Toldot: How to Respond To Suffering
It’s been another week since the shooting in Pittsburgh. In some ways we are moving on, in others many just can’t. This morning I awoke to read the horrific news of last night. Not too far from my home in a neighborhood called Thousand Oaks. It’s a sleepy exurb of Los Angeles. At around 11:00 PM a single gunman drove up to a country western bar popular with college students. He walked in, pulled out a gun and shot 12 people including a county sheriff. As these cycles of violence continue, I am goaded by a spiritual question: Why do we suffer? How do we respond to suffering? Where is God in our suffering?
As a rabbi, I see suffering all the time in my congregation. When I go to a house of morning 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 can 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 smelt away your sin in preparation for your ultimate reward in the world-to-come.
All of these explanations are found in our tradition from the Book of Job to the Midrash. However, none of these explanations, in my opinion, can truly take away the pain of those who suffer. That is because these rationalizations try to put suffering in a larger context in order to limit its scope and depth. If we can think our way out of suffering, the logic goes, we can make it hurt less.
We see a similar rationalization of suffering from this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. 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.” Here Rebekah is crying out to God and God’s response to her is to put her suffering into the context of her purpose in history. “You can handle this suffering” God says, “Because you are mother to warring peoples.”
Yet, the text never says that she was consoled by God’s words. In actuality, we could easily say that God adds to her suffering because the conflict between the brothers will become an eternal one 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. I’m not surprised, since 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, also known as the Kedushat Levi, is helpful here. In her travail, Rebekah utters the words, “Lama zeh anokhi.” the key word being “anokhi”, which the rabbi mystically refers to God’s utterance of anokhi in the first of the Ten Commandments. At Sinai God speaks, “ Anokhi YHVH”, or, “I am the LORD who took you out of Egypt to be your God.” For the Kedushat Levi, 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 to a greater end. Suffering is 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.” Suffering has no purpose for Levinas. It cannot be “used” to justify a position of power or test anyone’s resolve. We should not, therefore, treat the “woe” of others as an instrumental value. We suffer simply because we suffer. The reasons why we feel the way we do carry no greater purpose than the emotional fact of suffering itself.
How, then do we respond to suffering? Suffering is an emotional/relational condition. The way out of suffering is not through reasoning or explanation but through presence and response. We can alleviate suffering by hearing the “woe,” the cry, of those who suffer by reaching out and looking them in the eye. By giving them a hug if they want. By sitting quietly next to them when no words can be spoken.
Thus, we learn from this Torah portion that the cry of the mother is heard louder to than the voice of Father in Heaven.
Like God, Rebekah’s cry is a commandment. The command 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.”
Beyond politics, beyond rationalization, there is a level of human experience that unites us all. We all live, we all hope and dream, and we all suffer. We don’t deny suffering’s place in our lives, we don’t let it govern our decisions and life-choices, but we do give it it’s terrible and special place. Suffering is suffering. And to be a good neighbor and friend is to be fully present for each other.