What Should a Rabbi Tell Another Jew Who is Suffering?

What should a Rabbi (or a well-meaning religious Jew) tell another Jew who is suffering and struggling?  I recently read two articles that addressed this issue. The first article, entitled “Sex and lobster are not the same,” was from someone who expressed frustration that from her perspective, all too often orthodox Jewish people address issues of “negiah” to singles and members of the LGBTQ+ community by saying, “You don’t understand, Judaism isn’t meant to guarantee you’ll be happy. Halacha is meant to be kept whether it makes you happy or not. It’s a system that is meant to work for most people. It appears that you are outside the margins of those people, someone this halacha doesn’t really address. But you have to keep it anyway, because that’s Orthodox Judaism.”  The author asserts that those who make these statements do not empathize and cry with those who are required by halacha to remain a virgin until they die.  The description of the above, whenever it occurs, is absolutely devastating and it compounds the suffering of the individual who is in pain.

I read another article entitled “Dear Rabbi’s (and Other Well-Meaning Religious Jews),” where the author criticizes Rabbis and other well-meaning religious Jews for trying to support someone suffering from infertility by telling her “miracle baby stories.”  She recounts being told of instances where a childless mother was told to pray and do lots of good deeds and in response she gave birth to many children.  The author painfully recounted how hurtful she finds this type of response.  It seems to her that this and many other religious responses, like “pray more,” “God doesn’t owe you anything,” or “this is your challenge,” are condescending and add to the pain she feels.  Such statements do not exhibit empathy and may even be taken to imply that a woman who is not blessed with children is partially at fault for this because she did not pray hard enough or she did not do enough good deeds.

These articles make me wonder about the role of the Rabbi when someone is suffering or struggling, whether because of a particular halacha or because of a particular life situation.  Is the Rabbi’s role just to lend a supportive ear and to cry with the one who is suffering? Is there any more that he can say to comfort the person who is in pain?

There is no question that Rabbis and well-meaning religious Jews who address these types of topics must clearly convey that they empathize and are hurting and crying together with those who are struggling and suffering.  Sometimes when publicly discussing a topic about suffering, we may address the topic in the abstract from a philosophical point of view or we may intellectualize the challenge, without fully considering that there are actually people who are experiencing that pain.  We may fail to consider that these real people are in our audience too, and we should ask ourselves before writing or speaking, how would they react to whatever we are communicating?

Beyond empathizing with those who are in pain, I have found that people who are suffering are generally looking for one of three responses.

In a situation when halacha says no and observance of the halacha causes much suffering to someone, sometimes being empathic is insufficient. Often, the one who is suffering is looking for a rationale or a loophole that will allow a certain practice.  This individual will not be satisfied with anything less than a permissive ruling because, he reasons, it cannot be that God would place him or her in such an unfortunate situation. Thus, something in our halachic understanding must be amiss.

Sometimes, indeed, all the person seeks is empathy and compassion.  The person is not searching for spiritual guidance or miracle stories to comfort him.  He just wants a shoulder to cry on. He doesn’t want to hear miracle stories because for every miracle story, there are countless stories that end badly and if it ends badly with him, his pain will be compounded by the implication that had he only prayed harder, his fate would be different. It seems like the authors of the two articles that I read fit into this second category.

However, there are other people who are looking for a spiritual response.  They are looking for spiritual answers, and trying to find the hand of God even in their tragic situation can be comforting to them.  They want to know about the effectiveness of prayer and other good deeds, as it is a source of great strength to them.

One of the most successful student-run events at Yeshiva University is the annual “Stomp Out the Stigma” event when a few students publicly speak about their struggles with mental health and how receiving help changes their lives.  My daughter recently attended that event and she noticed that some of the speakers talked about coping with their situation by sensing the hand of God in so many aspects of their struggle and how they were grateful that they felt that God was with them every step of their arduous journey.  Others, however, didn’t reference God in their struggles at all.

On a personal note, my mother passed away after a bout of cancer at the age of 67.  When reflecting upon this unnatural tragedy that someone died at a relatively young age and how my mother would never see any of my children walk down the aisle to the chupah, my older brother and I had profoundly different responses to the tragedy.  He sensed the hand of God in so many details towards the end of her life which indicated His presence in a very meaningful way. I, on the other hand, did not find any solace in these incidents. Rather, I viewed this event purely as a tragic event and I tried to find solace by focusing on the many blessings in my life.

I think that these different responses may reflect two different approaches to bitachon, as articulated by Rav Lichtenstein.  The first type of bitachon is man having faith in God that God will help him in his time of need. This type of bitachon places the burden on God to deliver.  This first type of bitachon can be very comforting, at least initially, and it addresses man’s need to try to understand the ways of God and how they relate to him personally.  The second type of bitachon is man being faithful to God. This type of bitachon places the burden on man to remain committed to God and to halacha no matter what God throws his way.  This type of bitachon does not try to provide reasons for why things are happening to the individual; rather, the individual accepts what happens as best as he can and continues plodding along trying to do the right thing.

There is no singular response to someone who is in pain, whether he is in pain because of a certain halacha or because of a life situation.  Every Rabbi or well-meaning Jew who is called upon to address this situation must, first and foremost, convey empathy and compassion. After that, the greatest challenge is often trying to uncover what additional type of response, if any, is appropriate.  Some people don’t want to hear about challenges in life, or God’s hashgacha, or prayer or good deeds, or miracle stories. But others are thirsting for these messages. Others want to hear about the power of prayer and the many statements in our tradition that support this position.  In this instance, we should try to provide spiritual inspiration while ensuring that the listener understands that whereas we have a tradition that prayer and good deeds may be effective, if prayer and good deeds do not lead to a favorable outcome, then it does not mean that you are a bad person or have not done enough.  We have a tradition that these things may help, but there are so many other factors that may determine someone’s outcome.

In all cases, our role as clergy and even as friends is often to set our own interests and preferences aside, and meet our congregants and friends where they are.  This task is challenging, and it is incumbent upon each of us to do our best and then ask God to help us deliver our message in a way that those suffering want to hear.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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