Posted on November 6, 2011 by Emma Sevitz
Guest Post: Dvar Torah by Pardes Alumnus Rabbi Peter Stein
The Torah is a book that explores what it means to be human. The Book of Genesis, especially, presents story after story that delves into the pain and joy and messiness of the human condition.
In this week’s parshah, we read about Sarai, our ancestor, and the great pain she endures as a result of infertility. When we first encountered Sarai at the end of last week’s parshah, the very first thing the Torah told us about her, other than her being’s Avram’s wife, was that she was barren, unable to have children. This introduction provides us a glimpse of how central this experience of pain was in Sarai’s life.
In this week’s parshah, the Torah gives us rich details that help us understand the depth and texture of Sarai’s pain. When she tells Avram: עצרני ה’ מלדת – “God has kept me from bearing children” (Gen. 16:2) – we learn about Sarai’s feeling of helplessness, her sense that the problem is beyond her control, that it comes from God and that she can’t do anything about it.
We feel her desperation as Sarai gives her servant Hagar to her husband Avram as a wife in a kind of surrogacy arrangement in which her servant’s child will sort of be her own, and her household will sort of be built up through her servant. But only sort of.
And when this plan tragically, predictably backfires, we feel Sarai’s despair as she lashes out at her husband, blaming him for her predicament.
What strikes me about this story is how much each of us can relate to Sarai’s pain and brokeness, for each of us, at some point, has experienced this sort of pain. For some, the pain may be due to inferitility like Sarai. For others who were able to have children, it migh be pain from the choices those children have made in their own lives. For others, the pain might have been a divorce or a child’s divorce. The pain might come from a professional disappointment or the loss of a job or an extended period of unemployment. For some, it might be pain from the untimely loss of a loved one, or an illiness suffered by themselves or a member of their family. And for still others, the pain might be a burden they carry through their lives that none of us will ever know, such as a struggle with anxiety or depression or a history of abuse.
If we pay close attention to the language of Sarai’s story, we can recognize the experience of our own suffering in Sarai’s pain:
As the story opens, we are told: לא ילדה לו – “she did not bear him children” (Gen. 16:1). The text could have simply said she was barren. By using this language – “she did not bear him children” – the Torah suggests the feeling of personal failure that Sarai felt from her inability to produce children, despite the fact that it was not her fault.
The same phrase says that she did not bear children for him – Avram. It does not say for her – Sarai – suggesting that part of her pain came from not meeting the expectiations of a loved one or a community, or not being able to fulfill what she understood as her obligation.
And in her encounter with Hagar, we are told ותקל גברתה בעיניה – “her mistress was lowered in her esteem” (Gen. 16:4) – and see the loss of social status that often accompanies – and contributes to – our pain and our brokeness.
As I get older, I have become increasingly aware of how many people in the communities I spend time in wrestle with this type of pain. It is pretty hard to reach – name an age – 30? 35? 40? 50? – without experiencing some form of deep pain and brokeness. And so the question becomes: How do we deal with this pain and this brokeness?
On an individual level, the parsah does not offer us a resolution. Sarai’s story itself does not suggest a healthy way for dealing with this type of pain and suffering. But what the parshah does do is tell the story in the first place. It does not hide Sarai’s suffering. It puts it out in full view and says: This is what people go through. And in doing so, it gives us permission to acknowledge our own pain and our own brokeness. That first step of looking inward and acknowledging that we are suffering can often be the hardest step, for connecting with our suffering brings that pain to the forefront and hurts and threatens our feelings of security and self-sufficiency; it damages our pride. Reflecting on our pain may lead us to think about all the things we could have done differently that might have prevented the pain. Or we may realize there was nothing we could have done, and feel helpless.
As a community, dealing with pain and brokeness can be an even bigger challenge.
I am reminded of a story I heard in my final year of rabbinical school, when a rabbi came to speak to our class about the experience of losing her husband to cancer when they were both still in their ’30’s. Her husband had been the cantor of a synagogue and, after moving out of the parsonage following his death, she settled down in a new neighborhood and a new synagogue community. She recalled that what made all the difference for her in dealing with her grief was the community’s ability to make room for her brokeness. If she needed to cry in the middle of the service, she just sat in her seat in the middle of the sanctuary and wept.
As a community, I think that Jews do pretty well at handling the pain and the brokeness of death. The loss of a loved one is something almost everyone experiences at some point. Although there are awkward moments, to be sure, we have highly structured rituals and protocols and routines that help us cope with the loss and provide support to those who are in need. But we face a bigger challenge when people in our community face other types of suffering, such as a divorce or the loss of a job. For these, there are no communal rituals, no routines that provide guidance for what to say or how to act. There is no shiva for a failed marriage, no “HaMakom yinachem etchem”* to say when someone loses a job. Dealing with these types of pain can be difficiult and awkward, as we are not sure exactly what to say or how to act, or if the person even wants us to say anything, or just to be left alone.
I think that our challenge in dealing with this sort of pain is made more difficult by the fact that people in our syngagogues are, for the most part, middle class. Being middle class in America brings with it a whole set of expectations about our families, our professions, our financial success that make it very difficult to admit when we are suffering. If we let our pain show in public, we risk being seen as a failure, as not having met those expectations.
In my years in New Haven, I have spent a good deal of time in the poorer neighborhoods of our city and one thing that has always struck me is how open people in poorer neighborhoods are to sharing their pain and their brokeness. It is not uncommon for people at a public meeting to talk openly about a teenage child who is pregnant or a family member who is struggling with drug addiction or to share their experience as a grandparent forced to raise their grandchild. I suppose this openness is largely due to the fact that when you are poor, it is harder to hide your suffering. If you live in a poor neighborhood or can’t afford nice clothes or a decent car, it’s much harder to hide your pain and struggles, so there is not the pressure to maintain a facade that everything is okay, even when it is not.
In the religious Jewish world, I think the challenge of dealing with our pain and our brokeness grows even harder yet. Most religious Jewish communities have a very clear picture of what life should look like. We are commanded to get married and have children. There are expectations about money, education, professions. But when life departs from these expectations, our communities don’t always know how to respond. They don’t always know how to make room for our pain and our brokeness.
As we continue our journey through the Book of Genesis, as we read about our ancestors and their struggles, let us use this opportunity to look inward and connect with our own suffering. Let us build communities that make room for pain and brokeness, communities where someone can sit in their seat on Shabbat morning and simply cry if they need to. Let us build communities that recognize that the complexity of life – the pain and the brokeness, together with the joy – is what it means to be human.
Delivered at the Westville Synagogue, New Haven, CT, November 5, 2011
* At the conclusion of a visit to a house of mourning, it is customary to comfort the mourner with the words “HaMakom yinachem etchem b’toch shi’ar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” – “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.