ain is something we all try to avoid. We’ll get local anesthesia before dental work, we’ll take a decongestant for a cold, we’ll pop a Tylenol when we have a headache.
At the same time, we recognize that pain serves a very important function. It’s a signal, alerting us to the need to find the underlying cause of our pain, prompting us to take action.
Imagine if a person were impervious to the pain of a burn. His entire hand might be damaged beyond repair before he even noticed he was touching something red hot. If a person never felt the pain of a sore throat, his entire body might be ravaged by the streptococcus bacteria without him realizing it.
My uncle Reb Volvie Perlstein a”h was a Holocaust survivor who heroically didn’t eat any nonkosher food during the war. He wasn’t able to feel pain in much of his body because his nerve endings had been damaged by the relentless beatings he endured at the hands of the Nazis.
One night, my uncle told his son that he felt a stiffness in his neck. He wasn’t in pain, but something seemed different from the norm. When father and son went to check things out, they were informed that my uncle was in the midst of a massive heart attack. It was nothing short of a miracle that despite his inability to feel pain, he nonetheless sought medical assistance, and his life was saved.
Everything in the physical world has a parallel in the spiritual world.
Just as the function of physical pain is to alert us to take action to prevent damage to our body, so too the function of pain in our life circumstances is often there to alert us to take action to prevent damage to our soul.
From Why? to What?
We know, at least on an intellectual level, that everything that happens to us is decreed by the Ribbono shel Olam. The next step is to integrate that idea into our life. When we experience pain, whether a minor annoyance or a major trauma, can we try to remind ourselves that the pain is from Hashem and that He gave it to us for a reason.
While our first reaction may be, “Why me? I can’t handle this…” can we encourage ourselves to change the script in our mind and ask instead, “What does Hashem want from me in this situation? What action does He want me to take? What can I do to improve in my emunah, my davening, my tzniyus, my interactions with my family?”
We can we remember that the pain is an alarm, a call for action. As Chazal tell us, “Im roeh adam sheyissurim ba’im alav, yefashfesh b’maasav — If a person sees that suffering is happening to him, he should examine his actions” (Berachos 5a).
Every night before we go to sleep, we ask Hashem to erase our sins “without suffering or debilitating sickness.” When we do experience suffering, however, we can be certain of three things: Hashem is the Source of our suffering; Hashem is giving us pain because He loves us; and the suffering we’re experiencing is exactly what we need in order to fulfill our unique potential. As Nesivos Shalom writes on parshas Vayeira, “Every Jew has a specific shelichus, mission, which he came down to This World to fulfill. It is by means of the challenges that he faces that he is able to fulfill his shelichus.”
It’s no easy task to remind ourselves of these three things when we are in the midst of pain. If we train ourselves to think these thoughts in good times, there’s a much better chance we’ll be able to think these thoughts during painful times as well.
It’s important to note that even though we may understand that our pain has a purpose, we still can and must storm the Heavens and plead with Hashem to take away our pain. The goal of our tefillos isn’t only to remove our pain, but also to grow and achieve greater connection to Hashem through our heartfelt prayers. Chazal tell us that Hashem gave the Imahos painful challenges because He desired their tefillos; He desired the growth that would ensue as a result of them turning to Him in supplication
The Soul’s Longing
Sometimes, we experience a different type of pain. It’s not physical pain, or the pain of a difficult life situation, but the pain of dissatisfaction and discontent, a feeling that something’s missing in our lives. We tend to avoid facing these feelings head on; we try to distract ourselves to drown out feelings. We may throw ourselves into our work, we may look for excitement and adventure. In extreme cases, we may turn to alcohol or drugs.
What we need to recognize is that the discontent we’re feeling is an expression of the neshamah’s longing to connect to Hashem. The neshamah is a cheilek Eloka mima’al, whose only desire is to connect to its Source. When we feel those gnawing feelings of dissatisfaction, it’s often a symptom of spiritual disconnection.
If we ignore the pain and just move on with our life, instead of addressing the underlying spiritual cause, we’re like the person who ignores his chest pains and refuses to face the fact he may be having a heart attack.
A story is told of a bochur who called his beloved rosh yeshivah, Rav Geldzahler ztz”l, and told him, “Rebbi, I haven’t learned in three days! I feel terrible about it, but I don’t know how to get myself to actually sit down and learn.”
“Terrific!” Rav Geldzahler exclaimed. “Can you come to my house tonight, and we’ll have a l’chayim together?”
The bochur was certain that Rav Geldzahler hadn’t heard him correctly. “I didn’t say I was learning for three days. I said I feel terrible that I didn’t learn for three days.”
“That’s exactly what I heard. There are so many people who don’t learn for three days and don’t feel terrible about it. You feel pained by the fact that you haven’t learned? That’s something to celebrate!”
Often, we go through spiritual downs and we’re unaware of it; we’re not in any discomfort. When we’re feeling diminished in our ruchniyus and we’re pained by it, we need to remind ourselves that this feeling of pain is good. It can be the impetus for getting out of our spiritual low.
We live in the generation of Ikvesa D’Meshicha, literally translated as “the heels of Mashiach.” Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman explains that though we walk on our heels all day, they don’t feel the pain of constantly getting battered, since the heel is one of the least sensitive parts of the body. The generation of Ikvesa D’Meshicha will be like the eikev, the heel; it’ll be a deadened generation. People will find it more difficult to feel the spiritual pleasure of connecting to Hashem and more difficult to feel the spiritual discomfort of being disconnected from Him.
When we do experience a feeling of spiritual pain, instead of squelching it and attempting to drown it out, let’s “make a l’chayim.” Let’s embrace the feeling, and commend ourselves for being able to feel that lack, even in the generation of Ikvesa D’Meshicha. Then let’s act on the feeling and use it to grow!
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 649. Rebbetzin Suri Gibber has been involved in chinuch habanos for decades, first as general studies principal in Bais Yaakov High School of Miami, and, for the past 15 years, as principal of Bais Yaakov High School of the Twin Cities. She also gives adult education classes.