If one were to give a hard and honest look at the heritage of Israel’s heroes, one would be forced to concede that it is not a triumphant past. Moses, at his apogee, came down from a holy mountain experience only to be “welcomed” by collective and unmitigated disloyalty in the shadow of the infamous golden calf. David, when he was anointed king of Israel, subsequently became the nation’s most wanted outlaw—a fugitive and a mercenary. The prophets’ popularity (or lack thereof) is well known, even to the most casual of Bible readers. According to tradition, Isaiah died by being torn in half. Jeremiah’s tears still stain the pages of Scripture in his famous Lamentations, no matter the edition or translation. According to Yeshua, there was in fact a psycho-spiritual accumulation of suffering from the first tzaddik (righteous person) to the last, culminating in his own generation.[ 1 ]
Would it not then stand to reason that the Messiah, the epitome of prophetic hope and the greatest of prophets, would suffer in proportion to, and in honor of, all those that heralded his coming? It is a well-known Talmudic understanding that God’s shekinah (presence) accompanies Israel in its diasporic meanderings, partaking of the woes of God’s people. How much more should the Messiah, as the consummate representative of Israel, understand Jewish suffering from without as well as from within. Therefore, Isaiah’s vision of the Suffering Servant is timeless and portrays a model not only of biblical sorrow, but of Jewish pain throughout the ages.
As Dan Sered points out in an accompanying article, there is no exception to suffering. Pain reaches everyone, from the highest to the lowest strata of society; it respects neither customs nor language barriers. According to writer Cormac McCarthy in his screenplay for the film The Counselor:
“Grief transcends value. . . . you cannot buy anything with grief because grief is worthless.”[ 2 ]
McCarthy is philosophizing on the tragic consequences of our own stupid mistakes: we are our own greatest undoing. Most, if not all of us, suffer the fate we have unwittingly designed for ourselves. Many of the greatest tragedies in literature have plots built around this very theme.
Very few suffer completely innocently—or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet this has been the situation of the Jewish people. As Sholem Aleichem’s character Tevye the Dairyman put it, regarding the situation of the Jewish people, “God I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
We Jews are always “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” This is the history of anti-Semitism. Sholem Aleichem was able to comment with humor and artistry on the many examples of frustrated grief among nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewry during the pogroms. But the next chapter in human history (and specifically Jewish history) would leave no room for such artful expressions of grief.
The culmination and crossroads of this new experience of human suffering was the Holocaust, or Shoah. The Shoah birthed a new dimension to the already multi-dimensional experience of Jewish suffering. It did so, ironically, by diminishing the already limited value of “grief” (McCarthy). In the Shoah, Jews no longer had any value as human beings. They were transformed into things. Nazi persecution set Jewish genocide above other kinds by declaring the Jew a non-entity. Jewish people no longer had souls, hearts or intrinsic human value. So they were recycled into grease, gold and other raw materials.
For the first time since the Enlightenment, diabolic evil had quantitative value. Leon Uris discovered this during his two years of research on the time that intervened between the Holocaust and the foundation of the State of Israel. In Uris’ novel Exodus, Ari Ben Canaan says to Kitty Fremont: “Jewish flesh is cheap, lady. It’s cheaper than beef. It is cheaper, even, than herring!”
As one reads the New Testament, one is confronted with the tragic nature of its protagonists, beginning with the Messiah and continuing with his disciples. The sweetest man, the champion of the weak and disenfranchised, is the one who suffers the most. Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian-born Jewish believer in Jesus who survived the Holocaust, only to be locked in a Communist prison where he was tortured for fifteen years. His first reaction to reading the story of Jesus was realizing that Jesus died during Passover. He reflects,
“Chad Gaya is a poem sung by every generation of Jews for thousands of years on every passover. After Jesus’ death on the cross, Mary knew when she sang the song . . . everyone gets a punishment for what they have done, but there is only one who was completely innocent (the little kid) who gave his life for everyone of us and that such a sacrificial death will end in resurrection.”[ 3 ]
Perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). At the crux of this exposition on suffering and piety is the curious statement, “Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22).
Finding a reasonable equivalent translation for the Aramaic word raca[ 4 ] has been difficult. Many translations leave it as is; according to some Bible dictionaries, the term raca simply means “nothing” or “emptiness.” Yet, says Jesus, every soul has infinite value. And according to what James calls the “royal law,”[ 5 ] Yeshua teaches that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself. Holocaust survivors are among the very few among the billions of humanity who have actually experienced the nullifying experience of raca, this “nothingness” or “emptiness.” Yet Jesus counted himself among those “worthless” few, according to Isaiah chapter 53—and also according to Philippians, where we read that “Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself . . .” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Yeshua became a raca in his suffering as the representative par excellence of the Jewish people. But it was not meaningless. Yeshua willingly suffered to bring us salvation.
All people suffer. Why should this be? This is usually a question directed toward the heavens. However, I would like to challenge you to ask yourself the same question. Many Jewish believers in Jesus identify as Jews, yet in all the claims to Jewish identity I have seen in the Messianic Jewish world, very few include Jewish suffering or the experience of real anti-Semitism. Beyond the issues of ordinary pain and anti-Jewish xenophobia, those of us who are disciples of Yeshua should ask, “Does my suffering contribute to God’s plans?” Do I suffer for the sake of others, so that others might bring their suffering to the cross? If not, am I really a disciple? Am I really a Jew?"
Joshua Turnil directs the Paris branch of Jews for Jesus.
[ 1 ] Matthew 23:34-36.
[ 2 ] First original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor, Jan 2012.
[ 3 ] Richard Wurmbrand, No Other God, p. 19.
[ 4 ] Raca is used in the midrash to describe the wasted multitudes destroyed by the deluge. The Talmud quotes a woman using raca of a violent attacker. See Elie Munk, La Voix de la Thora, La Genèse (Paris: Fondation Odette S. Levy, 1976), p. 70.
[ 5 ] James 2:8.