"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Monday, April 12, 2010

The paradox of pain

FNQ – thought for the week

I recall walking around the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau and feeling nothing. Perhaps it was because it was the last day of an emotionally taxing week of seeing the horrors of the Holocaust and I had nothing left to feel. Or perhaps it was because on that day the sun shone, the grass was green and Auschwitz resembled a beautiful park so what I saw simply didn't jive with the dark, bleak reality that I always envisioned. Or maybe, the pain and death of that place was so great that its comprehension was beyond my emotional capacity. The sheer scope of the tragedy made me incapable of feeling the pain.

Our Rabbis teach us that one forgets a deceased after 12 months.  Why must I forget, why did G-d create us this way? The Chovot Ha'levavot explains that with regards to many traits G-d created us with an incredible innate balance. One example of this balance is the human memory. We were created with a memory that ensures that every day when we wake up we remember who we are and what we do. However, our memory is limited. G-d knew that if our memory was too powerful and the memory of pain remained with us forever we would be overwhelmed and incapable of living. The pain is with us for 12 months and then it goes away. For some the amount of time is a little less and for some a little more but under normal circumstances the grieving ends and we return to normal life.

I believe there is an additional element concerning our ability to feel pain. We were created with an instinctive ability to feel pain.  This significance of this is so essential in maintaining our health that those who have a condition whereby they do not feel pain have significantly reduced life expectancies. However, when it comes to feeling the pain of others, empathizing and connecting with a loss that is not our own that trait is not innate. In a certain sense this is an important limitation of our feeling of pain because it ensures that the intense hurting and loss that takes place every day wont send us spiraling into a deep depression and paralyze our ability to appreciate the joys of life. But to accept this natural condition is to live a selfish and stoic life. To be untouched by the feelings of others is to live on a deserted island of the soul. We must struggle to refine our receptors that we relate to the pain of others. There are those whose feeling of empathy is so real that they feel it as their own.

The Holocaust is the epitome of this paradox of pain. We are shielded from its true pain for if we weren't our souls would explode from its awesomeness. But we must not allow this natural block to stop us from striving to connect and experience the profound anguish of this day. The Rabbis say that only one who mourns the destruction of Jerusalem will merit to see it rebuilt. Proper mourning is the first step towards rebuilding in as much as it drives us to be better people. Just as one who who breaks an arm seeks out a doctor one whose soul is broken seeks out G-d.  Today we struggle to develop the awareness that following the Holocaust the Jewish people and the world are all deeply broken and have no choice to but to call on the Healer of all pain and remover of all suffering.

May their memory be a blessing.

(I apologize for not answers any of my questions – they were beyond my ability of expression and I couldn't even pick up my pen to try and share a thought)

What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question

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