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What Does Pain Do To Us?

Thursday, 8 January, 2015 - 1:54 pm

"I’m not into working out. My philosophy is no pain, no pain." —George Carlin

An American Jew visits Russia and is asked about life in America. "Thank G-d," he replies, "life is good. How is 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 Brezhnev.'"

"What will you say when Brezhnev dies?" the American asks.

"Then we will say 'thank G-d,'" replies the Russian.

In the opening of this week’s 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."

This brings up a huge question: How could G-d allow the Jewish people to have so much pain and suffering?

Rabbi Yochanan, compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud, was one of the greatest teachers of the Talmudic era. Living an extraordinary long life, from 180-279 CE, one century after the destruction of the second Temple, his teachings are still studied in depth today. His life was also filled with enormous pain. His father died before his birth, and his mother died soon after. He saw each of his ten children pass away. Yet, this great man never lost his equilibrium, faith, optimism, joy and focus. He was a master, a teacher, a leader, and a spiritual giant.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan discussed pain. When such a man discusses pain, we must 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, 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 explain or justify human suffering. G-d could have found other ways to achieve this. Pain remains a mystery and an enigma, and Judaism does not attempt to answer "why." People who claim to have the answers are either cruel, or foolish, or both. (Einstein said, "Two things are infinite: the universe and stupidity; and the latter is more infinite than the former.")

Rabbi Yochanan was not rationalizing, but explaining the results and sensitizing us to appreciate how those struck by grief are truly in a different place. They smile and go to bar mitzvahs too, but there is a hole in them that is never filled. How easy it is for us to look away from grief, as if it might 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. In the words of G-d to Moses, when he observed 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."

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 G-d.

"G-d," I said. "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 the bamboo seeds," He said, "I took very good care of them. I gave them light and water. The fern quickly grew and its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo!

"In the second year the fern grew more vibrant and plentiful. Again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on it! Years three and four were the same, but I would not quit on the bamboo.

"Then in year five, a tiny bamboo sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern, it was small and insignificant. But just six months later, the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall. It had spent the first five years growing roots.

"Those roots made it strong and able to survive. I would not give My creation 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. The bamboo had a different purpose than the fern, but both make the forest beautiful. Your time will come. 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. "Glorify Me by rising as high as you can."

I left the forest, realizing that G-d will never give up on me. And He will never give up on you.

Never regret a day of your life. Good days give happiness; bad days give experiences. Both are essential.

Serenity isn’t freedom from the storm, but peace within the storm.

The holiness of the Jewish people, and of every single Jew, cannot be estimated. Personally, each of us may have much work to do on ourselves; collectively—we are refined beyond any level of refinement 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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