Have Mercy: more on suffering

Image: Statue of a man holding his head. (strecosa/pixabay)

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I do what my doctor tells me to do. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We need to consider as a society that when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

God put us here for one another. Whether it is a spouse, or a friend, or a stranger, anyone who reaches out to another with love and kindness is an agent of the Holy One.

May we all have mercy on one another.

 

 

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Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

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

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

What Can Prayer Do?

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will. – Gates of Prayer

“The Power of Prayer” is a big topic for me these days.

I tend to be very careful about words like “miracle.” I have spent enough time around hospitals to know that inexplicable healings happen, sometimes after family and friends have prayed. But I also know that injury and illness usually run the course predicted by medical science. When a doctor tells me that they expect someone to get well, I believe them. When they tell me gravely that it’s “very serious,” I know what that means.

Where is God in this? I do not presume to know the mind of God – in fact, I am pretty sure that even using the word “mind” for God puts limits on the Holy One that do not apply. God, to me, is the mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s words.

Still, I pray for sick people and since September, I and a lot of other people have been praying for my brother. (For his story, click the link.) I put a pretty cheerful spin on it in that previous post. The truth was that he was gravely injured, and most people with the injuries he had do not wake up; they die. Yet after 5 weeks in a coma, my brother woke up and told his wife that he loves her. A week later I sat in his hospital room, and we were able to communicate. Reports continue to be excellent – he’s recovering his speech and control of his body, and even the super-cautious like myself are calling it a miracle.

Did prayer do it? I don’t know. Did God do it? Absolutely, through the hands of wise doctors and skillful nurses and the life force inside Albert himself. Whether God was whispering to him, “You’re going to make it,” I don’t know. I just know that he is better, and I am grateful.

And yet there is another family somewhere saying, “We prayed! We prayed HARD!” but their loved one still died, or remained in the coma. Prayers are not magic.

I don’t know why some people live and some people die.  I refuse to believe in a capricious God. 

Last night I got another lesson on the power of prayer. I went to Shabbat services, which I haven’t been doing often because all the travel in the last month has left me with big pain problems. I prayed at home, which is good, but it isn’t the same as praying with a minyan. Last night I went to services, and I surrendered to the rhythm of the service: ancient prayers, ancient songs, some of them to tunes written recently by people I know, some composed hundreds of years ago. I heard wise words from my rabbis. I heard encouraging words from our temple president, Sam. I watched as new temple board members were blessed in, one of them a student of mine. (Oh, delight!) And then we prayed some more.

I have been on overdrive since Rosh Hashanah. I was wound so tight, worrying about my brother, worrying about his wife and kids, shepherding people in my care, listening to people talk out their frustrations and fears, trying to give reassurance and strength. I accompanied a family through a complicated funeral. I sat on a beit din (rabbinical court) and affirmed a new Jew.

But last night, through the power of prayer, my heart opened up and I cried. I leaked tears throughout the service, beginning at the “Mi Chamocha,” (“Who is like You?”) the song the Israelites sang after they’d crossed the Red Sea and finally gotten away from Pharaoh. Prayer in the midst of my community gave me what I needed, and challenged me to be more.

Prayer at its best brings us closer to the best person we can be. It builds our compassion for the suffering, and it reminds us who we really are. 

Some miracles are amazing, and some are quiet. I am grateful for both.

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.

 

What is Shabbat Nachamu?

"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael
“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.

After Trauma, what?

Image: Arial view of the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks. Photo by TSGT CEDRIC H. RUDISILL, USAF ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Years have passed since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.

Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget  November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.

As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him.  The parents who lose a child will never be the same.

In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may  work towards a life after tragedy.  There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose.    Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.

If, this Elul, you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma,  not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.