In Masechet Brachot, Reish Lakish says, “When a person busies himself with Torah, yissurim separates from him. In the evening the bird can go up.” This refers to Torah which lifts up one’s eyes. “And there is no evening like suffering,” as it says, “In the darkness of night.” Yissurim comes as a result of lack. It is meant to purify and galvanize change. Torah can elevate a person to the point where yissurim have no dominion over him. Torah is wholeness.
Rav Huna says in the name of Rav, “If a person sees yissurim coming upon him he should examine his deeds.” If he doesn’t find any personal flaws, he should assume it is because of bitul Torah. If it is not bitul Torah, then it is out of love, (not lack) as it says, “Hashem rebukes those whom he loves.” He wants to draw us closer, so He afflicts us. A person could suffer and not gain anything. He could choose to learn nothing and blame it all on external causes. Alternatively one can grow and view it as a catalyst for change.
Rav Yaakov Bar Idi and Rav Chana bar Chanina differed on their view of suffering. One said that any suffering that prevents a person from learning Torah cannot be yissurim shel ahavah (suffering out of love) for how can you turn someone on and then take away his ability to act upon it? The other says that if a person can still pray to Hashem and achieve deveikut (connection), it’s still yissurim shel ahavaha. Rav Chiya and other opinions maintain that even suffering where one cannot pray is an expression of Hashem’s love.
Suffering can be extrinsic in that it is a means towards actualizing potential. It also works intrinsically by purifying the body so that the soul becomes the person’s primary identity. This is learned from the law of shen v’ayin. A non-Jewish slave who loses a tooth or eye must be freed. If a slave can redefine himself as a free person through minor suffering, how much more so can a person whose entire body is afflicted with suffering become a different person.
The Torah commands us to add salt to a sacrificial offering. This is called brit melach. Similarly, yissurim are also called a covenant. Just as salt enhances food, yissurim sweeten sin by cleansing and purifying the person. Suffering humbles the body and atones for sins. It drives a person to begin thinking beyond physicality.
When a person cannot find any sin, it is bitul Torah, meaning he has unfulfilled potential that must be brought out. Yissurim puts a person on the fast track drawing out his untapped strengths.
Hashem doesn’t beat dead horses. There’s a vast difference between what a refined person and what a vulgar person can learn from suffering. For a tzaddik, it’s a sign of love. Yissurim expel the material side of a person and propel him higher.
Nobody longs for what they have. We long for what we don’t have. In order to generate this yearning, Hashem created barriers to prevent us from being who we are. When things are easy for us materially, we don’t think about spirituality because we are so involved in our physical self-fulfillment. Therefore, Hashem creates obstacles in the form of suffering to propel us to higher levels of spiritual yearning.