Today I did my skimming while I was listening, at a meeting, to a presentation about "adverse childhood experiences" and their impact on mental and physical well-being throughout life. It was an interesting backdrop to what most of today's page, Berachot 5a-b, are about, which is: suffering.
The Talmud starts with a fairly traditional theology -- which I reject -- of suffering as punishment. It then moves to the different, but still difficult concept, of "sufferings of love" or yissurin shel ahavah. This is the idea that God brings suffering to those God loves, as a way of.... I'm not positive, haven't done enough theological reading in the area, to know if there's an original sense of the purpose of this kind of suffering. The Talmud seems to suggest that suffering not from punishment can teach; that suffering is a way of proving one's spiritual heights; that suffering is the necessary pathway for the most important spiritual gifts, including the Torah itself.
I can understand that the rabbis, living for centuries already under foreign domination of one or other imperium, might decide that the condition of national suffering must be some kind of sign of a special relation to God that is beyond the material and political. But especially sitting where I was while reading today, I could not find a way to make this concept of "sufferings of love" make sense. Some of us were talking about the randomness of suffering, the fact that people living similar lives in similar situations, whether of privilege or "adverse childhood experiences", suffer or develop resilience and joy.
Anyway, all of that is obvious. Sorry not to be adding anything.
What is interesting to me in the Talmud, though, are stories that follow the argumentation about categories of suffering. I heard a talk by Prof. Judith Hauptman, my Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which she noticed that in many places, when the Talmud follows an analysis with a story, the story often nuances or complicated or just contradicts the teaching.
So here, there are some interesting stories of rabbis who fall ill, and are visited by colleagues or teachers. In each vignette, the visitor asks "Is your suffering beloved to you?" and the answer is, "Neither the sufferings nor their rewards." Then the visitor offers a hand and the lifts up, perhaps heals, the one who is ill.
Again, there's an obvious thing -- touch and presence over theology, when someone is suffering in front of you. Don't be like the friends of Job. I like that the Talmud allows rabbis to contradict their own teachings in the face of real experience, even their own. I don't know if the Talmud is setting up its theologies to be debunked, or passing along the range of tools so we will do that if we see fit.