God and Pain- How to Be Vulnerable and Trust Again
Essays 2017 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Alongside the joys and beauty of life as we experience it, there inevitably exists tragedy and pain. The quest for a meaningful perspective that will enable man to cope with those hardships is part and parcel of human history. The need to find reconciliation between the belief in a One, all benevolent God, with human tragedy and pain, emerged with the very discovery of one God. Yet this quest has become neither stale nor clichéd, because the question is experienced by every individual and every generation in their own unique way.
Our generation’s quest for a meaningful perspective on tragedy is seemingly colored by the value we attribute to our experiences. We seem to be inspired -or not- based on how an idea or event makes us feel. This makes it harder to relate to a tragedy as a “hidden good” or blessing since we don’t experience it as such. The big question that emerges is: how can we have a personal and meaningful relationship with God, if He is also the source of our pain and disappointments?
The attempted answer that an infinite God is, by definition, unknowable and beyond our understanding, leaves us unsatisfied, for how can we have a personal relationship with God if we cannot relate to His presence in our lives in a meaningful way? In fact, when someone you trust is the source of your pain, there is a distinct sense of abandonment and betrayal that does not accompany the hurtful acts of a stranger.
How can our generation, with its emphasis on experience, relate to God amidst our pain? How can we ensure that our relationship with God is a source of strength and courage, and not bewilderment and confusion?
We will explore Chassidic teachings of the Maggid, the Alter Rebbe, and the Rebbe to reach a deep and satisfying resolution. Concepts in Chassidus that we will elucidate and relate to are the holy names of God, Havaya and Adonai, and their great relevance to our lives.
Why It Matters
To critical thinkers and honest seekers, this question has ramifications that are huge and all-encompassing.
Anxiety: In a world that contains so much evil and darkness, it is natural to experience anxiety and fear. Having a real and personal relationship with a God that you trust and can rely on is the best means of achieving calmness, serenity, and the sense of security that we all crave.
Prayer: how can one sincerely and genuinely turn to God in prayer, if you do not feel that you could trust Him? Why ask, beseech, share, and connect with God, if He is also the source of your challenges? The effects of prayer on a person’s overall wellbeing are well known, influencing their health, both physical and mental.
Overcoming Addictions: The twelve step program is just one example of how trusting in God and having a personal relationship with Him can help overcome the greatest of challenges and pain.
Dealing with tragedy: At the most difficult times in one’s life, the feelings of loss and abandonment can be so intense, that it overwhelms and crushes. Without a personal relationship with God, it can seem impossible to move forward and build a meaningful life in the aftermath of the grief.
Mitzva Observance: When you have a personal relationship with God, you are motivated to do His mitzvot. That feeling of connection affects the energy that accompanies the mitzvah, infusing meaning and enthusiasm that otherwise are not present.
Clearly, the ability to reconcile the original question of God in our Suffering, and the resulting possibility to create a meaningful, personal relationship with Him, is a most necessary undertaking with benefits that are life-changing.
The Meaning of Suffering
The Alter Rebbe, in his foundational book of Tanya, offers three perspectives on dealing with suffering: as a spiritual cleansing, a test of faith, or an expression of a higher good.[i][ii] The common denominator of the three teachings is that suffering is always for the individual’s benefit.
Just as a writer utilizes old words to create new concepts, as an artist paints familiar scenes with a new vision, the Rebbe applies known concepts, weaving them together to create a beautiful tapestry that can serve as a roadmap for our generation in its quest for passionate and personal meaning. The Rebbe builds on the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, while simultaneously addressing our emotional needs that may be left unsatisfied.
The Rebbe’s Cry
In a sicha on Parshas Shemos, the Rebbe asks the big question. While many people who learned or heard this sicha recall the question, the full relevance of its solution remains less known. I think this can be attributed to the vivid and pained way the question was presented, and also the fact that this question is one of every modern man in the post holocaust world. Yet the answer, perhaps because of its technical language- or because its novelty is more nuanced- wasn’t given its due attention.
In the first prophecy of Moshe by the burning bush, he asks God, “And it will be when I tell the children of Israel, ‘God, the Lord of your fathers, has sent me,’ and they will ask ‘what is His name,’ what should I tell them?” Why is Moses so sure that this is the first question that they will ask him? Moreover, didn’t the Jewish people have a tradition of beliefs bequeathed to them? Wouldn’t that tradition include the name of their God?
A name is not just a way of labeling an entity, but rather it is a pointer to its identity. The question Moshe is sure the Jewish people are going to ask is: what is the identity of the God who he claims wants to redeem them. Is He an existence whose ways are beyond comprehension so that the human being cannot expect to enter with Him in a meaningful relationship? If so, how is Moshe requesting from them to relate to God as an entity who cares about them and seeks to redeem them in order to relieve them of their pain? And if God’s identity is of an existence who loves and cares about the human fate, then where was He in the last two hundred and ten years of Jewish suffering? Where was he when Pharaoh bathed in Jewish babes’ blood?
The question isn’t one of disbelief in God; it is not even undermining God’s morality. Instead, it raises a pressing concern: how can we expect the human being to relate to God’s presence in his life in a meaningful way, while also stating that God’s involvement in his life will be, from his perspective, incomprehensible and arbitrary.
The One Who Is there with Them
The first part of God’s response is, “Tell them that the one who is there with them, sent you to them.” You ask where I was in your pain? I was right there suffering alongside you. This is my identity: the One who suffers with those who are in pain. You ask, how you can relate to me in the midst of life’s windstorms? Relate to me as the Infinite God who paradoxically is in pain, because He cannot reveal His infinite love and care in this finite world.
This is the focal part of the answer, revealing how we should relate to God’s presence in our lives. And yet, it is incomplete, as we human beings can only fully identify with the concrete and tangible. And if there is no tangible expression of God’s empathy and care to us, then it once again becomes sophistry and meaningless.
And His Name Is…
This is why God speaks again to Moshe and says,[iii] “My name is hidden, but its remembrance is forever.” This alludes to the Halacha that it is forbidden in Jewish law to pronounce the divine name of Havayah (the Tetragrammaton). Yet whenever it is mentioned in study or prayer, we don’t ignore it, but instead we substitute it with the pronunciation of the divine name of Adonai (My Lord). This is its remembrance.
How does this Halacha pertain to the discussion? The meaning of this Halacha is that God’s infinite mercy and love that is represented in the name of Havayah must remain hidden and cannot be revealed in the finite world. This is why it is forbidden to pronounce Havaya as it’s written. Yet the Halacha is not to skip its reading, but rather to refer to it with the name of Adonai. While Adonai is a name that connotes the concealment of God in this world, the fact that we use it as the pronunciation and reading of Havayah, alludes to the reality that Havayah -God’s love and mercy- is not completely hidden, but rather finds expression in Adonai, our limited perception of Him. This means that God created the world in a way that there will always be a ray of God’s mercy and love that will shine through and be revealed to us in our lives. This is why in Halacha the Divine attribute of mercy must have a remembrance.
His Ray of Compassion
In effect, God is answering, “My full and infinite love and compassion must remain hidden in the finite world (before the complete redemption). You ask, how can you- who needs concrete and visible expressions- relate to this fact that I love and care about you? My answer is that there will always be one ray of light in your life that will penetrate the darkness and reveal the true nature of my love. You will have the ability to point and see it as an expression of my true compassion. It may not remove your bewilderment and fright, but the ray of light will be my tangible expression to you that I am always there and you are not alone.”
The Maggid poignantly expands on the above mentioned concept of God’s name Havayah being revealed only through the name of Adonai. He illustrates this idea with the metaphor of a father and a mother. The father will sometimes discipline the child in ways he won’t understand, but the mother will always be there to caress him, to “kiss him and bring him close to his father.” i.e. God’s full intentions for us may be hidden, but if we look closely there will always be one small expression of God caressing us, in order to help us enter and maintain a meaningful relationship with His presence in our lives.
It may be our darkest hour, the ray of light may be minuscule, but it is there. We see an example of this when Josef’s brothers sold him to slavery. In his time of despair, the carriage carrying him to the destiny of slavery had an aroma of sweet smelling spices. This surely didn’t remove his pain or fright, but it was God’s message to him that he would never be alone, and that he would have the strength to carry himself with dignity.
To be Vulnerable and Trust Again
This approach can help many people in pain. Instead of feeling that faith demands that they trivialize their pain and rationalize the tragedy, they will feel validated with the idea that God Himself is in pain with them. Searching for the (sometimes miniscule) expression of God’s love will help them compartmentalize the different parts of their lives and feel appreciative of the ray of His compassion. We must remember that no one can tell another person where for them lies the tangible expression of God’s love, but we are assured it is there. For some, you may find His ray in the strength that God puts in your heart to handle your situation with courage and dignity. Seeing that as an objective expression of God’s love will help you be cognizant and mindful of its existence. Above all, this perspective helps man in his pain and disappointment not feel alone. Instead, you will be assured that come what may, you will always have a meaningful expression of God’s love in your life. This will help you feel connected in a real and meaningful relationship that brings you ever closer to your source, with all the benefits and blessings that His presence brings to your experience of life in this world.
In Summary: When dealing with a painful reality, the perspective that God has not left us alone and that He is seeking to send us a visible message, can help us respond to life’s challenges in the best possible way. When you are in an open and receptive frame of mind, you can find solace and perspective in the teachings of Chassidus using the following steps.
- Meditate: Despite the incomprehensible hurt, God is here with me in my pain, as a mother caresses and comforts her child. (Havaya and Adonai)
- Search for the ray of God’s love and compassion, even in the hardship. This can be in the form of a new, precious relationship that emerges, an inner strength that you were thus far unaware you possessed, or a newfound sensitivity to others.
- Express your closer relationship with God in a concrete form: through prayer or a Mitzva, now performed in a deeper and more personal manner than ever before.
Sources and Footnotes
 Likkutei sichos volume 26 Parshas Shemos, Toras Menachem 5743 vol. 2 page 799
 Shemos chapter 3, verse 13
 Ibid verse 14: this follows Rashi’s interpretation of the verse.
 See Pesachim 50a and Rosh Yuma chapter 8:19
 Magid Dvarav Leyakov, page 45.
See Rashi, Braishis chapter 37, verse 25.
[i] In Igeres Hateshuva, Chapter 12, he writes that pain and suffering are spiritually cleansing of a person’s sins. Transgressions and acts of immoral behavior cause blemishes to the soul that will need to be washed and uprooted in the Next World, in order for the soul to enter and enjoy the Godly pleasure of Gan Eden. It is a favor to the soul to be cleansed of those insensitivities, here in this world, in the form of suffering. It is an expression of God’s love, like a King who bends down to personally bathe and scrub his son’s scrapes and bruises.
The second perspective is in Igeret Hakodesh, Epistle 11. Written to a disciple who was suffering intensely, the letter inspires the recipient to rise above his nisayon, his test, from God. The purpose of the test is to determine if you truly believe in God and can trust Him enough to remain calm and serene, despite the tremendous pain.
In chapter 26 of Likkutei Amarim, the Alter Rebbe provides the third, most lofty teaching on this topic. Spiritually, there exists the revealed worlds (alma disgalya) and a higher world that is concealed (alma diskasya). Pain and suffering are in fact “hidden good” from a loftier source, The Hidden worlds, that is closer to God. Realizing that your challenge is an expression of God drawing you close, sharing a deeper dimension of Himself in the guise of concealed good, enables one to experience the difficulty with an entirely different mindset, an appreciation for the opportunity to be closer to God.
[ii] Ibid verse 15. This is changing the simple meaning of the verse based on Rashi’s interpretation. The simple meaning of the verse is “this is my name forever.” Rashi learns from the fact that the Hebrew word “leolam” is written without the required letter vov so that it alludes to the Hebrew word “leallem” which means “to conceal,” so in effect the verse says “my name is hidden”.
[iii] The sicha has been adapted in different formats, but the general trend seems to focus on the aspect of the sicha that cast the ‘remembrance’ i.e. the revelation of Havayah through Adonai, in the future tense: that eventually, Havaya will be revealed to all in this world. While this is definitely one aspect of the sicha, I chose to focus on an overlooked part of the sicha that implies that in general, the name Havaya finds expression and revelation in the name of Adonai even before God’s intentions are fully revealed. In the footnote in the sicha, the point is illustrated through the example of Yosef’s sale to slavery, which was revealed to be for his benefit only after twenty two years. But this footnote was written in regards to Havayah influencing the world in a hidden way before the elucidation of the sicha regarding “zeh zichri” – that Havayah finds expression through the name Adonai. There may be a subtle difference in regards to this between the way the sicha is written in Likkuei Sichos and the way it’s written in Toras Menachem. Support for this interpretation of the sicha can be taken from the words of the Maggid that I referred to in the essay. The Maggid is explicitly elucidating the relationship of the way the name Havayah is written and the way it is pronounced i.e. with the name Adonai, and explains the reading of the name Havayah through the name Adonai not as the eventual revelation of Havayah’s intentions, but rather as the mother “kissing (the son) and bringing (him) closer to the father,” while the son is still experiencing the pain of the father’s intentions not being revealed. Although, of course, there is a comfort in the assurance that the full purpose and relief of the pain will eventually be revealed in this world, there is a unique comfort and benefit in the awareness that even in the present, there is an expression of Havayah in his life, not least in the very fact that helps man stay focused in the present. This approach will especially help people who cannot visualize for themselves in this world a happy ending. See Keser Shem Tov page 51 where he writes regarding “finding within the judgment elements of kindness which will eventually transform the judgment fully to kindness.”