One evening this week I went out for dinner. As I parked my car in the restaurant's basement, the power in the area failed. We could order only uncooked courses as we sat uncomfortably in the dark restaurant. Later, when I went back to my car I found that I had left my lights on and my battery was flat. It was going to take well over an hour for roadside assistance to arrive. Other than socially, the evening was becoming a disaster. I had left a mountain of work to get back to at home, and the night was getting later and later.
Waiting on a bench on the sidewalk, I considered two options. I could blame myself for the carelessness of leaving the lights on, and get more and more angry with myself. Or, I could blame others: it was because the power had failed and the very loud generators in the parking garage went on that I did not hear the car's warning signal alerting me to switch my lights off. I chose a third option. I reflected on suffering (even mild irritation is a form of suffering), its causes, its purpose and our responses. I'll share my reflections with you, and then tell you how I responded that night in the dark, and what happened.
The Purpose of Suffering
Pain is one of the ways Hashem communicates with us, mentors us and guides us. It could just be mild irritation, light pain or minor loss, or it could be acute, traumatic or agonizing pain. Whatever the degree of its intensity, "There is no pain without wrongdoing", Chazal tell us. The purpose of their statement is not to instill guilt in us, but to alert us to the fact that we ourselves are the creators of everything we feel and experience, including our own suffering.
We may not always create our circumstance (although often we do), but we always create our responses to circumstance. It is the response more than the circumstance that dictates how we feel. When it rains, some people dress for it, alter their plans accordingly, find ways to overcome its inconvenience and even enjoy it, while others mope and complain!
Pain is Hashem's way of telling us that something, somewhere that we are doing is misaligned with the way He designed the world to work for us. In that case, getting the message and altering course, will usually alleviate the pain for which there is no longer any educational need. If we are the architects of our own suffering we can also engineer its reversal. We can do this in six steps:
- Recognize the pain and feel it.
- What are your options to change your circumstance?
- If you cannot change your circumstance, accept ownership of the pain - "I am the architect of how I feel." Becoming a victim short-circuits this process and ensures that the pain endures.
- What in your attitudes or actions could be the cause of your circumstance or your pain?
- Explore what you could have or could be doing differently that might have yielded or might yield a different circumstance or a different feeling.
- Immediately implement the changed action or attitude.
Pharoh's instant but fast-fading transformations
Pain does wonders for a person. A sudden heart attack can transform a person. Not only can it transform ones lifestyle, but even ones spiritual awareness and the quality of ones family connections are often enhanced. Time and again suffering even brought the wicked, G-d-denying Pharoh to high standards of Emunah andBitachon (faith and trust in Hashem). Many times in the last two weeks' Parshiyot, Pharoh acknowledges the Almighty, admits his sin, and pleads for forgiveness.
Galut and Geulah, suffering and redemption: the systole and diastole of life. However it is not the suffering that tests our character and helps us transform, as it is the way we act during and after redemption. In the moment of redemption our real nisayon (test) occurs: do we preserve our transformed state, or do we abandon it?
Each time Pharoh transformed, the pain desisted. Pharoh's tragedy was his pattern, later entrenched in him by G-d Himself, of reverting to old beliefs and behaviors the moment the suffering eased. Each time he reverted to old behavior, the suffering returned. Pharoh is the archetypical case-study of the Torah's thesis of suffering. Pharoh's response to the pain is fairly normal, many atheists become religious when they are in danger. His carefree response to redemption from pain, to his geulah, is what caused his downfall.
Response to pain accelerates redemption; response to geulahdefines our futures
How did the Jewish people respond to their moment of Geulah? They did not revert to habit. After the Red Sea closed, the first moment of total geulah, even simple maidservants had spiritual insights that not the great prophet Yechezkeil was unable to achieve at the height of his career. "This is my G-d," they all declared, "and I shall glorify Him". This resolution to acknowledge and glorify G-d was not made in the moment of danger and suffering, it was made in the moment of redemption and geulah. This moment was the root of the latter building of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple). Our response to pain accelerates redemption from it. But our response to geulah defines our futures.
Back to the car; back to life
These were my reflections that night sitting on the sidewalk waiting for help. So what did I do to cause the power failure? I quickly realized that as pleasant as it was to see those particular people, considering my goals and purpose at that particular juncture in time, my priorities and my responsibilities, that was not where I ought to have been, and that is not what I ought to have been doing. It became startlingly clear to me, that we can only expect supportive circumstances when our actions and attitudes are supportive of our own life-purposes and Hashem's grand scheme. When we make choices that are not only right in their moral and halachik sense but also right in the sense of furthering the purpose for which Hashem put us, as individuals, in this world, then Hashem's universal systems synergize to support us; His angels accompany us. When our actions are not aligned with our Purposes, even if they are not negative actions, we are on our own -and it can be a struggle at times!
I had been waiting for only fifteen minutes when I had my inspiring insight (in-sight). Still at least forty-five minutes to go. But I had got my lesson, why the further delay? At that moment the power returned and I looked up: there was roadside assistance; my angels were with me again, to support and guide my efforts! I had passed my test of suffering, but that was not my true nissayon. Even Pharoh could achieve great insight during suffering. My nissayon was whether I could preserve that insight through my moments of redemption and into the future. These were my thoughts as I drove into the night, towards the rest of my life.