Chronic Pain: One Jewish Perspective

 

Image: Woman walking through a cactus greenhouse. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about suffering. The discussion begins with the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses tells the people again and again that if they keep the commandments, all will be well, and if they sin, they will suffer for it.

As a person with chronic pain, my reaction to those texts ranges from annoyance to rage. If suffering is a punishment for sin, why didn’t [insert name of Bad Person here] live in agony? What did I do that was bad enough that I feel like this?

The ancient rabbis recognized the ridiculousness of a claim that all pain is deserved by the sufferer. Their answer to this puzzle came in the form of narrative:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:] “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

The rabbis have a problem. Their theology assumes an omnipotent personal God, a God who assents to every person’s suffering, since it is in the power of God to fix anything that is undeserved. The rabbis knew good, decent people who had terrible suffering – hence, a problem.

Someone among them cooked up the idea of yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” the idea that God loves some people so much that He (they thought of God in masculine terms) gave them suffering, perhaps as a vehicle for self-improvement. I can hear, between the lines, that many of the other rabbis thought this idea was just plain stupid: who enjoys suffering? But instead of the Talmud text saying so (thereby shaming the rabbi who came up with this plan) we get little stories that point out that not everyone welcomes this so-called gift.

In this series of stories, there is no discussion of whether there had been sin to provoke the affliction; rather, the rabbis assume that these are yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” a gift from God. In other words, they assume the best about the patient. The suffering rabbis reject the proffered “gift” of pain: if the affliction is a gift from God, they don’t want it or any presumed benefit from it. Then the visiting rabbi asks for the hand of the sick rabbi, and revives him.

At the end of the second story, we get the punch line: what relieves the suffering of the rabbis is not something from God but the touch of a human hand.  They are saying to us, “Maybe there are (a few) people who can grow from suffering. Maybe there are others who receive miracles from God. But for most people the only relief that will come is from other human beings.”

What do I get from this passage as a person who has chronic pain?

  • I feel understood by my forebears: they get it that I do not deserve this.
  • I feel permission to say, “If this is a gift from God, no thanks.”
  • They offer a model for something that can sometimes help: human contact.

Their model is a visitor who:

  • accepts that the pain is real
  • asks sincere questions about the sufferer’s state of body and mind
  • listens to what the sufferer says
  • does not offer advice
  • does not offer diagnoses
  • does not talk about themselves
  • touches only after asking

I have not yet been miraculously healed by a visitor, nor do I expect to be. I am fortunate to have people in my life who treat me with respect, who listen without advice-giving and who ask before they touch. This text reminds me to value those people as the sages they are.

I also know people who tell me that it is in my head, that if I went to their doctor / lost weight / took their snake oil / had more surgery / etc. it would all go away (so it is actually my own fault that I have the pain.)  This text reminds me that those people are NOT sages, they don’t talk or act like sages. In other words, feel free to ignore them.

This is only one of many Jewish perspectives on suffering. I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, who introduced me to this text. I hope to write about more texts on the subject in future posts.

May each of us find relief, temporary if not permanent, small if not large, partial if not full today and tomorrow. May each of us eventually reach a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Amen.

 

The Shul Rat

I am a regular reader of The Cricket Pages because I love Rachel’s writing as well as the photos of her two little dogs. I’m reposting this entry to Coffee Shop Rabbi because I think my readers would enjoy this particular post, “The Shul Rat.”

rachelmankowitz

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

View original post 764 more words

Pesach and the Calendar

Some of you may have noticed that this week there is a discrepancy between the calendar for Jews in the Diaspora, and the calendar for Israel and for Reform Jews in Diaspora (who follow the Israel calendar.)  For an explanation of why there’s a difference, check out this article by Ben Dreyfus.

If you are wondering what YOU should read, the easy answer is “ask your rabbi.” The senior rabbi of your congregation is the “Marah d’atrah,” the final word on the schedule and practice in your shul. If you don’t have a rabbi, well, get one!

So this week’s drashot are all over the map. Some are for the eighth day of Pesach, and some look ahead past Pesach to Acharei Mot. All are Torah, though, so it’s all good!

Crossing the Reed Sea by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

On Loving Our Neighbors by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

You Are What You Wear by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Whatever you learn this week, I wish you a Shabbat shalom!

 

 

Bringing Along the Bones

So… Passover is nearly over. We’re on our way to Sinai, a journey from redemption to responsibility.

When Moses and the people of Israel left Egypt, they carried the bones of Joseph with them. (Exodus 13:19) He had requested that they do so when he prophesied that they would someday leave Egypt and go home. (Genesis 50:25) Those bones would wander with the people of Israel for over forty years, until they were finally put to rest in Shechem. (Joshua 24:32) Moses made sure they brought those bones with them because of an ancient promise. Joshua saw to it that the bones were buried in the soil of Shechem to fulfill the promise.

Likely the “bones” of Joseph were actually his mummified body in a wooden box. He had been a high official in Pharaoh’s government, so he would have been buried as an Egyptian courtier. Moses took the time and trouble to locate the box and to carry it along, despite the danger, despite the need to move quickly.

What would you bring along, if you suddenly had to leave your home on short notice? Photos? Legal papers? A precious antique? The pets? The children’s toys? What if you knew you were going to have to walk hundreds of miles? What would you choose to leave behind? What would be too precious to leave?

Passover is almost behind us now. It’s time to look around and say, what practices, what insights am I going to bring along with me, as I walk towards the future? What hurts, what old grudges, what outmoded ideas will I decide to leave behind in Egypt?

Passover Greetings

Image: A fresh spring salad. Photo by Jill111 via Pixabay.com.

Yes, Passover is still going on – the seders may be over, but we’re still scattering matzah crumbs at my house.

Most people know the simplest Passover greetings:

Chag sameach!” (Khahg sah-MAY-akh)  means Happy Holiday. The proper reply is simply “Chag sameach!” right back.

Pesach sameach” (PAY-sahkh sah-MAY-akh) means Happy Passover. The proper reply is simply “Pesach sameach.”

However, in the middle days of Passover are different. They are called the Chol HaMoed, which translates to “Ordinary (days) of the festival.” That means that regular activities like work are permitted (which they aren’t on the chagim, the holy days at the beginning and at the end).

There’s a special greeting for the chol hamoed, the middle days:

Moadim l’simchah!”  (moh-ah-DEEM l-seem-KHAH) – “Festival of Happiness!”

The proper reply to this is, “Chagim U’zmanim L’sasson” – (Khahg-EEM oo-z’mahn-EEM l’sah-SOHN”   “Holiday and Times of Joy!”

Thanks to Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who reminded me of these special greetings in a facebook conversation.

Shalom, Salam: A Listening Tour of Twitter

Image: An Israeli-Palestinian peace poster. By I, Makaristos [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I follow a lot of people on Twitter. Many of them are people whose beliefs challenge me. By following them on Twitter, I get leads on readings that sometimes will lead to a shift in my thinking. It’s a great way to learn, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

Recently I decided that I needed to review my thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I began following people on both sides, from the far left to the far right. My Twitter feed filled up with voices like @naomi_dann and @j_t_rex on the left, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, and voices like @GushEtzion and @GolanShahar on the right. I followed Palestinian voices like that of @AliAbunimah. I tried to find individuals as well as organizations. I subscribed and I listened, and I read articles the twitterers suggested.

Unfortunately, I had to un-follow a lot of people, too. If someone indulged in name-calling or demonizing people they didn’t like, I unfollowed immediately, because on Twitter, followers are prized. I did not want to encourage bad behavior. I was interested in learning, not in filling my mind with sewage.

What did I learn? I learned that I have very little taste for either the far right or the far left on this subject, because both of them seem to have lost all compassion for one side of the dreadful situation in the region. People on the far left seem to have lost track of the fact that generations of Israelis were born in Israel and it is their home. People on the far right seem to have lost track of the fact that not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and that they have a right to live in peace. I don’t see qualifiers on either side that suggest that ordinary people on both sides are suffering in the present situation.

Torah demands that we see “the Other” with compassion. The Haggadah reminds us of this when we spill ten drops of wine at the seder in memory of the Egyptians who suffered from the plagues. The Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas built his entire philosophy around his experiences during the Holocaust, and he writes again and again that there is an ethical imperative to choose compassion in our treatment of the Other.

Just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so you too must be compassionate and gracious. – Sifre Deuteronomy 49

Some attempt to justify hatred of Palestinians by citing the case of Amalek. Amalek was an ancient tribe who attacked the weakest of the Hebrews as they traveled through the wilderness at Riphidim, and God decreed their destruction by Israel. (Num. 24:20; Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19) However, they reappeared in the Books of Judges and of 1 Samuel. The Book of Chronicles says that the last of them were destroyed by the tribe of Simeon during the reign of King Hezekiah. (1 Chr. 4:42, 43)

Still, there are clues in the name of Haman the Aggagite in the Book of Esther that he was a descendant of Amalek, and the legend has persisted that every time there is a great enemy of the Jews, it is a reappearance of Amalek. So in modern Israel even 13 years ago, I saw bumper stickers suggesting that Palestinians are Amalek. Some of the people I followed on Twitter made the same claim, and cited the commandment to “blot out Amalek” (Deut. 25:19) as a justification for violence against Palestinians as a group.

I have absolutely no difficulty with the rule of law, holding individuals responsible for their actions by way of a legal system. However, I reject the idea that every enemy faced by the Jewish people is “Amalek” and therefore anything goes.

Both sides of the dispute over the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River are suffering. In any given incident, there may be more wrong on one side or the other, but it does not justify the demonization of either group. Nor does it justify the teaching of hatred to children, whether they are Palestinian children or the children of Israelis living in the West Bank.

After all my Twitter reading and listening, I came back to my uncomfortable seat as a moderate. I reject the anti-Zionist position as a vicious fantasy based in antisemitism. I reject the far-right position that fantasizes about a “Greater Israel” in which Palestinians would be second-class citizens and that seeks to realize that fantasy via the establishment of more settlements. I reject both positions because they are both based in an utter lack of compassion for the situation of the other side.

May the day come soon when both sides choose to sit at the table at one time to find a genuine solution to a situation which is a nightmare for both.

 

Happy Earth Day: The Culture of Collards on Vimeo

It’s an honor to pass on this Earth Day post and video from Michael Twitty, food historian and peacemaker.

Afroculinaria

Enjoy this short film by my friend Aditi Desai featuring me, 3 Part Harmony Farm and City Blossoms DC in an exploration of the heritage of collards and culinary and food justice. I was privileged to see it screened at the DC Environmental Film Festival at American University, and in honor of Earth Day, you can see it tonight at my Alma mater Howard University!

Enjoy and happy Earth Day!

image

View original post