Discover more from Beyond Belief
The Sense In Suffering
A Kabbalistic Approach
One of humanity’s oldest and deepest questions is "why do bad things happen to good people?" All of the world's faith traditions and philosophies have attempted to answer it. Sarah Schneider is an author and an expert on Kabbalah. In this video she explains the Kabbalistic take on the nature of suffering - how to understand it, and also how to transcend it.
Adam Jacobs (AJ): Hi. Sarah is so great to see you and to finally have this conversation which we have been waiting so long to have. So thank you, first of all, so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Sarah Schneider (SS): Thank you for inviting me. Really. It's an honor.
AJ: My great pleasure. So I have been a fan of your work for really a long time now. It's probably going on 20 years, I think. I've read everything that you've published and what I really respect and enjoy about the way you communicate is you take very difficult concepts and especially in the world of Kabbalah. And I feel that you have a gift in making it very accessible. And so I thought that you know, looking around the world and looking at YouTube and things that people are dealing with and what gets a lot of attention is a lot of people seem to be suffering emotionally these days. There are it's considered almost an epidemic, you know, among especially young people, the amount of anxiety, depression, unfortunately, suicide rates are up and addictions people are not happy. And I wanted to have a conversation with you about the Kabbalistic view of why this might be and maybe some of its prescriptions for how it could help us to live happier, more fulfilling lives. And so to start that off, I would I'll ask you this question. What essentially is the Kabbalistic take on suffering itself? Why why is the world that way? Why do people have to go through so much and process so much and so it's really it's almost like two questions in one. One is, what's the Kabbalistic view on suffering? And two is couldn't the creator have made a better world than the one we have?
SS: Right. Okay. So, so maybe I'll start really just with a quick definition of Kabbalah or Kabbalah. Either way, you can say it just to kind of put us on track because it includes the idea of the mystery of suffering. So just that, you know, it's the mystical interpretation of the Torah and its precepts. And Kabbalah explores the sense of deepest intentions for creation.
AJ: Meaning God right? The infinite?
SS: Sorry. Yes. And what purpose does the universe serve and why did the creator fashion it? This way and not another? And what's the point of each detail and how does it support the larger vision? And then of course, if God is good and perfect and why isn't the universe like why so? And what's the significance of the source of our 613 religious practices that Hashem requests from us? And what is God communicating by each turn of events in our personal and collective histories? And what doesn't mean that human beings are created in the image of God? And these questions unfold and reduce really to one single-pointed quest, which is how do I bring body, heart, mind, and soul into perfect harmony with spiritual law? And so the question of suffering and why Hashem created a world where there is where he is, by definition, and good at least is an article of faith. Hashem is by definition good, and there's so much bad in the world is one of the most like esoteric secrets and mysteries of the universe, really. And so although we will kind of be presenting different theories about why that might be so, I also just want to say that ballistically it's the teaching is self-suffering and the why of suffering is particularly the why of why this person has to is has been chosen to endure this. And this person that is from the is considered the terminology in Kabbalah is a key center of mana. It really is the most guarded and mysterious secrets of the divine that the answer the lights that are holding the answer to that question are too big. They won't even fit into the universe at its present state of development.
So it's just to say that it's really, you know like there is a story of Eleazar, Ben Haddad, who lived he was a Talmudic rabbi who lived a very difficult life. And at one point he just had enough and complained to Hashem, like, why Hashem? How much does a human being have to bear? And Hashem says, Elazar, my son, you know, I, I hear what you're saying, and if you want, I will turn I will turn the universe into chaos and void and rebuild it again. And maybe then you'll come out in a different mazel and in a different person. And Elazar says Reb Elazar says all that. And just maybe so, so right. You're right. So it means that and kind of what comes out from that is really that there are two different levels of what's called in Hebrew mazal, which is like fortune life fortunes. And there's higher mazal and lower mazal. And lower mazal is higher mazal is the deepest just built-in purpose and point of order of our particular life and of us collectively as well. And it's, it's, it can't change because we would cease to be like it. It's this it's the definition of us really. And lower mazel is the resources that are available in the circumstances that Hashem designs and Providence designs in order to make sure that we accomplish what our purpose is.
And, I mean, part of the problem is there's no way to distinguish like a feature of our life. There's no way to know whether it's coming from higher mazel or lower mazel. And so and so all that to say that we'll be talking of, you know, suggests certain theories. You will, too, I'm sure. And but really, behind all that, it's just we have to understand that there's just such a mystery there. And it and an impossibility of really fathoming the fullness of it and the depths of it.
AJ: So I think that that is a fair response. Personally, I'm trying to put my head, myself in the shoes of somebody who doesn't necessarily accept the Kabbalistic tradition or doesn't necessarily accept that there's a spiritual reality, you know, or they might just not know. And oftentimes that kind of thinking, there's an accusation leveled out. It's where it's sort of like, well, that's a theory that you guys came up with to justify how lousy everything is, you know? And of course, it's a way of keeping everyone sort of pacified, you know, because how can you deal with life the way it is? And so, therefore, it's a nice thought. It's a nice thought that, you know, that there's a mystery, that saying, God, God's ways are mysterious sort of pushes it aside. But you're saying, listen, from what I understand, there are mysteries. You know, that as much as we would like to grasp, the fundamental nature of reality, a human being has a limited consciousness and is our ability to perceive what's unfolding, even just in a physical sense. We don't see neutrinos and we don't see gravitation and our perception is so narrow. So what do you expect? And if you're talking about ultimate reality, maybe we just don't have the vessel to fully process it. And it maybe can only be grasped with the mind's eye, so to speak. Is that a fair way of? Yes.
SS: Yeah. And I do think that we can talk about it and suggest kind of models and paradigms and explanations for I mean, we have we can't help but do so because it's such a compelling question and so intrinsic to our individual lives and collective lives. We all have hard times and know people that have super hard times and you know, you can't help but want to try to offer some kind of comfort, some explanation that is meaningful around it. So what's one? What's one you would suggest to start? Like, you know, if you had to pick the best one, like, why are we suffering? Right? It seems like most of the explanations come down to it. It's a growth pain of one sort or another that Tanya talks about and has a kind of like a beautiful explanation about the idea that there are or so there's a kind of principle of faith that you have to kind of it's kept as a premise. And then everything that he's going to say after that follows logically. But the principle of faith is that God is good which means that every interaction that God has with creation is somehow an expression of good. Mm hmm. This means that there are two categories of good that revealed good, which we say, mazel tov and thank God and pray for our loved ones and for ourselves. And there's concealed good, which is often so well concealed. It appears bad. Mm. And the rabbi of Jewish settlement of the idea talks about how there is people might be familiar with the four-letter name of Hashem. I don't know but it's describing the sequence of divine involvement in creation.
AJ: And that's known as the Tetragrammaton. I think in this. I guess that's Greek.
SS: Yeah. And it has four and four letters which are indicated for levels of Hashem of God's unfolding into creation. And the first two are called the higher two are called the concealed realms, and the bottom two are the revealed realms. And he explains that the revealed good comes from the lower outer, more superficial levels of divinity. And the concealed good comes from the higher inner, more essential levels of divinity. And so what is happening in travail and suffering is that a person is encountering a level of divine inwardness of like it is entering into a level of intimacy with the divine that is deeper than anything that they have experienced before and the light that they are needing to.
The lights in Kabbalah are always equated with consciousness. So the light sort of consciousness that are needing to come in in order to that that they themselves are the deeper encounter with the divine are too big and powerful for their vessel of personality and consciousness to be able to hold it at this time. So it forces them to dilate and to stretch. And that is really the produces, the discomforts that are the sufferings of life. And the theory is that when that hidden good, those higher lights are absorbed and integrated with, the person reflects back on those experiences and calls them and reframes them as a blessing in disguise that when feeling good becomes revealed, good, it's experienced as a blessing in disguise. And so I think we all probably have had, you know, many moments of that where the time lapse between concealed good and reveal good is maybe a week or a month or a year or something like that, where you can track the process. But, some lights are much bigger and more powerful than that. And they could take lifetimes even to integrate. And so it is not as easy to track the source of things.
AJ: So I think you said something very profound there. And yes, I think that qualifies as a good initial answer to this conundrum and reframes it in a very fascinating way, which is you're essentially saying that suffering is a higher form of consciousness than a pleasurable, you know, a life of repose and that is fascinating, you know, because it certainly gives somebody a little bit more strength to endure something. If they would have the belief that, like, okay, like what I'm going through is extremely uncomfortable. But as long as there's a purpose that we know this classically from a philosophy that people can endure any what as long as they have a why, you know as if a person's going through hard times. But there's a purpose to it. They can deal with it, you know, but if there's no purpose and it's just this, infliction of pain, it's very hard to take that. So I think that if somebody could live with that, on a daily basis, it certainly would change the way that they relate to things.
But let me let me contrast that actually. I was going to ask this. It's farther down on my list to ask you. But, in Eastern thinking about suffering, there is an approach, I think that says that you should sort of allow suffering to exist, you know, not try to mitigate it or fight against it. It's the nature of life is is is to suffer. And on an ultimate plane, we're trying to sort of remove ourselves from this cycle of suffering and of rebirth. And if you're contrasting that to the Kabbalistic way of thinking about it, this almost sounds like no, as opposed to saying suffering is something to be avoided and is quote-unquote bad. You know, we're flipping it on its head and saying, no, embrace it, because it's good.
SS: Right. If it brings it can turn into good. But the truth is, the rabbis I mean, that's what I kind of love about the Talmud. And it's its ability to its insistence upon presented us with paradoxes. So there's a famous passage in the Talmud where a rabbi is sick on their sickbed, and another rabbi comes in and says, Are your sufferings precious to you? And the rabbi says, No, neither them nor their merits. And so the rabbi who visited said, Well, okay, so now you can heal. And he reaches out his hand and pulls him out of his sickbed. And there's like a number of different stories like that, meaning that we don't also glorify suffering. Like if Hashem feels like it is something that we need in order to go to us into our next step of personal and spiritual development, then we'll work with it and we'll and will try to relieve ourselves. I mean, it's the natural human instinct to try to relieve ourselves of suffering.
And that seems to be a good thing in the Jewish tradition, not to kind of glorify suffering, but to work with it, to trust that it's here. Because, I mean, the kind of faith that it is here because it is the most if God is good, then this is the most gentle way that could possibly be designed to bring about my next step in personal and spiritual development. If there was a gentler way to do it, Hashem would surely have chosen it. And so it is purposeful and there's a message for me here and a growth imperative for me here. And I'm going to roll up my sleeves and try to figure out what it is I can be done with that suffering as soon as possible.
AJ: Mm hmm. I think that's also important what you're saying now. And I think it's surprising for people. Possibly that's the benevolence. Infinite's would, as you said, gently, you know, provide challenges of this sort. Most people who are enduring them do not necessarily view it as gentle and can struggle with it, can struggle mightily with it, sometimes for a lifetime. But as opposed to some other faith traditions out there who sort of create a dichotomy like, you know, there's the God who is good and does good, and then there's another there are other forces that create the evil because I don't think that it can they can justify how this all good, infinite force can do bad. But yet we have in the book of Isaiah, there's a famous quote that God both creates the good and the bad and emphatically says, I am God, I do all of these things right.
SS: So that's again, something that people if they were to consider, you know, this the system would have to come to an acceptance of that. That it's all part of one thing, but one good thing. But what are the outgrowths of that goodness is that it has to provide a challenge for the purpose of growth, which is part of ultimate goodness.
AJ: Right. Okay. And so but therefore so I think we're we're definitely on the same page. Oh, do you know anything about the Eastern approach? And, you know, is there any synergy to be found between the Kabbalistic approach?
SS: I haven't studied it for a while, but I do. I, I mean, I think that yes, I actually wrote a Jewish version of the Noble Truths, the four Noble Truths, because it's interesting that some in the Buddhist we both observe that suffering is endemic, that it's inescapable, that it is everywhere and that and that from the Buddhist perspective, suffering comes from attachments that we're disappointed and losses. And so the solution I might be you know, there's not every religion has its subtleties that an outsider can't know. But my understanding is that the solution is to cultivate non-attachment and the Jewish response to suffering is, is, look, first of all, at the message of but not of non-attachment, but the fact that suffering comes from you can't hold on to anything in the physical world. It will eventually betray you not because it's bad, but because it's just temporal. It's not stable. Impermanent, impermanence.
And yeah. So, our festival of impermanence is Sukkot, which is, and yet we call it “zman simchatenu,” which means the holiday of greatest joy. And the message is that, yes, life is hard and attachments are going to hurt, but we're going to have families and we're going to attach to them and we're going to cry when there's loss and pain and we are going to have missions and attach to them and suffer with their difficulties. But it's because behind all that, as you mentioned earlier, there is purposefulness like that. This is what Hashem has asked of us and there is something so deeply sweet, sweet, and satisfying about engaging in the purposefulness that the pains and ordeals of attachments become worse. They're worth it. Way worth it.
AJ: So, yeah. Okay, I want to try to make it practical for people. You know, I, I'm sure you do. And I come across people who can't seem to get out from under the thumb of a certain kind of suffering, let's say. So I'm talking about people with like severe and chronic health issues or people who have mental health challenges and they've tried everything under the sun, you know, for years and years to change it in a is, I thought, a song I'm thinking of a by a particular artist, which is called Why Am I This Way? And I know that this artist suffers from depression and anxiety, you know, like and the song to me is like a plea is just like I, I can't understand, like, how how can my life be this how could this be? It's, you know, what? What would you say to somebody, you know, who is really an expert in the Kabbalistic tradition? And, you know, if someone was to come to you and say, you know, these are very beautiful ideas, how how can they apply to mitigate my pain? Now?
SS: Right. So I think that I mean, one of the like there's different with suffering comes from divine concealment, but it's there's an interesting teaching about the Komarna rabbi about the power of our interpretation of our hardships and difficulties. And that, you know, most oftentimes people have a retro specter of explanation for their suffering, that this feels like punishment. And so they must have done something wrong or they, you know, in this lifetime or another lifetime or whatever and kind of interpret things that way, which the Komarna rabbi says is like it. It creates it might answer questions, but it actually does also create suffering in that just that interpretation.
And you compound the suffering by by analyzing it in such a way that it feels even worse. Right. And that it's weird that that and this is punishment and that. And so he talks about the first of all, this in the Talmud, there's a concept of sufferings, of love, which implies that there are sufferings of punishment also. But the Talmud says and so the Talmud asks the question, how can you tell which is sufferings of love, in which are sufferings of a consequence of wrong action, and so forth? It says, well, almost all of them are suffering from wrong action. Like if you can look at your life and see that you've never done anything wrong and not even neglected to study for you know when you could have, then then you can talk about sufferings of love. That's one opinion.
The next opinion is No, no, no. Any suffering that doesn't interfere with your study or your prayer, those are sufferings of love. If the suffering interferes with your study and prayer, then it's not. Then it's a consequence. And then another rabbi comes and this is the final one. That is the ruling one, which is. No, sorry, they're all sufferings of love. So in other words, they're all sufferings of love. They're their primary reason that we have hardship is not because of consequences, but because what is sufferings of love. It's because this is a circumstance that we need to endure and find our way through and bear in order to. I think about it as in a bakery when I saw a cake. So they have the icing. The way they ice a cake is that there's a nozzle with a funny shape to it and that force attached to it. And they squeeze, the icing through the nozzle and it sculpts, the icing into the form for the cake. And so that's really life. Our life is like that nozzle and we're like squeezed through that nozzle. And in order to bring about changes, transformation, growth, deepened understandings, all that stuff. And so to be that icing is not very comfortable.
AJ: Right. Right. But you're going to end up being something beautiful. Right? And there's this information there. Like somehow this is like every circumstance of our life is really custom tailored because there is some kind of growth or some kind of message that we need to get from that and integrate into our life. And there is you know, it's there is great comfort that comes from discovery, from getting the message and understanding the purposefulness and being able to then work with it. And when you build, make something from it right. I think that's you know, there's a great resurgence of interest in psychedelic substances. And I think a lot of the pursuit, especially nowadays, that it's getting taken seriously. You know, there are researchers it's not just totally recreational like it might have been at one time. And the descriptions that people give many people, not everybody, but many people is of an awareness of a reality that's beyond the physical world. And that generally terms like love, unity, harmony are associated with, you know, and in a way that's utterly powerful, so that people leave these experiences and they have a really completely different appreciation for the nature, the ultimate, what they feel is the ultimate nature of reality. And they're much happier. You know, afterwards, they feel like sort of healed by the experience and sometimes permanently, you know, from major things like cancer patients who have reported losing the fear of death entirely after one psilocybin experience, you know, or two. Is it possible in your experience and your knowledge to use the Kabbalistic system to create what I would describe as true peace of mind, you know, to achieve something similar, that all these mystical traditions and faith traditions are a lot of them are pointing towards the same thing, but a lot of quote-unquote religions, even for people who are very active in them, don't aren't necessarily providing that like a very powerful sense of achievement, you know, of a connection in that way? MM. Can Kabbalah do that for, people in, in your opinion?
SS: Yes, yes. First of all, I think it's very it's a wonderful example what you brought about, you know, people experimenting with these psychedelics and that the consciousness, the shift that they experience inside those experiences does profoundly change their experience of their suffering and hardship, even if it doesn't feel them. It is like the sense of larger picture and purpose oneness really does ease the the the reality of the difficult reality of their lives. And yes, I do think I do see around me. I mean, you know, I'm older so I love my peers who have been around for a lot of years practicing their Judaism and studying and working with prayer. And I really do see people that are just paradigms shifted in terms of their understanding of their lives, the way they relate to the difficulties in their lives and, you know, are whole, are like the big picture is real to them. I mean, and present and their relationship with the divine is so tangible that it is just a real comfort in their changes, the quality of their lives, and the quality of their of their hardships.
But it's not you know, it's a lot of years was invested in that. And also a lot of my parents have been through the sixties where they were they're on you know, the reassurance. Is. Yeah, we're shaped by that to some degree.
AJ: Okay. But if I'm someone who is not inclined to do drugs, you know, can the Kabbalistic way help me or anybody, you know, to connect that sort of blissful reality that that, I believe is the true reality? You know, that's beyond the confusion and the pain of our physical incarnation. Mm hmm. Can that be achieved or, you know, or is the Kabbalistic way more intellectual where, you know, where I just come to, like, intellectual understanding of these things, and then I have to what ritual can be done or what practice can help us to actually feel and not just know these ideas? Does that make sense?
SS: Yeah. Yeah, I know that for myself. The most profound, like, kind of experiences of what's called in Hebrew, the vehicle like a sense of cleaving to the divine have come in prayer in like kind of which has a kabbalistic element to it in the sense of exploring intellectually kind of the onto the meaning of the prayers. But when I'm in prayer, I'm not really thinking about that. I'm just sticking with the words. And so there's a very powerful prayer practice, which is called pausing after every three words where you kind of read three words, think about is, are these what they're saying? And do you want to send these words up to God? Or are you if yes, then do it. And if not.
AJ: All right, hit the send button.
SS: Right, right. That's enough. Take a moment to try to reframe that idea so it becomes something that you can connect to and then send it up. And if you still can't, then make note of it and ask around, you know, what do you think about when you say these words? And until you find something that is satisfying and it really for myself you know, I just go into another dimension, another world. It's a very, very powerful practice. And, I have some I on the website, I have some videos also about meditation and prayer and meditation and study. And because also study it can if you study meditatively and prayerfully and also can like it's almost like you could open a channel and the truth truths would maybe you'd have to, you know, stretch a lot and would, you know, be a kind of ordeal to try to integrate those consciousnesses that you can just suspend. Well, I don't know your limitations. And it says there is just a light and a consciousness that is able to be direct. Send like a download.
AJ: So let's stick with that for one more minute and, then I see our, unfortunately, our time is, is dwindling at the moment, but it is a very, I think, a very critical topic for humanity at moment and has, you know, big implications for human thriving and quality of life and, purpose and meaning and all that. But I think your average person who doesn't relate to praying at all from you, I think even your average religious person doesn't very much relate to praying. It probably doesn't know what it's about. You know, and I do have some familiarity with the, what I would call the Kabbalistic intent of prayer, you know, and how it moves you from level, you know, to like soul world, the soul world. And there's a very specific order. And of course, if you know, the terminology and in the original texts is all kinds of hints and connections that it's just totally fascinating. And I think that if you think people would be surprised to know that there are specific meditations that go along with our prayer service and that there's an even there's an expectation that it should do something for you rather than just being like this recitation of some ancient poetry, most of which is not really understood anyway, or that you should take your time, or that you should even you know, I think people would be shocked to hear what you're saying, that you feel a deep sense of connection, specifically of all the practices from that one. How can a person and we're going to put your website up so people can explore it, but how can a person get involved? Like if a person wants to let's to meditate, to pray, to take some stab at like, you know, creating a connection to the higher world. How would you recommend they go about trying that?
SS: Hmm. Well, I do think that meditation is definitely the starting point. I think that it's just a tool for just clearing out, you know, the chatter from life and from the world and just some history, our history and all of that, and just creating a space to be able to listen in and listen up if both of them are spiritual practices, are transforming practices. And so yeah, I think then with meditation can go in many directions with that, but I think the starting point is really that okay.
AJ: So in summation from, from what we've discussed, you know, we both agree that there is suffering in this world. I think we both agree that it's purposeful as opposed to random. And if that's the case, then there is a way of enduring it. And as you put it, I think very nicely at the beginning of our conversation, that there's there are lights within the suffering and the correction that's taking place affords you an opening into being squeezed into like a greater version of yourself if you're willing to let that unfold. So I think that's all extremely hopeful and an extremely powerful set of ideas. But so would you say, therefore, for anyone who is and this is really for all of us, but anyone who is suffering and who's struggling there, is there a path forward for everybody in this world? Would you say that that's the case? Everyone can mitigate the difficulty that they're going through.
SS: Yeah. I mean, you know, it is so it's not like you have to it's work. It's going to take work. Not easy. It's not easy. And I don't know if everybody's equipped for that kind of work. I don't know. Series quickly. There's no reason that anyone should not be able to do it. But we have quirky personalities that, you know, it's hard to say everyone can do something. You know, it just seems. Like in theory. Kinds of blocks about things. But yeah, in theory, there's nothing objective to hold anyone back. Yeah.
Aj: Okay. So, Sara Schneider, thank you so much for being here. We're going to put your website up and I recommend all of your books. People should find out about them and read them and study them because they're just each one of them. Fantastic. And everyone in the audience, please Feel free to subscribe and check out our new URL for our site, which is called BeyondBelief.blog and stay abreast of all the great things that we have going on here. Ms. Schneider, thank you so much for being here.
SS: Thank you. Thank you. Really have a great day.