Parashat Ekeb- As a Father Punishes His Child
Among the topics discussed in Parashat Ekeb is the subject of “Yisurim” – suffering. This is a particularly difficult topic that many people are, unfortunately, forced to grapple with. Life can sometimes seem harsh and unfair; God occasionally brings upon people crisis, suffering and calamities, leaving us asking the unanswerable question of “why.”
Moshe Rabbenu, in this Parasha, lays the foundation for the approach we should have toward Yisurim: “You shall know in your heart that it is as a father punishes his son that Hashem your God punishes you” (8:5). No matter what kind of punishment Hashem brings upon a person, he must know with full confidence that the punishment is dealt by our loving, caring father.
This means, first and foremost, that anything that happens is for the best. Seldom will we be shown how the suffering and hardships in our lives are ultimately beneficial, but we must have faith that everything God does is done out of love.
There was once a great Rabbi in Jerusalem named Rav Yosef Haim Sonenfeld (1849-1932), who was a towering scholar and righteous Sadik. Despite his unparalleled stature of piety, Rav Sonenfeld was subjected to unspeakable Yisurim: eight of his eleven children died during his lifetime. One of his sons, Shemuel Binyamin, was a promising young man who was stricken by typhus and died after two weeks of illness. After his passing, Rav Sonenfeld wrote a letter to his brother, expressing his pain and anguish, but also his unshakable faith in divine justice. He wrote that although he cannot understand why God took his son, the day will come when it will become perfectly clear how everything God does is for the best.
This son died on a Friday, just moments before Shabbat. Rav Sonenfeld had been by his son’s bedside reciting Tehillim, but when his son died, Rav Sonenfeld rushed home to prepare for Shabbat, went to the synagogue, and observed Shabbat as usual, without any outward expression of grief. As soon as Shabbat ended, Rav Sonenfeld fainted from emotion.
The great Sadikim feel as pained by personal tragedy as anybody else, but their unquestioning faith in God empowers them to handle the most trying circumstances with composure, strength and dignity. They know with confidence that Hashem punishes them “as a father punishes his child,” and this gives them the strength and fortitude to move on.
The concept of “as a father punishes a child” also reveals another critical point about Yisurim. During the seven weeks after Tisha B’Ab, we read as the Haftara on Shabbat prophecies of consolation that describe the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. Rav Avraham Pam (1913-2001) explained this custom by noting that after a father punishes a child, he will soothe and console the child in an attempt to compensate for the pain inflicted. Even when punishment is warranted and necessary, the parent afterward feels remorseful and looks for ways to placate the child.
And this is true of God and the Jewish people, as well. Every calamity is followed by kindness and an opportunity for growth and prosperity. The exiling of the Ten Tribes of Israel by the Assyrian Empire was followed by the great miracle of the Assyrian army’s sudden death outside the walls of Jerusalem, an event that had the potential to bring the Messianic Era. Just several decades after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews mounted a nearly-successful revolt against the Romans under the leadership of Bar Kochba, who had the potential to be the Mashiah. The expulsion from Spain in 1492 was followed by the spectacular flourishing of Torah in the city of Safed, a period which also had the potential to be the harbinger of the final redemption. Immediately after World War I, which wreaked havoc throughout the Jewish communities in Europe, England pronounced the Balfour Declaration which laid the groundwork for a sovereign Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael. The Hafetz Haim said at the time that this event had the potential to bring Mashiah. And after the devastation of the Holocaust, the State of Israel was founded, offering us yet another opportunity to bring our final redemption.
This is how we must approach suffering in our personal lives, as well. We must remember that every period of hardship is followed by a period of great opportunity for blessing and success. As a parent lovingly consoles a punished child, God lovingly consoles us, as well, and is guaranteed to shower us with blessing and good fortune after subjecting us to Yisurim. If we remember that God punishes us as a parent punishes a child, we will have the strength to overcome even life’s cruelest challenges, and the fortitude to rebuild and recover from whatever hardships we are, Heaven forbid, forced to endure.