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Home » Passover, Shemot Parshah, Tragedy

Shemot: Empathy in the Face of Suffering

Submitted by on January 15, 2006 – 10:13 pmNo Comment | 1,338 views

A Mother’s Pain

A mother returned from her child’s funeral and approached the master. Through her tears, she begged him to tell her why her beloved child had had to die. The master asked her, “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes, of course I do” she replied.

“Are you sure?” asked the master.
We are all tempted to learn the secret of G-d’s mysterious ways. We cry, our tears mingling with the tears of generations, our cry, the echo of millennia. “Why do the righteous suffer?” we wail, “Why do the innocent die?” A G-d of moral rectitude would never allow suffering without cause, of that we are certain, but what is that cause?
Do we really want to know? Will such knowledge aid us? “Yes,” we reply, “It will offer closure and allow us to make peace with our suffering.” We listen to our own words and realize how wrong we are. Is suffering something with which we really want to make peace?
Is it not comforting to know that our suffering is somehow connected to a cosmic and infinite plan? Do we want to reduce our pain to neat little proportions that fit the confines of our human mind? Do we really want an answer that we can understand? empathy in teh face of suffering - innerstream

The Burning Bush

Moses was once given an opportunity to understand the reason for human suffering. He was herding a flock of sheep when he came upon a burning bush. Flames licked the branches of the thorn bush but the bush was not consumed. (1)
Biblical commentary teaches that the spectacle was a metaphor. The bush represented man, and the thorns, human suffering. In the flames Moses saw the pain that ripples through us when we are stricken and in grief. Moses was intrigued. The flames did not consume the bush. Pain does not consume the man. Why? (2)
As Moses stood and pondered, G-d offered to teach him the reason behind human suffering. G-d offered to show him the benefits derived from suffering, the blessings that sprout from affliction, the strength that springs forth from pain. Moses, having witnessed  the pain of his brethren in Egypt, was naturally curious. He came forward.
Before he could approach, he was informed that he was about to enter a sacred place. “Take off your shoes,” thundered a heavenly voice. “You stand on hallowed ground.”
In the presence of another’s suffering we must tread softly because the ground of suffering is hallowed. The time of grief is not a time for words. We don’t talk. We don’t explain. We simply hold hands. We offer empathy and silent support. (3)
Moses removed his shoes and approached, but at this point the narrative takes a sharp and unexpected turn. Moses, who had been so eager to approach, so eager to learn, suddenly demurred. He turned away and was afraid to look at G-d.
What happened here? Why did Moses suddenly change his mind?

Change of Heart

Moses was just about to discover the true reason for human suffering and that, according to one commentary, is why he shied away. (4) Moses was a man who burned with a sense of moral justice. When he saw the innocent suffer, he wanted to know why, but then, when was about to be told, he realized that he really didn’t want to know. (5)
If he truly understood the reason for human suffering, Moses feared that he would never empathize with those in pain. If he truly understood the benefit of grief, he would be immune to the cries of a mourning mother. How could he comfort his people if he could not feel their pain?

The Pain that we Welcome

Imagine standing in line at an airport security booth before boarding your plane when progress stalls. Worried about missing your flight, you inquire about the delay and learn that the security personnel have paused for a coffee break.
Now imagine standing in the same line and discovering that progress has stalled because security precautions require a more thorough inspection that takes extra time. The same amount of time has elapsed. Your line has stalled in both cases. Yet, in the first case you feel consternation and in the second you feel relief. What is the difference?
When we are aware of the benefit, we are prepared to accept the delay.
The same is true of pain. There are many forms of pain. There is pain of illness and there is pain of recovery. They are both painful but they are not equal.. Illness is a scourge and we do all we can to escape it. Recovery is a blessing and we do all we can to welcome it. It is no less painful, but, aware of its benefits, we welcome it.

Better not to Know

Imagine a mother approaching Moses for solace after burying her child. Could Moses have truly empathized with her pain if he had accepted G-d’s offer and understood the cosmic benefits precipitated by her child’s early demise?
What if he tried to comfort the mother and explained the reasons for her child’s demise? Can you imagine her horror at hearing her child’s death analyzed and explained away like a delay in an airport security line?
“Thank you, G-d,” said Moses, “but I decline.” Curious as he was, Moses could not afford to learn an answer that would offer him a glimpse of divinity, but would cost him a portion of his humanity. That was not a price he was prepared to pay, not if he was expected to shepherd the human flock that awaited him. (6)
We too burn with a sense of justice as we demand to know the reasons behind our  tragedies. We must ask ourselves the question that the master asked the grieving mother. Do we really want to know? (7)

Footnotes

 

  1. Exodus 3: 1-6.
  2. Shemos Rabba 2: 5. See also Rashi’s commentary on the Thorn Bush (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes, France, 1040-1105).
  3. I heard this explanation from my friend and classmate, Rabbi Yossi Jacobson.
  4. This explanation is offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, http://www.chiefrabbi.org/tt-index.html.
  5. Shemos Rabba 2: 6.
  6. Later in the narrative G-d instructed Moses to tell the Jewish people that he (G-d) will always be with them (the Jews) in their times of suffering (Exodus 3: 14. See also Shemos Rabbah 3: 6.). Moses refused to understand the reason behind human suffering, so G-d simply told him to accept that there is a reason, but that this reason transcends human understanding. G-d is with us when we suffer and he suffers right alongside us. This is true despite our lack of understanding on why G-d chooses to make us suffer.
  7. A curious aspect of human nature is that we demand an answer to the question of why, but when it is offered it seldom satisfies. On the contrary, it often irritates. The reason is simple. The pain is greater than the logical response. When we are offered a logical response we instinctively feel that it does not address the source of our pain. Overwhelming pain cannot be reduced to a logical proposition.
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