These days I’m thinking a lot about pain — about pain as friend and pain as foe. About pain as the great liberator and pain as the great withholder. I’m thinking about pain as divine and pain as something evil. Pain is evil to me, but it’s evil in the sense of the Satan in Job: evil deployed by the Divine to purify, to help make humans and humanity whole. But evil nonetheless.
I think about blurred lines between supposedly hard truths, about that which lies beyond good and evil. I think about Nietzche and how possible it is to become trapped in your own intellect, how even ideas need companionship. I think about how we’re social creatures and creatures that need to feel pain in the context of community, but how that feels nearly impossible in the context of COVID. That makes me fear. Feeling pain in isolation makes me very afraid.
But fear isn’t real. Or at least that’s what the Besht’s father supposedly impressed upon him before he died: “There is nothing to fear but Gd.” But if Gd is El Rachamim, if She truly is the source of compassion, then is She really to be feared? Should She be? Why do we continue to confuse yirah and pachad? Why do religious leaders still impress fear upon those who trust them when it’s awe that brings us into communion with the Divine? Because religious leaders are nothing more than tired and twisted humans, just like the rest of us. Even Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t perfect; our spiritual tradition is different that way. There are no perfect humans. For us, implicit trust belongs solely to The Mystery. No human is ever deserving of our total faith - only Gd.
Cornel West says we’re all cracked vessels. I think we’re all gnarled trees. Because we’re just trees of the field, aren’t we? That’s one part of our tradition that I think we got right. It’s also an analogy I’m not sure we deserve. Trees have made this planet home for 300 million years. We’ve barely made it 300 thousand, and we’ll be lucky to make it another three thousand at the rate we’re going.
Perhaps the gevurah is too strong in this world. Perhaps this world is one in an endless blossoming of worlds, each a different combination of those 10 Divine Songs reverberating throughout some type of multiverse. Gd is a scientist, and Creation is His ultimate experiment: test everything, see what works. Maybe this one won’t. Or maybe this experiment is Gd’s last hope - for now.
I’m an empiricist too. Maybe that’s the godly part of me - trusting Reality, whatever it turns out to be. But really I think the divine part of me is the part of me that wanders the coastline at sunset to find those hidden places where I can be alone with sand and sky and sea. I think the divine part of me is that sound of murmuring silence inside me that guides me to ancient ruins of sacred places when I’m not paying attention, sacred ruins where I can feel the weight of the generations who used to pray there in each step I take, generations who used to cast their hearts into the beauty before them then, just as I do now. I could care less that they chanted in Hawaiian and not Hebrew. I could care less that they didn’t know Gd by the names I do. Perhaps their names were even more beautiful. But I am grateful to have my own, names that link me to a lineage that is my life’s greatest inheritance, a lineage that forms a ladder back to Gd.
The tetragrammaton isn’t a name. It’s a portal. It’s a portal to Eternity, a link to that port city on the shores of Eternity that we know as Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn’t a place. It’s a point of departure and a homecoming. It is also a place.
Mapping eternal echoes onto the material world is what my people are known for, and nowhere did I feel that more strongly than in that sacred, scarred city. It’s a place that burned me and healed me. It’s a place that continues to buoy my spirits because of what it could be and remains in my imagination. It’s also the place that crushes my spirit with the realities of what it is - for now.
Ultimately, I don’t wish for comfort. I’m here for too short a time to truly care about that. What I want is to manifest my meaning. What I wish for is to live out my purpose. I’m on loan from Another Place. All I pray for is to make my sojourn here worth the pain it wrings out of me. Maybe it’s already been worth it. Maybe Heschel was right. Maybe just to be here is holy. But I’m not sure I believe that. Even more, I want more. I want to help transform my pain into others’ pleasure. I want to partner with Gd in the completion of creation. I want more than simply to survive. Wrestling with Life until it blesses you - that to me, is holiness.
Sometimes pain feels like it’s holding me back from that purpose in a most frustrating way. Other times it feels like pain is hollowing me out to make room for the unknown because that’s where Gd lives, and really it’s not relief that I crave - it’s Gd. If I trust that my pain is a present, some scalding sacrificial fire that transforms me into something worthy of more Divinity - then what fear do I need to have? What worry do I really need to carry? Can’t I just let go?
But how many people have mistaken some fangled truth for Divine truth when in reality they simply suffer? I’m hardly a master of humility, but I’m humble enough to know that could certainly be me.
How do I know that my pain isn’t just a mistake? How do I know that Gd isn’t sitting next to me crying, pleading with some part of me that I can’t yet interpret to do that one thing to set me free? I don’t glorify pain. I detest pain. I don’t want it for a second more than I have to have it. I’m not even sure I have to have it, but I do, and if I do then I want to bear it with grace. I don’t want to let that pain contort my form into anything less beautiful than it's already become. I want to be conscious to the pain, if for no other reason so that Gd has to feel it too. Because at least then I’m not in it alone.
Chronic disease is a very hard thing to communicate. Because most people think that when you’re sick you either get better or you die. But I’m not better, and I didn’t die. I’m mostly fine, except when I'm not, when I get dragged back down into difficulty. I don’t kick and scream about it when it happens as much anymore (I’m just too tired from all the other times and too aware that it doesn’t help) but I still detest it. It’s humiliating. It laughs at my progress and struggle and strife and says, “That’s nice. Now try this.”
Job has helped me most. He gives more beautiful voice to my pain, my outrage, and my indignation than I ever could. But that’s probably because Job wasn’t the work of a single individual. It was the work of generations. You see, we don’t have the Hagia Sofia or the Sagrada Família. My ancestors devoted their lives to constructing sacred ideas and internal structures to safely house them instead of constructing anything external. Because we always knew this world was just a way-station, a broken way-station that needed each and every last one of us to bring the fullest expression of ourselves to fix in full. Still, this potentially perfect planet is still no permanent abode; after all, we do die.
So what is this place? I believe this is a testing ground. This is soul-school. Mussar taught me that. This is where we’re fooled into believing we’re separate long enough that we have the autonomy to grow and transform that spark of the Divine we call our soul. This plane is where we transform pain into purpose and matter into spirit. And all I want is for this straight-jacket of pain to be removed, so I can simply get to work.
In the meantime, my pain softens me, it opens me, and it connects me in some deepest way to those I can tolerate during that pain. I'm beyond grateful to have those presences in my life. Granted, those presences are mostly plants and trees and shrubs and sky and sea and rocks and birds and deers and beetles and flowers and mountains, but sometimes a human makes the cut, and it’s in them that I most certainly find Divine love, love which has escaped from Another Place into the Here and Now to bring me what I most need Gd to be for me in this moment: El Rachamim. What is Gd if not the energy that surges between people who relate humanly and authentically? Or at least that’s what Buber told me.
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