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NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Friday, 12 January, 2018 - 12:47 pm

An American Jew visits Russia and is asked about life in America. “Thank G-d,” he says, “life's good. How's life in the Soviet Union?” 

“Here,” replies the Russian, “it is also good, but here we don’t say thank G-d. Here we say, 'Thank Putin.'” 

“What will you say when Putin dies?” the American inquiries. 

“Then we will say 'Thank G-d,'” replies the Russian. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vaeira, G-d tells Moses: "I, too, have heard the moans of the children of Israel, from the slavery that the Egyptians are enslaving them, and I remembered My covenant.” 

What is the meaning of the words, “And I too have heard the moans?” Does He mention anyone else hearing the moans?

We are also puzzled by the final words of the verse, “and I remembered My covenant,” as though to say that if not for the outcry of the children of Israel, He may have forgotten it. But G-d does not have dementia. Did He really need to be reminded?

Rabbi Yochanan, compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud, was one of the greatest teachers of the Talmudic era. He lived from 180 until 279 ACE, a century after the destruction of the second Temple. His teachings are still studied in depth. His life had much pain. His father died before his birth, and he has orphaned his mother soon after. His 10 children passed on during his lifetime. Yet, this great man never lost his equilibrium, his faith, optimism, joy, and focus. He was a master, a teacher, a leader and a spiritual giant.

In one place in Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan discussed pain. And when such a man discusses pain, we ought to listen. Pain, he taught, elevates a human being to a unique plateau. People in pain live in a different realm. Their perspectives on life, death, love, meaning, truth, and faith profess a depth and sensitivity of different proportions than the rest of humanity. Pain cleanses a person from every possible sin and immoral deed. This does not, of course, explain or justify human suffering. G-d could have achieved the same goals other ways. Judaism never attempted to answer the question of suffering. Human suffering is still an enigma and a mystery. We can never answer "why" satisfactorily. People who claim to have the answers are either cruel, foolish, or both. (Einstein said, two things are infinite: the universe and stupidity; and the latter is more infinite than the former.)

Rabbi Yochanan is not rationalizing, but explaining the results and sensitizing us to appreciate how individuals struck by grief are truly in a different place. They smile and go to parties, but there is an empty hole in them. How easily we look away from grief, as if it may be contagious, or too frightening to face. Yet we must have the humility to always be there for them, allow them to cry on our shoulders, and remain forever humble in their presence. As G-d said to Moses when he saw the burning bush—and all the “burning” souls throughout history—“remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is holy.”

Rabbi Yochanan explained that suffering cleanses a person and elevates him or her to a world of truth and depth beyond the reality of the ordinary human being, but only if (s)he is aware that the pain comes from G-d. With this realization, he will be able to find meaning and purpose in it. However, Reish Lakish disagrees. He compares the pain to salt. No matter who administers the salt, it causes the meat to be refined. Similarly, Reish Lakish argues, that no matter the perspective, all pain places the person experiencing it on a different plateau, infinitely deeper and greater than all other people. The person may be clueless to G-d’s involvement in it, and oblivious to a Divine source of the pain. Yet the very reality of pain transforms people—it places them in a genre all their own. Their holiness and depth is of a different nature. Their heart's violin strings are woven of a different fabric.

A man once shared the following experience: 

One day I decided to quit... I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality... I wanted to quit my life. I went to the woods to have one last talk with God. “God”, I said. “Can you give me one good reason not to quit?”

His answer surprised me. “Look around,” He said. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“When I planted the fern and bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them. I gave them light and water. The fern quickly grew from the earth. Its brilliant green covered the floor. Nothing came from the bamboo seed, but I did not quit on it. In the second year, the fern grew more vibrant and plentiful. But again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. Yet, I did not quit on it. In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed, but I would not quit. The same in year four. Then in the fifth year, a tiny sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern, it was seemingly small and insignificant. But just  six months later, the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall. It had spent the five years growing roots which made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of My creations a challenge it could not handle. 

“Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots? I would not quit on the bamboo. I will never quit on you.

“Don’t compare yourself to others,” He said. “The bamboo and fern had different purposes, but both make the forest beautiful. Your time will come,” God said to me. “You will rise high.”

“How high should I rise?” I asked.

“How high will the bamboo rise?” He asked in return.

“As high as it can?” I questioned. 

“Yes,” He said, “Give me glory by rising as high as you can.” I left the forest, realizing that God will never give up on me.

And He will never give up on you. Never regret a day in your life. Good days give you happiness; bad days give you experiences; both are essential to life. Serenity isn’t freedom from the storm, but peace within the storm. 

Reish Lakish's argument is that regardless of man’s awareness of the source of his anguish, it is transformative and cleansing. Even if a man thinks G-d had nothing to do with it, even if he feels completely disconnected from G-d, the very reality of pain alters man’s consciousness forever. When we stand in the presence of such a human being, we must be humble to our core. For Reish Lakish, the pain of the atheist is as “holy” as the pain of the man of faith. Pain is holy in the sense that those who don’t have it must stand in awe of its presence, realizing how little we understand and how sensitive and loving and nonjudgmental we must be.

We now can appreciate G-d’s words to Moses in the opening of the portion: “I, too, have heard the moans of the children of Israel, from the slavery that the Egyptians are enslaving them, and I remembered My covenant.” Many of the Jews at the time saw Egypt as the source of their suffering. They moaned because they believed the Egyptians were in full control of life and destiny. They forgot that G-d had brought them to Egypt and was ultimately the one to “blame” for their plight. They were unaware of the Divine source of their experiences, and therefore, according to Rabbi Yochanan, they could not find meaning or purpose in suffering. 

This is what G-d is telling Moses. Despite the fact that they believe the Egyptians are to blame, still, I hear the moans. Why? Because “I remembered my covenant.” This alludes to Reish Lakish's insight that both pain and salt are defined in Torah as a “covenant.” Irrespective of how they interpret the pain, they are ready for redemption. The pain of Egyptian exile has transformed these people into the holiest on earth—they are ready to become the ambassadors of holiness to the world.

The holiness of the Jewish people, and of every single Jew, cannot be estimated. Personally, we may each have much work to do on ourselves; collectively—we are refined beyond any level one can imagine. There is an infinite holiness that flows through the blood of our people which no quill can define and no mouth can capture in words. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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