Responding to Suffering Toldot 5778
When I go to a house of mourning and sit with the bereaved I often think to myself, “What is the right thing to say?”How can I take their pain away?” I’m sure many of us ask ourselves these same questions. Often, however, when we try to explain our way out of suffering we cause more pain even if we never intend to do so. In fact, many of the theological reasons that try to explain suffering in the world do exactly that. Let me give you a few:
Your suffering exists because God is trying to teach you a lesson which you do not know the answer.
Your suffering is because you can handle it.
Your suffering is a trial to melt away your sin in preparation for your ultimate reward in the world-to-come.
None of these explanations, in my opinion, take away the pain of those who suffer because they try to put suffering in a larger context in order to limit it. We see a similar rationalization of suffering from this week’s Torah portion. What we know is that our mother Rebekah suffers inexorably. After many years of being barren she conceives of twins, and when they struggle in he womb she she says, “Lama zeh anokhi? Why do I exist?” God tries to placate her with a political explanation, “Two nations are in your womb...one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” The text never says that that she was consoled by God's words. In fact one could easily say that God adds to her suffering because the conflict between the brothers will become an eternal conflict between whole nations. From this perspective, Rebekah suffers twice under the eyes of God. Once for her pregnancy and once for her children’s fate. God seems to be still getting to know the human heart in Genesis and perhaps oversteps in the case of Rebekah.
The Hasidic Master Levi Yitzchak is helpful here. In her travail, Rebekah utters the word, anokhi which the rabbi mystically refers to God’s utterance of anokhi in the first of the Ten Commandments. God speaks, “I am the LORD who took you out of Egypt to be your God.” The “I am” of God is linked to the “I am” of Rebekah. Using this understanding, we can see that in her pain, Rebekah displaces God’s explanation of suffering even before it is taught to her.
She teaches us that we can never treat suffering as means, but only as an experience unto itself. To explain away suffering is to actually cause more suffering. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes the same comments when he says that suffering is “useless” because we should not treat the woe of others as an instrumental value. We suffer because we suffer. The reasons why we feel the way we do carry no greater purpose than the emotional fact of suffering itself.
The way out of suffering is not through reasoning or explanation but through presence and response. Thus, the cry of the mother is heard louder to me than the voice of Father in Heaven. Like God, Rebekah’s cry is a commandment of sorts, for us to respond to her woe not by rational explanation, but in love and presence. The only way to take someone else’s pain away is to listen to them, to hold their hand, and to be with them in their moments of need. Let’s not ask ourselves, as I did, “What can I say?” Instead, let’s ask ourselves, “How can I be.”