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SUFFERING

Dealing with hard times--the genuinely miserable moments, events, or long stretches of unhappy life--is a subject addressed at various spots on this website, particularly in the "Teshuva" and "Music" links. I didn't plan on adding a section devoted exclusively to the subject until I read Avivah Zornberg's book, The Hidden Order of Intimacy.  It caused me to stop naively thinking I can avoid hard times just by being smart and careful. I began to live the phrase from Job: "I recant and relent being but dust and ashes."  Doing so has made me happier and better equipped to cope with hard times. 

Zornberg notes the Hebrew word shamar (שָׁמַר) "holds a rich ambiguity." It means to conserve, preserve, observe. It can refer to guard duty. It also means resisting the urge to depart or leave. Importantly, there is also a "future movement" of the word, when shamar means moving toward realization, expectant, feeling the way toward fulfillmentFor example, when Jacob hears Joseph's dreams, we read "Jacob held (shamar) the story in mind. He waited in expectation for when it would come true." In Isaiah, we read about "a nation that keeps faith (shamar)." 

 

Shamar is a constant attunement, a readiness to respond, a posture of aspiration, a turning toward the future and its possibilities. In this sense, shamar is a liberation from fixation, rigidity, and inertia, a freedom from repetitive compulsions. One keeps faith in a future yet to evolve, mobilizing a larger imagination.

Crucially, for there to be shamar there must first be tragedies, disruptions, stumbles, failures, limitations, impediments, insufficiencies, unease, stupidity, wounds, slipping on the banana peel. They must be lived through and cannot be evaded. Make space for them. Shamar's optimism cannot diminish their rawness. But shamar makes darkness and despair temporary, and it teaches that the meaning of the disruption depends on what happens next, which you control to a large extent. The meaning must be imaginatively sought out.

Put another way, crises are "inherent, inevitable, perpetually repeated, constitutive of being human, part of the human reality. Much of life eludes one's grasp. Anything can happen." Life is fragile, essentially unstable & unpredictable, and may fall apart anytime. But the alternatives to shamar, to holding out hope for change, are madness, hatred, and self-annihilation, a repeated moan.

Here I must stop and ask: is Zornberg accurate in asserting madness is the only alternative? Or is it possible to be happy believing what Alan Watts said in his book The Joyous Cosmology: "life is basically just a gesture, a completely purposeless play, an action without agent, recipient, or purpose. There is no reason whatever to explain it. The present is the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. The present does not say anything except, 'Thus!' There is no point from which to confront life or stand against it. Ego, the entity to which experience happens, is more of a minus than a plus. It is an estrangement from experience, a lack of participation, of feeling with the world. Ego creates a chronic resistance to experience which blocks the free flowing of life."

I believe Watts: there is no point from which I can block, confront, or stand against the world. As long as I’m alive I’m participating with the world. But his statements are not a helpful guide to living, especially when he asserts it is natural to see pain as no longer a problem. It is very much a problem. One cannot relax luxuriously during hard times. His ideas prod passiveness and hopelessness instead of aspiring for positive change. By contrast, Zornberg continues...

You must be able to tolerate uncertainty & the tension of waiting, to remain vigilant, to live with the unrealized possibility, to live in limbo. Shamar "runs counter to the impatient posture that can tolerate no delay." Shamar is a "waiting posture informed by alacrity, a controlled vitality, an energetic state...a forward, upward, creative movement." It waits for joy, accomplishment, meaning, laughter, beauty, goodness, sensibility. It is life in a different key, a shift in perspective. Again, the meaning of the disruption depends on what happens next, which you control to a large extent. The meaning must be imaginatively sought out. Use your linguistic power: "Anything at all may be said. Words may be combined in infinite sets. 'The limits of my language are the limits of my world,' Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote.'" 

Zornberg notes "there is an existential rhythm between deconstructive and reconstructive, emptiness and fulfillment, loss and recovery. A constant dynamic keeps the two modalities in motion and contradiction. Fullness and emptiness live together. Hope is bound up with anxiety." Be attentive to both. Open yourself, clear space, and allow access to both. Take an alert, receptive stance to both, since together they constitute the human experience. Dissolve the separateness. Something in me quiets down when I acknowledge this balance.

 

Other thinkers have written similarly to Zornberg:

  • "The shadow completes and helps show forth the light. Light is only seen in contrast to darkness. They are intermingled in myriad ways, combined in endless variations, joined together in one whole, a cosmic weave by the universal Artist." (Hillel Zeitlin)

  • "It is this totality of a Yes perceptible only through a No that the silence of the Bible, in majestic accord with the most tragic disharmonies, lays up for us. The created universe--that of the Word--forms with night and death but a single unit. So it is in the battle of life, which, together with its inescapable barriers, finds only in itself its inspiring banners, including--springing up like a positive spark struck from the negative barrier of death--the banner of hope, not salvation. The hope is in the narrow limits of silence, within the time and space of the defeat.  Hope shares its bread with failure; it is its companion. At each place and at every moment both of these recreate together. They are not separated moments in the work of God. One is implicit in the other. The two themes interweave, linked in inseparable association. Whichever one is dominant, the other continues softly and never entirely disappears." (Andre Neher)

  • "What is to weep? To weep is to sow. What is to laugh? To laugh is to reap. Look at this man weeping as he goes. Why is he weeping? Because he is bearing in his arms the burden of the grain he is about to sow. And now, see him coming back in joy. Why is he laughing? Because he bears in his arms the sheaves of the harvest. Laughter is the tangible harvest, plenitude. Tears are sowing; they are effort, risk, the seed exposed to drought and rot, the ear of corn threatened by hail and by storms. Laughter is words; tears are silence. Perhaps, next spring, bread will spring forth from this furrow. Perhaps, also, drought and hail will appear and perhaps, next spring, there will be only death and rottenness. What matter, so long as the act is performed? Hope is not in laughter and plenitude. Hope is in tears, in the risk, and in the silence." (Rabbi Judah Loew)

Zornberg's best metaphor for this dynamic: the gradual opening of the birth canal requires pain and counterpressure. In order to relieve the latter, something has to open, a passage has to widen. The buildup of pressure is a result of the disruptions in life.  But then there is a letting go, a softening. Using another metaphor: the hand opens, it does not clench, it relaxes its tension. Something new is born out of the wailing; the wilderness of despair can be a birthplace of creativity.

Shamar is this creativity. It offers the capacity to renew. It focuses on "what succeeds temporary darkness." It requires much practice.

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Why must evil and suffering exist in the first place?

If I believe there is a One that underlies, overlays, precedes, follows, fills, and surrounds all things, and the One is constantly flowing and extending through evolution, revealing itself through tangible and intangible means, then the One is responsible for the existence of the world and everything in it...including evil and suffering.

How can it be a compliment to say I'm in the image of a One that allows evil and suffering? Why imitate it? Why try to pull myself closer?

As Christopher Hitchens remarked, "Such an entity is cruel, incompetent, or indifferent. You can't say, 'oh what a welcome, what a table was set for us to dine at.'" Hitchens wasn't alone. Protest, anger, outcry, and indignation against God are part of the Jewish tradition; God is chastised repeatedly in the Torah for allowing brutality and injustice. It's a tribute to Judaism's honesty & integrity that it has a long pedigree of acknowledging this anger, distress, and disappointment.

Rabbi David Wolpe says, "no definitive, certain answer about evil and suffering has been found and it seems unlikely that a single, satisfactory answer ever will be. The silence of God in the face of suffering is a persistent pain that cannot be soothed. Blunting our own faculties and sense of criticism is not the answer. God seems less protective, less good than we have been promised. Even the most powerful promptings of abstract argument melt away when confronted with the heat of human anguish, the endless sufferings of history. Tears have run too freely. Suffering once felt cannot be erased. What possible recompense could there be that would permit us to feel that an innocent individual should have been racked by pain in this world? Some pains are too deep to salve and too inexplicably awful to pretend they have an explanation. Ultimately no answer to the problem of evil and suffering and God satisfies. The true or final answer eludes our grasp. There can be no adequate answers. There is no escaping the pain of suffering and the tormenting question of God's silence. We cannot fully understand the design. It remains hard to make sense of such a God. As Isaiah says, speaking for this God, 'I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things' (Isa. 45:7). Or, to quote the poet Paul Valéry, 'God made everything out of nothing and sometimes the nothing shows through.'"

Judaism acknowledges there is a mysterious, elusive aspect of God that allows evil and suffering. Might it be more accurate to label that aspect as despicable and loathsome? I've thought so. But doing so strikes me as illogical on a nebulous, fundamental level. Doing so just doesn't square with my life experiences and observations. This is where Judaism's perspective clarifies matters for me:

Judaism doesn’t declare God guilty for all of the bad while ignoring all of the good that constitutes the vast majority of existence. That would create an asymmetry that permits the bad to nullify the good. Judaism asserts the world is rooted in positivity by a fundamentally decent God that makes life delightful and allows for joy, peace, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, gratitude, honesty, humility, slowness to anger, justice, and the avoidance of despair. In my heart of hearts, this just makes more sense to me.

How do I find that good essence of God?


Sinai is a vertical metaphor for an internal journey. If God's up there then I have to build a ladder and climb a long distance. But if God's inside, then the move is a deep inward glance. The journey is more like breaking through shells. It's a meditative process that takes patience, time, and concentration. I keep three thoughts in mind:

  • About Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (a rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust), author Nehemia Polen wrote, "In the desert landscape of absence he managed to find Presence, not as a response to a favorable stimulus from above, and not receiving confirmation from the surrounding environment, but initiated by his own capacity for self-awakening out of the darkness."

  • Writer Alan Watts said: "the foundation upon which I sought to stand turns out to be the center from which I seek."

  • Elie Wiesel described a conversation he had with Rabbi Menachem Schneerson after Wiesel moved to New York and attended Schneerson's farbrengen. He was angry with Schneerson, asking him how he could believe in God after the Holocust and telling him the farbrengen were simplistic and full of meritless conviction. Schneerson replied: "Do you want me to stop praying and start shouting? I also have eyes that see and ears that hear and a heart that feels sorrow and disappointment. What is there left for us to do? In what direction are we to go? Our celebrations are a way of saying to the universe: 'You don't want me to dance; too bad, I'll dance anyway. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing. You didn't expect my joy, but here it is.'"

A natural question is begged: why turn to God for solace and comfort if God allowed the problem in the first place? A story from Rabbi Abraham Twerski:

"I once observed a mother restraining her infant so that the doctor could inject him with a vaccine against disease. The infant cried and struggled and tried to bite and hit his mother. Yet when the ordeal was over, the infant clutched his mother and held on for dear life. Why? Hadn't she just collaborated in causing him pain? The answer is that even though an infant cannot possibly understand that the pain which is being inflicted is for an ultimate good (to protect him from disease) he nevertheless knows that his mother cares for him. His trust in her love for him is not shaken by her assisting in causing him pain. That is how we must relate to God in times of adversity."

Put another way, here is a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev:

Once, right before the Kol Nidre service, he stood before the ark as the sun was about to set. For a long time he stood, silent, still, as the evening approached. Noticing that the time to begin prayer was upon them, his students and disciples became uncomfortable, worrying that the Rabbi would begin too  late. At the last possible moment he spoke. "Dear God. We come before you this year, as we do every year, to ask your forgiveness. But in this past year I have caused no death. I have brought no plagues upon the world, no earthquakes, no floods. I have made no women widows, no children orphans. God, you have done these things, not me! You should be asking forgiveness from me." The Rabbi paused and continued in a softer voice, "But, since you are God...Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabah," and he began the service.

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All of which is to say that I try to be aware of, and attach myself to, the aspect of God that makes life delightful and allows for joy, peace, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, gratitude, honesty, humility, slowness to anger, justice, and the avoidance of despair. As for the mysterious, elusive aspect of God that allows evil and suffering, I shrug my shoulders--as Job and all humans have done forever--and accept that I cannot know why that aspect has to be.

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