Thursday, February 11, 2010

Between Pain and Suffering

What's the difference between pain and suffering? Two words that seem very similar. Yet they actually convey things much different from each other. Pain is a neurological phenomena. It is measurable, predictable and can be treated with pills, ointments or sometimes medical procedures. Suffering is the meaning we give to our pain. It is unique to an individual and his/her circumstances. Inasmuch as it relates to the individual no physiological intervention will remedy it. Only addressing the person has possibility to bring relief.

OK, there you have the key idea. Let's unpack it. Two people can have quantifiably the same amout of physiological pain, go through the same experience, and yet it will engender totally different feelings. One may be having a baby, something long hoped for and desired. The experience of labor produces considerable pain. But since the mother-to-be is fulfilling a long standing work of meaning she finds it entirely bearable. The other is tragically giving birth to a stillborn.
She has the same labor. Yet it feels not the same at all. She is grieving. Unlike the first woman, her labor will produce no joy. Neurologically they may be experiencing something similar. In reality one is suffering far more than the other.

The pain of healing does not feel the same as the pain of woundedness. The pain caused in realizing something of purpose does not feel the same as the pain caused by something we feel as meaningless. To a person whose world seems bleak a hang nail can be more intolerable than knee surgery to the person whose life is full. In truth what most often measures our discomfort is suffering, not pain. The interpretation we put on our experience causes us to feel it differently.
Sometimes it matters more that we treat the person, help them to re-interpret their experience, so as to bring relief rather than treat the symptom, no matter how severe.

The Parsha of Mishpatim is the gateway to realize this important truth. Near the reading's close we are told that Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy Elders all saw the G-d of Israel. The pasuk there says "....and under His feet was the like of a sapphire brick, similar to the heaven in clarity."

What is this sapphire brick that they saw? Rashi interprets the verse to say that G-d kept a brick near him to forever remember the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Even when G-d could not save us he felt our woundedness. When at last the Israelites were redeemed that very brick became aglow with the clarity of the heavens. And G-d continues to cherish it.

There is much to think about in both the verse and in Rashi's commentary. But let me just focus on one small point. Okay, so Hashem felt with us the slavery in Egypt. Thats why he kept the brick under His feet. But why was it sapphire? sapphire is such a noble material. It should have been straw and mortar the materials of which the real bricks were made.

The answer is oh so compelling. Yes, for us, we experienced the suffering of the Egyptian slavery all the more because we were building structures to satisfy human egos. We gave our lives to edify the foolish desires of the Pharaoh. The work would have been enough to crush us. It was made all the worse because we saw it as meaningless.

On Sinai Hashem revealed the brick beneath His feet, the symbol of the very brick of Egypt, the bricks of our torment.
And low and behold it was not straw and mortar but sapphire. Why? Because even though we saw ourselves as enslaved to no purpose, in fact we were all the while being molded by that very experience of slavery, through those very bricks, into the people we would yet become.
We were forged in Egypt through our suffering. It was not really meaningless at all. Through our struggle we grew the inner character to become G-d's people. We never realized it. The bricks we toiled with were not the bricks of mortar and straw that served the evil Pharaoh. They were indeed the bricks of sapphire that transformed a nation.

The message we may well take from here is that all our suffering has meaning. We need to simply be open to what it offers us. Perhaps the message of our suffering is not clear to us now. But it has meaning nonetheless. Suffering is never without purpose. In knowing that, we have the capacity to transform bricks from straw and mortar to sapphire and to limit the overwhelming nature of our suffering, if not our pain.

Our suffering is not the junk of our life. It is as vital to our becoming as the stuff we deem pleasurable and maybe more so. We often cannot change our circumstances. We can always change our attitude towards our circumstances. And in realizing that even that which feels bad has meaning and purpose, we can find the wherewithal to endure.

Shabbat Shalom

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