To Love Your Pain

The most meaningful emotional relationship of my childhood and young adulthood was with my Opa. My grandfather,

Aaron Malous. He was a strong Belgian Jew who survived Auschwitz. A very successful man he was all heart and EVERY person who he encountered was an opportunity for him to make connections with peoples soul, not an easy task for someone who looked physically menacing ( think my build but much taller, often mistaken for a body guard or security personnel. At least until he smiled..).

This of course as a child annoyed me greatly, id often say to him “you don’t have to talk to absolutely everyone” (in line… at a shop, on a plane etc)

I think of him every day. He is a constant reminder for me to try and connect more, feel more which is not always easy for me.

His sudden death about 15 years ago left me gasping for air. I had never known pain like that before or since really.

I can still feel it and it wakes me up at night sometimes. Perhaps like an old friend it comes to visit so that I don’t forget that pain is a constant in life and what I should learn from it.

We all have experienced it. Loss, grief but also of course headache, stomachache, heartache, and all other kinds of pain; physical, emotional and spiritual. So it is not a surprise that all major spiritual traditions teach us we have to face it head-on.

Yet, we try and alleviate it, try and make it go away don’t we? pills, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling… even the gym and other “hobbies”. Binge watching, tubs of ice cream, porn-a-thons..

Every distraction we can think of in order to make us forget that we are in pain…

so i ask,

Is that the only choice? avoid it? or can we learn to understand it. look at what it can teach us and perhaps even love our pain?

Exploring the source of this pain for many, is very difficult and frightening. We truly don’t want to. Who wants to step into pain and face it.. W

ho wants to look in a high def/4k super clear mirror that will show us everything we are scared of?

Don’t we all rather have a life free of it? no trauma, no pain?

Yet I believe that true compassion, absolute kindness starts with facing ones pain. Perhaps what makes us human IS that pain. Trying to take it away, takes away our humanity too. The heart that you WANT can only be achieved by understanding your pain not by making it go away…

I have not known tragedy like my grandfather’s, losing ones whole family and enduring in the camps. Such pain seems insufferable to me and we often talked about his joy in life, not his pain. Out of those conversations came many lessons on how to deal with loss, grief and the feelings of persecution. He refused to feel like a victim. He refused to let his suffering hold him back and he did something that I didn’t understand at the time. He transformed it. He used it to feel the plight of others and champion those who had less than him. He was one of those people who found God in Auschwitz. He often spoke about how in those depths of despair he saw humanity, he was connected to those around him and he saw God. In the smallest infinitesimal particle of human connection lies a truth when the frailty of humanity is starring you in the face.

Yosef Dov Soltoveitchik writes

“That religious consciousness in man’s experience which is most profound and most elevated, which penetrates to the very depths and ascends to the very heights, is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous (Halakhic Man, p. 141).

The God of my Opa, not a being but being itself, the force that sustains it all, connects it all. The fine balance of spirit, soul, body and land . Is what appeared to him. It is the same god that is reflected in my own dynamism. When we suffer we get to see the underpinning of the universe. We get to connect to God, and not only experience the majestic moments of awe but see the complex torture of truth. It is not just a glorious ecstasy of pleasure… or perhaps like all things created with that ecstasy indeed comes some pain. A fine line of torment that sweetens the pleasure. A caress and a slap…

It is within that fine line of hurt, within that suffering that I get to experience god as well… And here, in my life I understand that I cannot merely explain God but must grapple with how to live with it.

Leibnitz writes. “the nature of every substance carries a general expression of the whole universe,”

The smallest particle explains the largest system.

When I understand the smallest expression of God, I understand the largest component of our universe.

When I understand compassion, kindness and solicitude it is because I understand my own NEED for it.

It stems from recognizing not just my pain but the source of it, my own feelings of strangeness, otherness and rejection.

We don’t often talk about it. When people ask us ‘How are you?’ we say ok usually … almost ashamed when we want to stop them tell them that we are not. Yes, many people complain but hide he source of their pain…. our disconnect, our isolation. Thinking, nay BELIEVING the pain comes as a punishment.

We fail to recognize that we are all in pain and that the only way to transcend it is to look at it. Understand it even.

It does though remind me of a pain study conducted once on Irish Italian and Jews. The most tolerant to pain were the Irish, the Jews and the Italians had similar vocalized response to the pain. The difference was that once the pain stimuli stopped the Italian stopped complaining about it. The Jews continued to complain long after the pain stimuli…

“oy I cant tell you how much it hurt…”

Yes we can complain about pain, but we must talk about its true nature or what underlies that pain.

So when we do talk about it we can express how we feel. We can see our own humanity and connect to that humanity in others. Our own suffering is a spiritual equalizer that allows us to develop compassion. The suffering of others is felt by us when we recognize their pain BECAUSE we have our own.

Recognizing others pain through our own is the key(!) to our compassion!

Talmud ketubot (104) tells us a story about the last day of Rabbi Yehuda and patriarch, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi ( king of the jews)

“It is related that on the day that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, the Sages decreed a fast, and begged for divine mercy so that he would not die. And they said: Anyone who says that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi has died will be stabbed with a sword.

The maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi ascended to the roof and said: The upper realms are requesting the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and the lower realms are requesting the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. May it be the will of God that the lower worlds should impose their will upon the upper worlds. ( so that he would not die)

However, when she saw how many times he would enter the bathroom and remove his phylacteries (tefillin) and then exit and put them back on, and how he was suffering greatly.

She then said: May it be the will of God that the upper worlds should impose their will upon the lower worlds.

But the Rabbis, meanwhile, would not be silent, i.e., they would not refrain, from begging for mercy, from praying so that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would not die. So she took a jug of earthenware and threw it from the roof to the ground. The Sages were momentarily silent and refrained from begging for mercy, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died.”

The handmaiden, her eyes opened to the suffering of Rabbi Yehuda saw the need to remind them and ll of us of the frailty of the body and the strength of the spirit. I often think of her and what must have been a very difficult choice to make. It is not surprising to me that this woman, a lower class person at the time, nameless is the one to teach us all a lesson.

She, who has undoubtedly suffered in her otherness, he own pain is the only one who sees the Rabbi’s suffering and eventually she becomes the key to its alleviation…

Many of us here suffer; from Anxiety, depression, fear, feelings of worthlessness. Perhaps those who experience pain like this are more spiritually open? They are seekers, of truth, of a better world perhaps. The potential of their growth is so immense that they feel EVERYTHING from a young age. but the world is unforgiving so they need to do something , ANYTHING to feel less, or nothing….

After the war, my grandfather meets my grandmother and they build a life together, their home was filled with joy and happiness. In the Jewish community in Belgium their house was known for its warmth and its open invitation for all who wanted nourishment both physical and spiritual. Every Friday (each family member) would be required to bring a drash, a vort, a poem or an idea to the dinner table, the topic was given to us by him the Sunday prior (many Fridays were spent by me and my cousins trying to find last minute ideas)

For him it was important that we bring our whole selves, to constantly share both our highs and our lows. He knew that the only way to have the happiness he wanted for himself and for us was to see/ read/ learn and most importantly feel everything…( and talk about it)

This is my first sermon as a rabbi at BTS. The place that gave me a change to deal with my ‘otherness’. I wanted to share with you this invitation to talk more about the real things in life about what makes us vulnerable. People often mistake admitting pain or vulnerability as weakness, thinking that if we admit those things that hurt us we give people the tools to harm us. I find the opposite, if I tell you what I feel I have made myself stronger, more connected, one with the world and my maker. I am not afraid to share it! so that together we can transform our pain and like my grandfather not dwell on our pain but use it to determine a better future.

Delivered Rosh Hashana day at Beit Tshuvah in Los Angeles