In "Kol Dodi Dofek" (aka "Fate and Destiny"), Rav Soloveitchik sets up one of his classic dialectics. He writes that the question of suffering can be thought about in two different realms--the realm of fate or the realm of destiny (Soloveitchik, 2*). Since the subject of fate is passive and imposed upon by the world, suffering threatens his very understanding of self (3). He is forced to deny the existence of evil (4). But, Rav Soloveitchik affirms, evil does exist (4). Looking at the world from this point of view is like seeing a stunning carpet from the reverse side--we see the threads, but we cannot see how they all fit together (5). So the subject of fate is faced with a question he cannot begin to answer (5).
But the subject of destiny looks at the world in a different way. Unlike fate, destiny causes an active mode of life (6). Destiny causes people to have a special role in the world--a role of creation, shaping, moving, acting. Unlike the subject of fate, who is paralyzed by the existence of evil, the subject of destiny asks a very different question. Instead of asking whether and why evil exists, the subject of destiny asks what the sufferer does to live through his suffering (7). As a philosopher of Halakhah (Jewish law), the Rav looks at this question in terms of obligation, thus, the question becomes:
"What obligation does suffering impose upon man?" (8).
The Rav continues to discuss the obligations that suffering imposes--particularly that suffering should push us towards teshuva, or bettering ourselves (8-9).
I think, though, that this question is enough to provoke us to think about how we respond to suffering--both our own suffering and the suffering of the people around us.
We cannot know why we suffer. Philosophy, and Jewish philosophy in particular, has grappled with questions of theodicy for thousands of years. There are many approaches to suffering; the book of Iyov (Job) alone presents several thoughts. At best, maybe we cannot understand suffering because we are only able to see the frayed ends of thread on the wrong side of a beautiful carpet.
While this is a question with which we should continue to struggle, we should not let ourselves be paralyzed by our fate. Indeed, as people of action, people of destiny, people who feel responsible to turn the world into a better place, we should ask ourselves how to move forward. When we see people starving on street corners, we cannot know why that was their fate, but we can ask how we can help them. When we see people dying of cancer, we cannot know why that was their fate, but we can ask how we can help them.
And when we feel our own pain, our own struggles, our own suffering, we cannot know why that is our fate, but we can ask how we can move forward, how we can transform our pain into goodness, how we can learn from our pasts and presents to better not only our own futures, but those of the people around us.
*Soloveitchik, Joseph. Fate and Destiny. New York: Ktav Publishing House, 2000.