“Accepting the Mystery: A Conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man”

PARABOLA Vol. 36, No. 1 (Suffering), Spring 2011


Gilla Nissan: What do the sources of Jewish tradition tell us about suffering?

Rabbi Omer-Man: Within the Jewish tradition, though perhaps we should say traditions, there are numerous reflections on the topic of suffering. These come from a range of perspectives; some emphasize the locus of the suffering, be it the individual human being, the group, the nation as a whole, or universal. Others are more concerned with the causes of suffering, if it is a consequence of one’s actions or not; whereas yet others are more concerned with appropriate responses to suffering. And underlying all of these is the question of the meaning of suffering: how could a just benign God permit such pain to exist? From the earliest Biblical sources, through the medieval commentaries, philosophical, literary writings, and later Hasidic works, writers struggle with the issues.

Let’s look first at the suffering of an individual. Of course the biblical Book of Job jumps to mind. It is clear from the story that Job’s many tribulations were in no way the consequences of his actions, but rather of a strange wager between God and the Satan. Job was not iniquitous, he did nothing wrong; he lived a basically righteous life. His sufferings appeared to be random, inexplicable; they just happened. At first he seemed to be able to live with his grief, until his friends arrived and sought to console him with philosophical, religious, and moral ideas. He was broken not by a series of catastrophic events, but by their attempt to impose extraneous meaning on it all. That was the point at which he lost his equanimity, at which famously he cursed his fate.

Lauren Deutsch: So, in their effort to console, they only reinforced the existence of badness?

R. O-M.: Yes. Eventually, Job’s wisdom came directly from God. The climax of the book is a magnificent episode in which God speaks from the whirlwind, challenging Job, asking him, in effect, “who are you to enquire after meaning?; “where were you when I created the mountains?” God seems to be emphasizing to Job how insignificant his place was in the Creation. Ultimately, I think that one of the teachings of the Book of Job is that the quest for meaning can sometimes be futile, and that our task is not to understand the cause of our suffering, why it happened, but rather to transcend the experience by accepting the mystery of existence. Asking “why me” never helps.

On the other hand, we also speak of suffering that comes about as a result of human actions. In this respect we can look at in the Jewish fast day of Tisha be’Av, the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destruction of both of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Our sources all relate that the immediate cause of this was immorality on the part of the inhabitants of the city. It wasn’t a proportionate consequence – desecration and exile of the entire nation following gossip and defamation. But nevertheless it was a consequence of our actions.

GN: Last Tisha b’Av we learned that while we mourn the loss of our Temples of the past, we are also mourning the loss of our sense of holiness within ourselves today. Can you provide some thoughts about this?

R. O-M.: Yes, this is one of the characteristics of the Jewish understandings of history, that the past is echoed in the present, or that the patterns of the past can illuminate and inform the present. When we commemorate and study the destruction of the Temples, we become aware of how he have desecrated the promise of holiness in our own lives..

There is a perfect example of this is in a hasidic interpretation of the experience of the Children of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt. I’m not going to recapitulate the entire story, just talk about one aspect of it. To start with, it’s important to establish the difference between pain and what in this context we can call wretchedness. Pain is factual, it is extreme discomfort, physical or mental, or both. Wretchedness (the Hebrew word is ʿatzvut), on the contrary, is not “real,” it is a psychic construct that serves to buffer us from experiencing unbearable pain. In the short term it is an essential mechanism, and can keep us sane, but when maintained for too long it creates major spiritual problems.

A central idea in the Jewish mystical tradition is that everything in the world, animate and inaminate, is sustained by the Divine presence; this includes every living creature, every star, every planet, every particle, but also events and even states, like joy and pain, life and death, everything. When we buffer ourselves from any part of the world, we are also veiling the Divine presence that resides within it. The corollary is true. When we veil ourselves from the Divine presence within the world, we veil ourselves from the Source, the All, the One, the Infinite. This is wretchedness: being totally bereft and alone in the world.

What happened with the Children of Israel was that in the initial stages of their slavery they buffered themselves against the pain: they grumbled, they complained, but somehow they made slavery comfortable. Their coping mechanism was to restrict their vision: they lost their sense of identity, and fell into a sense of melancholic non-action. “This is the way it is.” “Maybe we can’t take cruises down the Nile, but we’ve got enough food to eat, somewhere to sleep, and the workload is bearable.” They fell into the trap of self-pity, true wretchedness. They cut themselves off from both the Divine presence in the world and from the Source, the One. They were wretched and alone, and hopeless.

Then Moses arrived on the scene. He came from the outside, and so was not involved in their dramas. In order to create a shift, a movement, he proceeded to exacerbate matters: he provoked Pharaoh into worsening the conditions of their slavery, to make their life so unbearable that no buffering could shield them. Then they moved into the condition known in Hebrew as merirut, bitterness. Their situation was no longer tenable. They realized that there was a choice. “We don’t want to live this way.” They smashed the shell of wretchedness, and the Exodus began.

Lauren Deutsch: He raised the stakes?

R. O-M.: Yes, and the Exodus from Egypt also serves as a paradigm for situations in our own lives. The provocation of a good friend can rescue us from the isolation of wretchedness; but of course it must be employed with caution.

Let’s change the subject. Chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah offers a completely different approach, that of redemptive suffering, the suffering of an individual that can transform not just that person, but all of society, perhaps even the cosmos. This is the “suffering servant,” the individual whose suffering takes on the pain of the world. Christianity adopted this and invested it in the figure of Jesus. Partially as a result, many Jews withdraw from this position. There has never been a consensus as to whether this “suffering servant” is an individual or the entire Jewish people.

Rashi (an 11th century commentator), for example, held the latter position, that the community of Israel bears the pain of the world, and that the world can be redeemed through its efforts. Whereas, others, such as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1782-1810, an important Hasidic leader), speak of how the tzadik, the righteous person, the fully realized human being, can take on such suffering in a way that is transformative.

GN: Not everyone’s a tzadik. What does Rabbi Nachman advise the rest of us to do when we are confronted by a situation that has the potential to cause us suffering?

R. O-M.: In some very complex essays he described the manner in which suffering can drag you down when you identify with it, if you embrace the role of victim. If the entire locus of one’s being is suffering, one’s bruised self, one’s bruised existence, then suffering cannot be redemptive. He suggests that one can refine one’s strategy. To avoid being overcome by pain we need to shift our focus to the transcendent, to move out of a state of wretchedness and enter into a world in which light and darkness are commingled.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that all suffering is voluntary.  There is terrible pain and distress in the world. What I am referring to is the fact that we can develop a predisposition to wretchedness, to feeling safe with it, consoling oneself. To overcome that, we must learn to remove the “poor me” from the equation. Moving away from “poor me, I have I have terrible arthritis in my knee,” to “I have terrible arthritis in my knee”. Don’t get me wrong, feeling sorry for oneself can be a necessary defensive measure, but only if it is temporary, a kind of dullness before the necessary sharpness. It’s in the sharpness that suffering can become redemptive.

LD: Is the goal to remain in that protective stage for as long as possible?

R. O-M.: The image I’d like to use is of a cast on a broken limb. It facilitates healing in the short term, but unfortunately some people want to keep it on indefinitely. It is no longer appropriate. But removing it also takes courage. Removing a cast can be painful too.

GN: Is this voluntary suffering?

R. O-M.: Let’s call it “locked into wretchedness”. It’s a terrible place. And one often needs an external shock to break out of it. Like Moses’ entering the scene and shaking up the Children of Israel. I think that all of us sometimes in our lives need such interventions.

The question is: How does one remove oneself from attachment to suffering, how does one prevent oneself from defining oneself by one’s wretchedness? Pain is unavoidable, wretchedness is not.

GN: Can suffering be a means to deepen one’s spiritual work?

R. O-M.: Suffering is a necessary phase of existence. There is an ebb and flow within the spiritual life, between a sense of desolation and that of consolation. Both are essential. Consolation is a sweet gift that comes from the Divine, from the beyond. It is a kind of gift of grace. One of the problems of our times is that people want to feast on the consolation without ever tasting the desolation. So much of our society is built around that denial of desolation. We rush to the freezer and go straight for the figurative Hagen Daasz. That’s subsisting on consolation, which is a very unbalanced spiritual diet.

GN: There’s still something I want to understand about the ability to stand in front of something difficult and bear it. Where does this ability come from?

R. O-M.: There are different soul attributes, different virtues on the path that we cultivate in our work, and in this respect courage is primary. Not macho courage, but soul courage. There is something else. When I visited His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his community in Dharamsala, I was struck powerfully by their ability to maintain lightness in adversity. That is something I took away from there, a precious life teaching.