe away every tear" does not deny the existence of evil nor does it suppress real tears from being shed; however, genuine faith affirms that real (existential) comfort is coming, and that sadness, pain, and suffering will not be given the last word....

Faith (i.e., emunah:אֱמוּנָה) is a "double movement" of the heart. It both "sees what is invisible" (2 Cor. 4:18) and understands (i.e., accepts) that the "present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Faith rests in God's providential hand over the chaos and flux of creation. The eye of faith beholds the Presence of God and His reign over all the mundane affairs of this world. Indeed, it is only by fixing our hope upon the eternal that we are enabled to rightly apprehend the nature of the temporal world itself. In fact, the word emunah shares the same root as the Hebrew word for truth (אֱמֶת). In that sense, "seeing what is invisible" (τὰ μὴ βλεπόμενα) is a more fundamental type of "seeing," since the truth of hope ultimately interprets all other ways of seeing...

Emunah therefore understands temporal suffering as part of the greater purposes of God in the world. It sees beyond the painful moment and trusts that God is "busy putting all the pieces together." Everything has a reason, and that includes the seemingly trivial as well as the obviously tragic. The life of emunah calls us to live as toshavim (תוֹשָׁבִים) - sojourners - who are put at a "distance" from the world of appearances. Faith leads to a form of divine "homesickness," a cry of protest over the state of this world and its evils, and a gnawing hunger for love and truth to prevail in the world. By itself, emunah would die of intolerable heartache were it not for the gift of God's comfort. Indeed, the Scriptures describe God as Av Ha-Rachamim (the Father of mercies) and the God of all comfort:

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