Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

Behar-Bechukotai
Everyday life is full of challenges and disappointments. That is not up to us. What does depend on us, however, is how we process painful experiences. Do we know how to limit their impact or do we give them more space than they really deserve?
In the second half of this week’s composite reading, Behar-Bechukotai, [1] we read about the curses applied in the event that we do not follow G-d’s commands [2]. They are so graphic to the extent that it is customary not to call anyone up to the Torah for the reading, rather the Baal Koreh —reader— himself takes the Aliyah and reads it without invitation. That way, they don’t appear to be directed at anyone in particular.
Something to think about: Are the Biblical curses punishments or merely natural consequences of our own corrupted behavior? As a matter of fact, which of the two options would you prefer? Would you prefer suffering that comes as a natural consequence of your decisions or as a Divine punishment?
There is an interesting story that I would like to share regarding this topic.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, known as the Alter Rebbe, would read the Torah every Shabbat in the public reading of his synagogue. When he would travel, one of the members of the community would substitute for him in this role. It happened that the Alter Rebbe was away for one of the two Shabbatot in which the Biblical curses are read. In the middle of the reading, there was a sudden commotion: the Alter Rebbe’s son, Rabbi Dov Ber, had fainted. When he was revived, he was asked what had affected him so much. “I could not bear to hear such curses,” he said.
“Is this the first time you’ve heard them?” the congregants asked. “You hear them every year!”
“It’s true that it’s read each year, but when I hear them from my father, I don’t hear any curses,” he replied.
How are we to understand this story?
Perhaps we can understand it through the distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is something objective; suffering is a result of perception.
When we would take our children to get vaccinated, it was not a festive moment, as you can imagine. One of our children was especially afraid of needles and there was no way to convince him or bribe him to agree to get the vaccine. After an hour of trying, I grabbed him in a tight hug and the nurse administered the vaccine. I felt terrible about the “traumatic” way of resolving the issue and immediately apologized to my son. “Don’t worry, Tottie,” he said. “I know the vaccine is necessary and it was the only way to make it happen.”
Can you imagine how he would have reacted to a stranger grabbing him and giving him a needle? And can you imagine if he were to be pricked with a needle by someone for no good reason?
The pain is different when coming from Dad.
Come to think of it, I don’t know who felt more pain, my son or me, and which of us suffered more. Whatever the case may be, we both benefited and grew in a way that would have been impossible without that painful moment.
So this week’s tool is:
By being aware of the fact that everything comes from “Dad”, our Father in Heaven, then, even though something is very painful you won’t suffer as much. You will understand that ultimately —even if you don’t understand how– it is all for your benefit.
1. Leviticus, 25:1 – 27:34
2. Ibid, 26:14 and on.
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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