The pain

“This is a critical juncture in the history of Jewish identity,” the rabbi says in his talk after the day’s Torah portion. “The foundation of Judaism, monotheism, is tested.” I’m at a reformed synagogue in Santa Monica housed in a plain, square building. In high school, I used to drive past it regularly on my way to my friend Becky’s house. Inside, the atmosphere is laid back. Only a handful of people have come to formally celebrate Sabbath.

The exact Torah section we read begins at Exodus 32.

The crowd Moses has led to freedom is freaking out. Moses promised to return from his mountain-top meeting with God in 40 days, but now those days have come and gone. The rabbi explains that more than likely Moses wasn’t really late, that it was probably a misunderstanding—the people had started counting the days at sunrise while Moses was counting them according to sunsets, something like that. Either way, collectively, the people enter the throes of a classic panic attack, their anxiety like a runaway train. If they couldn’t trust Moses, then maybe the God who helped them escape wasn’t reliable.

To stop from spiraling out of control, they revert back to what they know: worshipping something they can see and touch—an “idol.” The invisible one-God idea is too scary. They melt down all their jewelry and shape it into a calf, giving them something on which to focus their energy. Soothed by the certainty and solidity of the object, their anxiety subsides. Of course, at that exact moment, Moses returns.

Moses is furious. It’s not so much the idol itself that makes him angry as what it represents.

Before monotheism, people were accountable only to those who shared their gods; it was considered a crime to steal from members of one’s own tribe, while stealing from other tribes afforded you a hero’s welcome. One God introduced the concept of a unified humanity, making everyone connected—the entire world as a single tribe of people derived from the same source. To create an object to worship is to break apart the one-God idea. It might seem a small fissure, but it challenges the very essence of monotheism. It shatters the possibility of a unified humanity and, perhaps to make this exact point, Moses throws down the stone tablets with the commandments from God and they break into pieces.

The rabbi slows down. In his talk about the Torah section, he wants to make an important point about the human condition. He says that when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear. The one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch—as illustrated a few sections further along in Exodus when Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied. So the very thing we hope will alleviate our anxiety inevitably leaves some intact. “This pain,” the rabbi says, “is written into the human condition.” If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”

25 thoughts on “The pain

  1. Such an important meditation for us today. I liked this very much. Thank you. In an effort to overthrow a masochistic
    medieval spirituality of pain, we have lost the ability to redeem it.

  2. I am so impressed with what you learned. The depth of the rabbi’s teaching reflects his respect for and study of the Scriptures. Here’s something about idols from the prophet Isaiah (as he speaks for God):

    Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? . . . The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?” Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (from Isaiah 44)

    This really impacts me, especially at those times when God seems elusive and I might be inclined to dismiss living by faith as too risky. What you say about the reasons for monotheism teaches me a lot. Thanks, Corinna! Have a great holiday! ~Ginger

  3. I like that last comment from the Rabbi, that “pain is the opening for the divine.” It certainly can be, if we allow it. I’ve always been struck by this quote from C.S. Lewis: “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain)
    History demonstrates that man has not always looked to God when there was pain, and has often been the occasion for rejecting him. I know that it has often taken pain (what I call a 2×4) from God to get my attention. One day there will no longer be the kind of pain the Rabbi spoke of….the ambiguity. I don’t believe that this ambiguity must necessarily be, for the Creator has writ himself large in our hearts, if we will but pay attention.

  4. Good day all. I really, really enjoyed this post Corinna. The Rabbi in your reformed temple nailed the concept of faith to a tee.

    Walt, I just read Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”; actually, I am stuck at the “animal pain” section – and haven’t had the courage to finish it yet…but I remember the quote you used. And what came to my mind quite irresistibly was the tune and words of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” “Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” What came to mind was the stress that can be experienced by those who are desperate to have PROOF. Absolute proof of God. And it’s not required. Proof, that is….all that is required is the faith Corinna’s rabbi mentioned.

    Next thought – boy, how hard it can be to have that faith, sometimes.

    It is good to ‘see’ you all. I am in the midst of re-cataloging my library, which is around 4,500 books, so I am only coming up for air every once in a while. See you again.

    Yours in Christ.

  5. Hi Folks. Here’s the rabbi’s words that really struck me: “If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”

    Most of us here, from the Nones to the orthodox, seem to be trying to define the “something infinitely vast” in our lives. I believe its St. Peter, in his epistles (or whoever wrote them), who talks about that innate sense—the pain the rabbi discusses—that there’s more to the world than what we see every day. We search for it, but never quite fully define it. Some people go too far one way or the other, and think they can put God in a box or surround Him by walls few can climb. Others give up altogether and decide if they can’t feel, touch, or see something, it can’t exist. Both sides seek an assurance they’ll never get. But I think most heed that part of them that tells them to keep looking, to stick with the rabbi’s “slow trudge”. The good news is, there are lots of places to stop on the way, to rest, and to learn something new.

  6. “If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith.” What a statement. Many would read that and say, “Why would I want to? Isn’t certainty better?” I have a friend who won’t believe anything except what the facts prove. She bombards me with questions about how I can possibly believe in God when the Bible is so blatantly flawed, when there are natural disasters and accidents that kill good people along with the bad, when so many of the people who supposedly believe act heartlessly toward others. I sure can’t argue with her about those things, they are right out here for all to see. This may not make sense, but sometimes I wonder if her arguments against there being a loving God are like a golden calf for her. She can see THAT reality, so she hangs onto it, and if it doesn’t bring any comfort, at least it’s real, nobody’s going to pull the wool over her eyes.

    I guess I’d rather wait for Moses to get back. Even if it takes a really long time. He’s the one who led us out of Egypt, and he promised he’d get us there safely, and, well, I may look like a fool but I’m sticking with Moses’ God.

    • Shelley, I’m waiting right along with you. A couple of months ago, our Rector earned her PhD in theology. During her homily right after she got her degree, she spoke on this very subject. This is a highly intelligent woman and nobody’s fool. She said, yes, there is a lot of uncertainty in life and in faith, but “I didn’t devote my life to a theory”. C.S. Lewis turned your friend’s argument around and asked if God was the ultimate reality and this life is more illusory than it seems.

  7. This is really striking, especially given what’s going on the world this very weekend. “when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear.” The idea of unified humanity–and the threat it faces when one group decides to go off and do their own thing, without care for the consequences on others… inferring the need to protect that unified humanity, in spite of the (necessary) pain. Just so fitting and timely. L’Shanah Tovah, Corinna.

  8. Corinna and all;
    The Rabbi says….or was this your interpretation, Corinna?…..”Here is the key: To bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution.” I totally agree that quick fixes rarely work as a way to solve problems for the long haul. What I am wondering about, however, is the use of the word TRUDGE in this context. I dug into my dictionary again, and it says this word means “to walk or march steadily”……so far, so good….but here is what I take exception to…..the meaning went on to say that it was “usually laborious.” I question this “slow trudge” business, for there is nothing laborious about moving forward slowly and steadily, making carefully thought out choices along the way. Perhaps being more consistent and conscious…….and conscientious, too. Forgoing the impulsive and the careless. That can be a joyful way of life. Savoring the moment. Being present.

    It kind of makes me wonder if those who chose this “slow trudge” don’t feel a bit righteous about their choice……”See, I know how to take the hard road….. and.I will find a deeper meaning in life than you will.” I do know I extrapolated beyond what was said in the post, but this is how it hit me. Choosing to believe in one God is certainly one way to face the ambiguities in life……but it is not the only way to reach those deeper spiritual meanings. None of us have proof for what we believe….or don’t believe….in the realm of the Greater Power….God….whatever the name. So it is possible that truth and reality might just fall on the side of those of us who do not wish to place our lives in the “hands of Faith.” That would be a surprise, wouldn’t it!

    I did not come to my spiritual stance by default or accident or family history. I selected it almost 50 years ago. I have been there happily ever since, living ethically , morally, compassionately….not feeling the loss of any organized religion. I respect another person’s place to chose their beliefs and to live through them……How they find their joy every day is their business. I continue to find my life filled with free choice and free thinking….a life which holds many ambiguities, believe me…..full of questions. The greatest celebration is that I am alive….and am willing to live with the consequences of my choices……whatever they might bring.

    No quick fixes here, either……sometimes I wish!…but moving forward is a good thing and I try to live this way….sometimes I am more successful than others

    Musings from a non-believer.


    • Hi Merrill, Just catching up…the part of the rabbi’s talk not in quotes is my interpretation/understanding of what he said. Personally, I think feeling our connection to others/the universe/source/God through joy and gratitude is more difficult–at least initially. For “newbies” or those of us whose “spiritual legs” are not fully developed, pain or sadness seems to provide a good starting point I think because it makes a person vulnerable and being in a position of vulnerability makes us open. But I think ideally one doesn’t need the pain anymore.

  9. Hi Merrill—

    I’m not sure “non-believer” is the right appellation for yourself. I think your posts show a very deep and profound spiritualism that goes way beyond being a “non” anything. I read in your posts a very positive and affirmative embrace of the spiritual. Obviously, you and I do not interpret the spiritual using the same definition, but in sharing and respecting each other’s beliefs, we reveal a common spirituality. As you said, “…I have been there happily ever since, living ethically , morally, compassionately….” I think all of us strive for that in our own ways, and there is certainly nothing “non” about it!

    • Tim,
      Well, this is the second time I have been called out :–) for using the term “non-belilever.” Another friend, who is a devout Catholic, recently asked what it that meant…..”Every body believes in something,” he commented. He was my high school English teacher, so I thought he was just heckling me a bit for my careless use of the language! But apparently, the concept of the “non-believer” just doesn’t fly very well, although you seem to view it differently than my friend did. I like the word appellation…..but my problem is that there doesn’t really seem to be any word for what I am…for who I am… that carries the right message. I could say that I consider myself to be an “atheist” who continues to dance a bit on the boundary with the “agnostics”. But these two words carry their own kind of baggage for people who are both in and out of religious organizations. I have come upon the SBNR designation—-spiritual but not religious—which may be closer. Any other ideas out there?

      Obviously, I am not without a set of beliefs for how I view the world, but I am not sure that I would say that it includes the concept of God, even when it is couched in the open-ended words you used earlier: “something infinitely vast.” But I do appreciate your acknowledgement of a deep and profound spirituality in what I say. Perhaps in the end it is all about semantics. I don’t know how to sort that out! What might the qualifying questions be for the “believers” and the “non-believers”….and as long as we are still talking with respect and caring, it just may not matter.

      I always appreciate your way of looking at the world, Tim.

      • “I like the word appellation” Well, ever since you threw “obfuscation” out there, I’ve felt obliged to whip out my unabridged dictionary!

        I guess it is, to a degree, about labels, which, as you say, may not matter all that much. Even those of us who are more traditional in our beliefs know–or we should know–we see “through a glass, dimly” at what we’re trying to describe and understand, which brings us all back to the journey and the pain the rabbi was talking about. How do we describe what none of us knows about for sure? I think we’ll all be surprised to see what’s waiting at our journey’s end–and in a good and joyous way.

        “SBNR”? It might work, but it sounds a little like a railroad, or one of those strange abbreviations they use in the “adult” section of the newspaper. (Hey, I read things…)

  10. That pain business is much off-putting to me, especially if the pain becomes necessary to understand the vastness of the universe….for want of a better way of saying it……. again I go back to my original comments about “trudging” into a greater knowing….a deeper understanding. So much work. So difficult. And why?

    One needs to suffer pain and embrace adversities? I understand the benefit of stretching out to meet new and difficult situations. Remember: My Mother’s favorite adage was “Adversity builds character!” But I don’t believe that it was intended that pain needed to be accepted and tolerated in order to gain the benefit of the experience. I don’t believe that I AM part of something small…..I just have to look around to know that each of us is a part of something infinitely vast with much which is unknown and invisible to the human species. Awe-inspiring! But I didn’t get that understanding from trusting pain……pain may be a part of the human condition, but I would place it far down my list of experiences that are necessary to be human. And I am not certain that faith is an inherent characteristic of humanity either, although this is not something that I have really pondered. I don’t worship rationality or science, but I am tied to the understandings they provide me. I just do not buy that idea that pain is the opening for the divine. How about unbridled joy…..or unconditional love…..or pure connectedness? Why tie the divine to the unpleasant experience of pain? I just feel right to me.

    • After I read Corrina’s post a couple of times, I read the word pain in the rabbi’s context to mean something more like “yearning”; the desire to grasp something not quite in reach. More like heartache, maybe. I think pain—the physical or mental kind–can be used to reinforce our reliance on God, but it can easily be overdone. Coming from a Roman Catholic background, I’ve known too many people who get wrapped up in the whole “blessings through suffering like Jesus” syndrome. Its almost narcissistic. I think God meant us to enjoy this life—that’s what most of Ecclesiastes is about, after all—and to share that enjoyment with others where we can. Pain is part of the human condition, but its just a part.

      • Tim, I am laughing here, as I can see you going back to read Corinna’s text to see where on earth I am coming from. ;–))
        I am a person who likes words …….likes the ability to say precisely what I want to say given the right word. If the Rabbi meant something different than the common understanding that we have for the word “pain,” it would have been judicious for him to have used it….or to have filled in around his use of the word with “what I mean is….” sayings… we often do. But he didn’t. Perhaps there is a cultural understanding within the Jewish religion about this that I am not getting, but the Christians also took this up with their suffering and crucifixion of Jesus as a central part of their beliefs. “Pain can be used to reinforce a reliance on God?” Overdone or not, it does not feel right to me, Tim.

        I do understand that pain is a part of life….and heartache, which is lesser form of human pain, thrives. Certainly in my life it does, anyway. Yearning….that is way down the continuum. But both of these feelings can either persist and annoy, or they can help us engage in something worth and worthwhile. Push us toward change. Which is what the Rabbi was talking about. Moses was wanting people to rely on one god instead of their polytheistic old ways. So I guess I get that part. And we do need to be able to stand with our beliefs both in good times and bad. Can’t be looking around for the “easy fix.” Got that, too. I am just not certain that he didn’t mean what he said….I just don’t know why.

        • And, of course, I have to submit that this is Corinna’s version of the Rabbi’s talk…so we are hearing it through her ears and through her “pen,” but she did, after all, name the post “The Pain.”

  11. Well, I guess this just proves how many things—including Scripture—are open to some interpretation. Maybe it’s a matter of taking from the rabbi’s talk the meaning we find most relevant to each of us. There are positive and negative aspects to any motivation. Pity can spur us into action, but it can descend to condescension. I have known a few people—very few—who have used their physical pain to gain a deeper meaning of the spiritual side of their lives, to be able to let go of some of the material security blankets we tend to wrap ourselves in. I do agree with your statement, “need to be able to stand with our beliefs both in good times and bad. Can’t be looking around for the “easy fix.” So maybe this is just one of those areas where we’ll never see eye-to-eye, but if I can deal with some uncertainty in my faith-life, I certainly live with a difference in opinions, too.

    • Tim, I have very much appreciated the good discussion….at least, it had value for me! I think that conversations which challenge our beliefs and ideas can work to make them more clear and stronger……maybe even move us to a deeper, more powerful understanding. As always, I thank you for your great respect….I hope you feel the same coming back toward you! Merrill

      • Indeed I do–thanks, Merrill. That’s one of this blog’s great strengths–we can articulate our beliefs and still exhibit respect and courtesy–just like Fox News!

        • I hope you are being sarcastic, Tim. I hope you didn’t mean to compare this blog to Fox News. If you did, in any way, shape or form, I believe I might pinch you. And I am not a violent woman.

  12. Shelley said:
    “I hope you are being sarcastic, Tim. I hope you didn’t mean to compare this blog to Fox News. If you did, in any way, shape or form, I believe I might pinch you. And I am not a violent woman.”

    LOL! Heavens yes, I’m being sarcastic! I haven’t been able to stomach watching Fox News in years. That station is proof of hell on earth!

  13. A Leonard Cohen song called “Anthem” says:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    The crack in everything is, to me, the unavoidable pain that comes to us because we’re human. I’m drawn to people with cracks in them, that is, people who have sustained damage and who seem to have been made deeper because of it. The cracked people are the ones with the most compassion and humility. The ones with the least compassion & humility, I think they refuse to see the cracks, especially the ones in themselves.

    I also re-read Corinna’s post, and I believe what she and the rabbi are referring to as “the pain” is the fact that “the one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch…Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied…” It’s the pain of separation, the pain of doubt, the pain of loneliness, and like Tim says, the pain of yearning. It’s the pain of having cracks in everything. That’s the pain of the human condition, I think.

    Merrill asks, “I just do not buy that idea that pain is the opening for the divine. How about unbridled joy…..or unconditional love…..or pure connectedness? Why tie the divine to the unpleasant experience of pain?” These are really good questions. I’m not sure I know how to answer. In my experience, the divine HAS come in through joy, love and connectedness, and at the same time I think I can only value those because pain (not physical pain) has deepened me, kind of hollowed me out like a bowl so joy, love and connectedness have more room to live.

    These are good things to ruminate on!

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