Overcoming Pain of the Past
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
A few weeks ago, I hopped on a crowded Egged bus heading to Bnei Brak. I noticed that Kvish Achad, the main highway leaving Jerusalem, was more clogged than usual, but not until the bus was abuzz with conversation did I realize that something was wrong. My seatmate informed me of a terrible accident that had transpired an hour earlier. Five people were killed and many more injured when the 402 bus to Bnei Brak collided with a vehicle parked on the shoulder of the highway.
One of the countless people affected by this tragedy was Sara bas Dina, a twenty-something-year-old woman who suffered a crushed leg among other serious injuries. With her wedding on the way, she was heading to Bnei Brak for some last-minute shopping. Yet when her parents were interviewed by a radio channel, they refused to blame the bus driver. “We’re thankful to G-d that our daughter is alive,” they said. Everyone listening was shocked.
But they are not alone. Their unfailing faith in Hashem’s presence and adamancy not to succumb to feelings of blame is reminiscent of another family that was tested greatly. During the second intifada, three siblings lost limbs when their bus was bombed on its route to school one morning. The children’s positivity during their recovery was astounding, leaving news reporters incredulous. The father told a journalist, “If I would make [the kids] feel sorry for themselves, I’d do them more harm than the terrorists did.”
In the twenty-first century, an age of freedom and opportunity, many people choose to imprison themselves in a victim mentality. These individuals allow negative circumstances to dictate their lives and blame their shortcomings on external factors. Instead of taking responsibility and being proactive, they relive past injustices and brand themselves victims of fate. By understanding what a challenge truly is—something that brings us to a deeper, more complete self—and recognizing the presence of G-d in every event of our lives, we can come to forgive both ourselves and others, and emerge from challenges as strong, present, and optimistic people.
In order to overcome the feelings of blame that cloud moments in our lives, we must first understand the nature of a trauma itself. In Likkutei Torah, Parshas Re’eh, the Alter Rebbe explains the verse, “Because Hashem, your G-d, tests you, so that you should know Him.” He writes that the soul comes down to earth just to experience nisyonos; so that he can get even closer to Hashem than before his descent. The Lubavitcher Rebbe further elucidates this concept, in a ma’amer based on words of Tehillim 60, where David Hamelech praises G-d for uplifting him to a greater truth by means of challenges.[i]
The hardships we experience emanates from an aspect of G-d that’s far beyond our version of “good.” Just as the highest stone on a wall falls the greatest distance to the ground, a nisayon descends from the highest heights of Hashem—higher even than kedusha—and into our conscious reality as something disastrous. This challenge is a spark of profound light that can only be expressed in this world if it’s concealed. That’s when klipa—a shell-like exterior—comes in to play, because it is the custom-made cloak that hides the spark’s original beauty until it’s completely unrecognizable. Revealed goodness, on the other hand, comes from a lower aspect of Hashem which is more similar to our perception of the world, and we can handle its lesser light without it needing to be covered.[ii]
Therefore, the task of overcoming a nisayon involves freeing the spark of holiness hidden within it. Since it originates from a place even beyond kedusha, beyond revealed good, it cannot be fought with all of our revealed faculties. We cannot combat a challenge with our intelligence, environment, emotions, willpower. Instead, it must be confronted with our essence, and that’s how we communicate with the essential spark embedded in the test. Since every Jew contains “a literal piece of G-d,”[iii] we have infinite power within us. Which means we cannot transform the nisayon with ordinary strength of character, emotional health or practical strategy; it takes our innermost reserves to withstand the test. This is the purpose of a nisayon: to reveal our truest selves—the G-d within us. When its mission is complete, the klipa loses its apparent existence and the nisayon is seen for its true self, a spark of unadulterated holiness.
This process of transforming pain into growth leads us to da’as of Hashem. According to the Tanya,[iv] da’as, knowledge, is the internalization of an idea to the point that it can be experienced in a close, emotional way. For example, we can learn, read and write poetry about love, to the point that we understand everything about it. But when love is experienced, when we are love, all the poetry ever written cannot capture its essence.
Whose Fault Is It?
Aside from Tzaddikim, there is hardly a person on earth who doesn’t ask, “Why would Hashem put me through this?” As rational creatures, we seek the answer to this question, and we piece together a case that puts someone or something else squarely to blame. In truth, however, there is no definitive answer for suffering. For example, when asked the reason for the Holocaust, the Lubavitcher Rebbe responded that we cannot rationalize such a horrific event.[v]
The only “reasoning” we can find for challenges won’t lie in external factors, because nisyonos are more than punishments for past misdeeds–they are reminders that there’s something in the substratum of our psyches that is lying dormant, and the only way to access it is by stripping away all externalities. In essence, G-d is telling us that we have the strength to rise to the occasion and can dig deep for the means to overcome.
Because the sole purpose of a challenge is to bring us to a greater truth within ourselves, as soon as we find that spark of goodness within the evil, we begin to grow from the experience. The event is no longer perceived as negative, and the klipa disappears. Chassidus explains[vi] that even apparent evil ultimately wants us to overcome its wiles. When we pass the test, the evil ceases to exist because it has completed its mission in bringing us closer to our best selves.[vii]
When we feel to be victims, we haven’t taken charge of our situation and instead wait for the one at fault to fix it for us. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke at the Kinus Hashluchim[viii] about his private audience with the Rebbe, during which the Rebbe asked the young university student about his Jewish activity in Cambridge. Unprepared to be given the responsibility of a Chabad emissary, Rabbi Sacks said that he “did the English thing. You know, the English can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing than anyone else on earth.” So he answered the Rebbe, “In the situation in which I find myself…” That’s when the Rebbe stopped him and said, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”
Human beings are never victims of circumstance. On the contrary, we always have the ability to pass the test. When Hashem created the world, He resolved never to give His creations a hurdle that they couldn’t overcome.[ix]
Forgiveness: Seeing Hashem Everywhere
In order to achieve clarity and see a nisayon for what it truly is, we must forgive those who are disturbing our peace of mind. Forgiveness means acknowledging Hashem’s presence in every aspect of our lives. Ancient Greek philosophy[x] deemed it improbable that a G-d who created the world could be engaged in its mundane details, believing it would equate Him with the finitude of His own creations. According to Chassidus, though, “…[G-d] encompasses the nature of each thing, yet nothing encompasses Him.”[xi] He is intimately involved in every detail and assigns a unique purpose to everything in the universe. If G-d’s involvement with his creations extends to even the tiniest of beings, how much more so is His investment in our lives apparent.
The Rebbe writes in a letter[xii], “Doubts… a feeling of insecurity in general… such feelings only arise when a person thinks that he is alone, and can only rely upon himself and his own judgement…but when a person’s faith is deep, and when he reflects that G-d’s benevolent Providence extends to each and every person, and to each and every detail, and each and every minute, surely he must develop a profound sense of security and confidence.”
When we have faith in hashgacha protis, we have the ability to forgive all the external forces holding us back. We can forgive those who we never thought we could, because they were just pawns in a plan to take us to a truer sense of self. We are calm because we don’t have to be in control of our every move. G-d is holding our hands. Forgiveness extends to our friends, families, and selves, because even the smallest grudge held is a handcuff holding us victim.
Here are some Chassidus-based methods to aid us in growing from challenges.
1. Think of a challenge you have had.
2. How did it help you grow?
- How did your world view change?
- How did your relationship with G-d change?
3. Do you regret having undergone this experience?
If so, is there someone/something who you feel is responsible, whom you haven’t forgiven?
4. Write a letter to this person, or to G-d, and tell them what you always wished you could say. Now rip it up.
5.Talk with your mashpia or someone you trust about what’s tethering you to this past event.
6. If thoughts of blame arise in your mind, remind yourself that they’re not real. Accept that they’re just there to test you, and you giving them attention will only feed their existence.[xiii]
7. Before you begin the first words of Shacharis, count sixty seconds for you to simply think. Talk to G-d in your own words, and this will help you start your day with a conscious awareness of Hashem’s presence.[xiv]
8. During Krias Shema at night, think sincerely about the meaning of the words,“Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me or sinned against me… whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed… may no man be punished on my account…” By practicing forgiveness daily, you will grow accustomed to letting go of hurt.
We don’t ask for pain. Truthfully, we prefer our own shallow versions of goodness to the greater kind masked as catastrophe. Even if suffering brings us closer to Hashem, we want to be close without the pain. However, when we are subjected to a nisayon, we must have the tools to overcome it with courage. Once we accept hashgacha protis and invite G-d into our past, present and future, we can forgive those who we once blamed and learn to find the reason—the spark—in the challenge, bringing us to da’as of Hashem. On a macrocosmic level[i], da’as is a significant indicator of Moshiach’s times, about which it is written, “The entire world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem like water covers the seas.” In the future, we will all be in a perpetual state of da’as, and experience Hashem with every fiber of our beings. When we overcome nisyonos and are liberated from our personal exiles, we will taste the freedom of Geula.
[i] Likkutei Torah 37-38, Sefer Ma’amarim Parshas Pinchas
[ii] The concept of Alma Di’isgalya and Alma D’Iskasya is further explained in Torah Ohr
[iii] Tanya ch. 2
[iv] Tanya ch. 3, Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvas Eved Ivri
[v] Likkutei Sichos vol. 21 p. 397, “To say that those very people were deserving of what transpired, that it was a punishment for their sins, heaven forbid, is unthinkable. There is absolutely no explanation or understanding for the Holocaust. . . . Certainly not the explanation of a judgment and punishment. No scales of judgment could ever condemn a people to such horrors.”
[vi] Tanya ch. 9, ch. 29 The Alter Rebbe cites a parable brought by the Zohar in which a king tests his son’s strength of character by hiring a harlot to seduce him. Though the harlot uses her full power of falsehood and deceit to fool the prince, she really doesn’t want him to submit to temptation. So too, klipa ultimately desires for us to win over it.
[vii] Tanya ch. 29 The Alter Rebbe compares klipa to darkness which is automatically banished by the presence of light.
[viii] He was the keynote speaker at a worldwide gathering of Chabad shluchim in 2011
[ix] Talmud Avoda Zara 3a, Ma’amarim Melukatim pp. 169-170 discusses that nisyonos are given to us to purify us and bring us to mesiras nefesh, which is an expression of our yechida
[xi] Kesser Shem Tov Hosafot 3a5
[xii] Letters from the Rebbe vol. 2 pp. 171-172
[xiii] Tanya ch. 27
[xiv] Kuntres Hatefilla, This is a modified version of hisbonenus, Chassidic meditation.
[xv] Yeshayahu 11:9, Rambam Hilchos Teshuva