Finding a Way Through Pain, Suffering

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By Rabbi Tsurah August

Parshat Va’eira

5. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.

6. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.

7. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

Like our ancestors in Egypt, our own minds and bodies can be enslaved to the constant attention that suffering demands. Pain can be a relentless taskmaster, a cruel, demanding Pharaoh.

It may feel like our own bodies have betrayed us. Suffering can bring us to our knees, realizing that so far there is a limit to humanity’s ability to cure our ills or ameliorate all our pain through technological and medical interventions.

And then there is the pain beyond the boundaries of our own bodies — the pain of our brother and sisters who are trapped in poverty, wars, famine, terror. Suffering of such magnitude that even if we don’t consciously listen to it or read about it through the bombardment of the media, it permeates our environment, our minds and our bodies, our souls. Their pain is ours, too.

A relentless taskmaster.

As a rabbi and chaplain, I face this taskmaster in the suffering of my clients. As a woman living in 2019/5779, I face this throughout the day.

At times, I find myself yearning for a Moses. A wise person. A prophet who sees, hears and knows our suffering, has heard and heeded the call, is guided by a perfect source (life force, Adonai, the ineffable, the infinite, God … ) — and will bring us out of our mitzrayim, our constriction, redeem us, heal us personally and fix this worldwide mess for us.

Where are you, Moses?

While yearning for a Moses, I simultaneously feel a personal (although not ultimate) responsibility for helping to bring us through this mitzrayim — and the desire to run far away from our seemingly infinite needs.

I tried to do that once. Overwhelmed emotionally and physically by the pace and intensity of my (then-corporate) work and the in-your-face injustice and suffering on the streets of New York City, the city I lived in, I ran away, far from the city of my birth.

My husband and I packed up our business and apartment and moved to a mountaintop. It was beautiful. We lived among the magnificence of the forests, fields, rivers and all the life within them. Surrounded by the resilience of the forest that had recovered from the devastation wrought by the plundering of its trees and bluestone, I felt a new resilience in me.

And in that resilience, I found there is no running away for me. I found I didn’t want to run away. I needed to find a way through the pain and suffering.

There was no Burning Bush for me: I have no pretension of being gifted with the miracles that Moses perceived, but I did stop and listen, and found a little bit of Moses’ (and Miriam, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah and … ) qualities in me.

First, I found it in the miracles that abound in the forests, hidden in the mosses, rocks, trees and flowers, underfoot, overhead, in the very air I breathed. Then, as I developed those nascent qualities in me through the love and generosity of my family and friends and the guidance of amazing teachers, I found my way. My way, that brought me down from the mountaintop to being a rabbi and chaplain, for 20 years now.

Here I am — facing, wrestling with and even dancing with the relentless needs, demands, cruelty, selfishness, ugliness, illnesses — and the amazing beauty, compassion, love and generosity of our species.

I have moved from being totally overwhelmed and running away to being intermittently overwhelmed and occasionally wanting to run away.

I still yearn for a Moses or Miriam, et al., to lead me/us to the Promised Land. But I am willing to believe that the little bit of all of them, that is in all of us, will prevail. I am willing to believe that, when given the opportunity, we each have the capacity to experience our own Burning Bush and stop, listen and respond.

Rabbi Tsurah August is the staff chaplain for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. She has an extensive background in the arts which she integrates into her work. She is a member of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains (Neshama). The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.