This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Bamidbar, records a calculation of the number of men from each of the tribes of the Jews in the desert. The Ramban (3:14) points out that the sum of the men of the tribe of Levi seems to be extremely disproportionate to the others. Its total sum does not match even half of the amount of the next tribe in size. The Ramban ponders why this is so. The answer the Ramban offers is that it was a result of the slavery the Jews endured in Egypt. Because the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, God had blessed the Jews with an exceptional high birth rate and the people multiplied very rapidly. However, the tribe of Levi was exempt from the work in Egypt. The people of the tribe of Levi did not endure slavery. Since they were absolved from the suffering, they did not merit the special blessing of the high fertility rate as the other tribes did. Naturally, when a count was made in the desert, their sum total of the tribe of Levi was dramatically less than the number the others had.
This is an example of one of the ways God runs the world. The Chatam Sofer reveals a fascinating concept and says (Drashos, Chanukah, Vol. 1 p. 66) that a person generally does not receive something really good unless he suffers first. More often than not, when God wants to bless someone with something especially good, He can’t do it, so to speak, because the person is not worthy of the blessing. In order to make a person worthy of the bounty he is about to receive, God first afflicts the person with some kind of pain (which atones for sins) in order for him to be worthy of accepting what God wants to give him. With this concept, the Chatam Sofer explains the meaning of the verse in Hallel (Psalms 118:21), “I shall praise you for you afflicted me.” God, by nature, wants to provide us with good things; it so to speak goes “against His nature” to cause us suffering. But God does it anyway in order that we should be able to merit the blessings He wishes to bestow upon us. Therefore, we praise God for willing to “suffer” through inflicting upon us pain for the sake of us becoming deserving of the good He wants to grant us. In fact, says the Chatam Sofer, this should be our main appreciation, more than the good itself. Because it’s much easier for God to bless us with good things than to bring upon us suffering. But God does it anyways in order for us to be deserving of even more good things that God wants to give us. In the same manner, the Chatam Sofer says that our exile now is for the benefit of deserving the ultimate redemption we will have in the end, and God is willing to “suffer” giving us pain for our ultimate benefit.
With this in mind, we can better understand the attitude of hope which Rabbeinu Yonah encourages one to have when going through a difficult time. Rabbeinu Yonah says (Sha’arei Teshuvah, 2:5) that when one is in a predicament, he should rely on God to release him from his trouble, and think that the “darkness” may be the cause for his “light,” as the verse says (Micah, 7:8), “Don’t rejoice over me, my enemies, for although I have fallen, I got up; because I sat in darkness, God gave me light.” Rabbeinu Yonah then quotes the interpretation of the Medrash on this verse (Tehilim 22), “Had I not fallen, I would not have gotten up. Had it not been dark for me, I would not have experienced the light.” In many instances, the dark times we experience in life are our ticket to the blessings waiting for us on the other side.
Reb Shlomke of Zhvill’s granddaughter once relayed to him the plight of the poverty she suffered. Reb Shlomke advised her to go pray by the Western Wall. She went to the Western Wall and poured out her heart out loud, with tears in her eyes. A woman standing nearby began to yell at her to be quiet. But she was heartbroken, and continued to pray aloud. As she was leaving, the person who yelled at her previously, once again began to admonish her for raising her voice in prayer and said to her, “Do you think the Western Wall belongs to you?” On her way home, she found a gold coin, which was enough to sustain her family for half a year. She went to her grandfather to share the good news. She told him the story and asked him, “Why did I have to endure such shame?” Reb Shmelke answered her, “The shame is what started the salvation. After you were humiliated, you were able to be blessed with finding the coin.”
This concept may not hold true in all instances. There can be other reasons why God has decreed suffering upon someone. We don’t always merit to see any great blessing that follows. Nevertheless, this concept can be very encouraging, as Rabeinu Yonah advises us to have this notion in mind when we are in a predicament. Regardless of what follows, God is certainly doing it for our greater good. How foolish would we look in Heaven if we were busy dreading the very experience which is preparing us to receive great blessings.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org