Monday, March 7, 2011

National and Personal Suffering

This week we're examining a difficult part of life: suffering.  What guidance does Jewish tradition offer in coping with life's challenges, big or small?

As a nation we’ve been through millennia of pain and suffering.  From the near death of our forefather Abraham in the Ur Crematorium, to the devastation wrought upon Judea by the Roman Empire.  From the massacres of the Crusades to the bloody pogroms of Eastern Europe.  From the Holocaust to contemporary terrorism.

And yet, as a nation we emphasize joy and celebration.  This does not mean that we shy away from knowing about our dark times, but that we do not identify ourselves through them.  We may suffer, but we are not sufferers. 
Just after the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, later chief rabbi of Israel, paid a visit to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  When the Rebbe asked Rabbi Lau about the mood in Israel, the latter replied that people were despairing, saying, “What will be?”  The Rebbe responded vehemently, “Jews don’t ask, ‘What will be?’ they ask, ‘What will we do?’” 

Our enslavement in Egypt was one of our darkest hours.  We were abused physically and emotionally.  Innocent Jewish babies were slaughtered, leading desperate women to abandon their newborn infants in open fields, hoping that someone would take pity on them. We don’t avoid discussing these incidents—in fact, we set aside an entire night each year to explore them.  Together, we recount how our forefathers were beaten and cried out to G-d.  But our Sages were wise, and knew that descending into a pit without a ladder up is dangerous .  So they established a structure—matchilin b’gnut umesaiem b’shevachwe begin with disgrace and conclude with praise.  We begin in the pit, but by the end of the Seder, together, we are  joyously singing Hallel.  

Thus it is with life.  We can’t protect ourselves or those we love from everything that life can throw our way.  But we can show them how one navigates the painful dark shadows.   We can point to our collective history to prove that we are a resilient people.  We have endured before, we can endure now. 
What is true on a national level is true on a personal level, too.  We have a model to follow and a ladder up.

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