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Being alongside suffering

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Below is the second of four sermons I delivered at Manchester Reform Synagogue over the Yom Tovim. All sources can be found on this Sefaria source sheet -

Please only reproduce the work on this blog with proper attribution or the permission of the author.

Much like those January New Year Quizzes and reviews in the newspapers, Rosh Hashanah - today - is a chance to take stock of the year that is past as well as looking forward to the New Year. We reflect upon the immensity of world events, the changes in our individual lives, and our behaviour through it all. Having now lived through a full year of a pandemic, and being reunited with friends, family and co-workers, we are perhaps left with one set of questions – how to deal with suffering, illness and our own mortality? How can we best be alongside pain (our own and that of others)?

Our ancient rabbis understood that suffering is part of being human and running from it is ultimately pointless and self-destructive. In fact, it is how we react to suffering that we find a deeper connection to ourselves and others.

Let’s look at a story from the Talmud, tractate Berachot, which takes us to the sickbed of one of the Talmud’s most prominent rabbis – Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba.[1] He had fallen ill. Rabbi Yochanan, known for his deep knowledge of Torah, extreme good looks, and miraculous powers, decides to visit his friend – though, as we will see Rabbi Yochanan did not turn out to be the type of bedside companion you may wish for.

We find Rabbi Yochanan standing over his friend’s bed, and upon seeing his friend’s pain he asks rather aggressively – ‘is you suffering dear to you?’

In essence, Rabbi Yochanan went in with one of the worst reactions to someone’s illness and pain and had said – stop wallowing! Man up! Pull yourself together! You’re just being weak – you are making yourself ill. Oy! Rabbi Hiyya gently replies to his friend and colleague – ‘I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward.’

The story continues and we follow Rabbi Yochanan on his rounds as he visits, over the years, more of his sick friends and colleagues. We next find him sitting by the bed of Rabbi Elazar and Yochanan goes in with a corker of a question – ‘why are you crying?’ Ouch. Perhaps one of the worst questions to be ask when you are upset – ‘explain yourself!’ Rabbi Yochanan seems unable to let his friend feel his feelings but wants to analyse it. Rabbi Yochanan, as so many of us do when we encounter emotion, goes into problem solving mode. ‘Are you crying because you haven’t studied as much Torah as you’d have liked?’, he asks. Don’t worry, he tries to reassure his friend, we have learned that if you study with the right intention that is the main thing.

Rabbi Yochanan then tries another tact – are you upset because you haven’t earnt enough money? If Rabbi Elazar wasn’t depressed now, I’m sure this line of questioning isn’t helping! In fact, we haven’t even heard from Elazar yet – there is no space for his voice. Then Rabbi Yochanan excels himself as he says – ‘if you are crying over your children who have died, this (he says pointing to his necklace) is the bone of my tenth child…’

I’ve had it worse than you, he extols, you are not allowed to feel your feelings as others are suffering more than you. How quickly Elazar’s feelings are diminished!

Finally, there is space for Rabbi Elazar to speak. ‘I am not crying over my misfortune, Yochanan, I am crying over this beauty that will decompose in the earth’. Rabbi Elazar is grieving for all that will die, for the life he won’t live, for the things he won’t experience – in essence, he says, ‘I’m crying because I’m sad’. After all of his blunders, Rabbi Yochanan now listens and replies from a deep place of empathy and says – ‘over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep.’ Not only does Rabbi Yochanan finally give his friend space to cry and express himself, the text then tells us that ‘both men cried together’, and through this simple but profound phrase these rabbis from centuries ago give us permission to cry for what we need to weep for, and to be alongside pain rather than try to stamp it out or run away from it. Lastly, we hear that Rabbi Yochanan takes his friend’s hand and with his companionship and touch he heals his friend.

Whilst we do not have the miraculous power of healing, we can understand that Rabbi Yochanan’s attempt at pushing his friends’ suffering away did not work. What did work, as Rabbi Alan Lew comments is, ‘empathy, the human touch, the presence of another.’ [2] Suffering is deeply part of what it is to be human and is unavoidable. It is most often chaotic and deeply unfair. All we have is how we hold each other in our moments of pain and suffering.

The reason being connected to pain is difficult is because…it is painful!

Rabbi Yochanan finds it impossible to see his friend suffering and in seeing the illness of his friend, he encounters his own fragility and the uncertainty that belies our human condition. Being in relationship with others mean that we will invariably experience their pain at some point. And we also know that, sometimes, when people are in pain, they are not easy to be with. They may act out, be inconsiderate. Maybe we then become defensive, withdraw, become depressed ourselves or end up gossiping and distancing ourselves from others. Staying alongside the pain is a challenge. Anyone who has seen a child cry and in pain has experienced this – ‘come on. It’s not that bad’ we may say. I recently said to my son, ‘it’s alright Gabriel’, when he was crying. He quite rightly said, ‘no mummy, it is not alright, I’m upset. I just need to cry.’

This ancient teaching on how to be alongside suffering was also expressed through the words and work of Rabbi Lionel Blue (zichrono livracha). Rabbi Lionel was known as Britain’s best loved rabbi, for very good reasons. He was a teacher at Leo Baeck College, the training college for all Reform and Liberal rabbis in Britain, he regularly appeared on Radio 4 with his Thought for the Day, was the convenor of the Beit Din, the religious court, and even did stand-up comedy gigs around the country. He also was one of the two main editors of our Yom Kippur machzor.

Rabbi Lionel always taught from a place of vulnerability and realness. He was not afraid to talk about the impossibilities and struggles of being a human in this world. For instance, he spoke about feeling suicidal and his search for God and his mistakes – such as falling into a grave when officiating at a funeral… With a gentle humour and a fierce intelligence, he was not afraid to talk about suffering and to find beauty within it. Let me share a story he often told and wrote in his exceptional book, The Godseekers’ Guide:

When I was taken to hospital in an ambulance I was put in a ward of old men. That night I was ill with a tummy upset and I was sick all the way to the bathroom. Having a temperature and not being able to think clearly,

I went down on all fours in the darkness trying to clean up the smelly mess with my handkerchiefs and bits of paper - feeling guilty and responsible. Then a voice whispered beside me in the darkness, 'Don't worry mate, I'll help you.' The man in the next bed, ten years older than I was, had slid out of his bed and was on all fours trying to help me. Then a nurse discovered us and tactfully put us back in bed and brought out a bucket and a mop. I was overwhelmed by my fellow patient's kindness. Would I have done the same for him, I wondered? I wasn't sure - probably not. But I might now because the presence of heaven was in what he did.[3]

In this moment of encounter and kindness, surrounded by illness, fear, mortality and vulnerability, Rabbi Lionel Blue, like Rabbis Yochanan and Elazar, found heaven. As Rabbi Lionel taught, ‘you don’t have to wait for heaven to happen, any unselfish action is an invitation for heaven to be present….Heaven happens frequently in life, in small incidents…. You can often tell its presence by an inner glow which stays with you for a short time, often only seconds, and then disappears like a dream you can’t remember but know was important.’[4]

We have all experienced moments such of these – both when we are not heard or seen and when someone listens and puts their hand around us. Whilst our suffering or illness or grief is not ultimately transformed we do experience, alongside it, beauty, heaven and goodness.

As an introvert I can sometimes find this lesson perplexing but the past year and half during this pandemic have gifted me more of an insight into Rabbi Lionel’s teaching.

In some ways, the lockdowns provided me with what I thought was the perfect space – quiet, order and time to concentrate on my inner life. And in some ways, it delivered. I turned from the pain of the outside world and was firmly in the first part of Hillel’s quotation which we spoke of last night – ‘If I am not for me, who will for me?’. I went on silent retreats, read many, many books, watched A LOT of Netflix and became more and more introverted. But I soon realised I had lost something, and I was feeling anything but zen, and the feeling Rabbi Lionel described of experiencing heaven felt inaccessible. It has only been on venturing out and being with others that I have found part of myself and part of heaven again. As the second part of Hillel’s quotation says: ‘when I am for myself alone, what am I?’[5]

Whilst we may want to run from the pain others show and carry, and our own pain and grief – it is only by being alongside that pain that we can heal in some way and encounter heaven.

Hillel teaches we must know ourselves first, and love ourselves warts and all, so that we can in turn, be there for others in their pain and behave in a way that doesn’t diminish them but gives them space to express themselves. For as Rabbi Lionel and Rabbi Yochanan teach, empathy and deep encounter is where heaven can be found.

If I am not for me, who will be for me?

And when I am for myself alone, what am I?

Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will – amen.

[1] Berachot 5b [2] Rabbi Alan Lew in ‘Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life.’ [3] Godseekers’ Guide by Rabbi Lionel Blue. [4] As above. [5] Pirke Avot 1:14.

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