"Remember the long way that... your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, in order to test you by hardships” Deuteronomy 8:2
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Nelson Mandela lies critically ill in his hospital bed in Pretoria. But his spiritual strength is tangible, informed by his experience of struggle and hardship. It is universally acknowledged that his period of incarceration made him the leader he is.
The hardships, anot, mentioned in the verse above, are the same as those suffered in Egypt, but now it is God, not the Egyptians, who is inflicting them and for Israel’s sake. The reproof is intended to strengthen them.
The hardships are listed with other gifts — the sustaining manna, the comfort of clothes which did not age and relief that “their feet didn’t swell”. But suffering as a gift is hard to swallow.
From Deuteronomy to the Book of Job to the Coen brother’s 2009 film A Serious Man, the question is asked does suffering enrich us? The protagonist Larry in that film is a mensch who does the right thing and yet suffers terribly. The question is left hanging. Why? Is he better and wiser at the end of the film? Even Justin Bieber cashes in with the pop philosophy “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. There is precedence in the Talmud: Berachot 5a presents the idea of yisurin shela ahavah, the reproofs of love, which strengthen and enable growth.
When we look back at our lives, with the wisdom of hindsight, we’re probably able to say that we are who we are because of what we’ve endured. In an intertextual play between Torah and English Romantic poets, Wordsworth in his Prelude echoes this gentle theology; “The terrors, pains and early miseries/ Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused/Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part/ And that a needful part, in making up/ The calm existence that is mine when I/Am worthy of myself.”
Do hardships help our hearts?