In the beginning of January 2023, America experienced her greatest travel hiccup since 9-11 when tens of thousands of people were stranded as flights were canceled due to a computer glitch. Like those who were forced to sleep in airports, many of us find ourselves stuck in low-energy relationships, lackluster jobs, or living in places we’re not excited about, and we wonder why it needs to be this way. Our lives are often stressed, and we're stretched from frustration through to outright suffering, and we’re all bewildered—why does G-d allow us to suffer?
This really is a question that applies to all of Jewish history. Our ancestors, were forced into Egyptian slavery, for no apparent sin of their own. They languished under the Egyptian taskmasters for 210 years before Moses confronted Pharaoh after being empowered by G-d at the Burning Bush. Indeed, only seven-and-a-half portions of the Torah are set in the Holy Land—the overwhelming majority of the Torah is staged in the diaspora where Jews were unwelcome and not at home. Why did G-d allow us to suffer so much throughout our history?
In an inspirational sermon in the winter of 1980, presented by the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson of blessed memory, he drew attention to the curious fact that while our forefather Jacob was suffering mercilessly under his deceitful father-in-law Laban for over sixteen years, he was composing songs of praise to G-d, that ultimately became incorporated into the Psalms of David (120-134)!
If he was suffering, why was he singing?
“Jacob’s challenging stay in the house of Laban was for the purpose of greater gain—in order that he should become ‘exceedingly wealthy.’ Jacob perceived the purpose of the challenge—the (material and spiritual) profit it would subsequently bring him—and was therefore able to sing, whilst in the house of Laban, the Song of Ascents.”
In much the same way, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah likens our nation’s suffering in Egypt to an “iron melting pot,” to illustrate that, just like the heat of the kiln is intended to purify the priceless metals that emerge from it, so too the suffering we experienced in slavery was not an isolated incident, but rather part of the process of preparation for much greater good.
Indeed, we see this truth everywhere around us—it is the nature of the world to experience unprecedented success after pain and suffering. Only once the seed rots in the ground can it grow to become a mighty tree. The olive can only produce its lavish oil when squeezed, and athletes break records only when they endure the pain of persistent practice.
The same goes for marriage, where the Torah instructs us to leave a newlywed couple alone for one solid year after marriage so that they can learn to overcome their differences.
Jim Carrey was booed off stage at his first stand-up gig, Jay-Z was turned down by every record label, and Stephen King experienced so much rejection that he threw his first manuscript in the trash before he found success. Thomas Edison’s teachers said that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Oprah was fired from her first job because she was deemed “unfit for television,” and Walt Disney was fired from his first job because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Both Bill Gates’ and Henry Ford’s first business were epic failures. Social scientists calculate that it takes an average of 3.8 failures before you reach success. Those that persevere reap the rewards of their labor.
The struggle that precedes success is a necessary component towards achieving success, much like the arrow’s backward draw is what propels it forward with added power and the descent below the trampoline is precisely what launches its bouncer ever higher. After a crisis comes comfort.
Thus, Rabbi Schneerson explained that the purpose of the hardships and challenges we encounter is really for our good, to bring some deeper benefit. With this mindset, we, like Jacob, can sing through our struggles: “Because of the advantages that ensue from struggles and challenges, at times, G-d orchestrates opponents that attempt to battle us and disturb our Divine service. Upon experiencing such adversity, we respond by singing “a Song of Ascents.” The difficulties do not impede our service or cause it to flag; on the contrary, they evoke extra energy and courage; they cause us to sing.”
And so it was that when our ancestors eventually emerged from Egypt, they did so with great material and spiritual wealth, soon after becoming the Chosen People and receiving G-d’s gift to mankind—the Torah—at Mount Sinai.
A most magnificent manifestation of this truth can be witnessed in the wondrous birth of the majestic butterfly. In order to escape her cocoon, she must struggle to free her body with its brand-new wings from its safe place of sleep. The struggle is at times so intense that the butterfly may seem near death, but it is critical at this point that no one comes to rescue her. She needs to do it by herself. The energy exerted by the butterfly is what forces it to pump blood into its beautiful wings. A human who aids the butterfly out of her cocoon has robbed her of this necessary struggle. She will never be able to fly and will soon die from starvation! A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.
As painful as it is to watch our children struggle through their challenges, as parents we intuitively know that this is what will toughen them up to prepare them to be strong and confident adults. In the same way, G-d allows us to struggle too, so that we will emerge with greater good. You don’t need to have faith when you understand what’s happening; it’s when things make no sense that you must hold onto your faith for dear life.
As we face our personal struggles, we must have the courage to see beyond the immediate crisis that looms before us. Don’t lose sight of the forest due to the trees. If we can lift our horizons and see the hand of G-d coordinating every detail of our lives, purposefully and with love, we can find the strength and purpose that we need to ride it out to the end.
Life is like photography—you use the negatives to develop. If you have no struggles, you'll have no strength. Whether today will be “one day” or “day one” is entirely your decision.
Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel is the Rabbi at Congregation Beit Tefilah Chabad, and the director of Chabad of Nashville