Feeling Another's Pain

As God promises to accompany Jacob into exile, we learn that sometimes the challenge of being fully present and sharing in someone's pain is greater than relieving their suffering.

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One summer, when I served as a student chaplain at Beth Israel Hospital, I was assigned to spend part of my time in the hospice wing, a place for patients at the end-stages of life.

Unlike my visits with patients in other parts of the hospital, which often centered on hopes for a quick and full recovery, the time I spent with these patients had a different quality.

They and their loved ones also had hope, but not for recovery. During many visits with dying patients and their families, I discovered that they hoped for peace and dignity in life’s last moments. Above all, I realized that the family and friends of dying patients all hoped that they would not be left to face their last moments alone, but rather would be surrounded by those who cared deeply for them.

As part of the hospice staff, I understood that it was my job, together with family and loved ones, to create a presence at their bedsides that reflected God’s companionship with all of us in times of suffering. Jewish tradition teaches that the shekhina, God’s intimate presence, dwells at the bedside of anyone who is ill (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 40a).

No One Dies Alone

During that summer, I came to understand that passage to mean that we have a responsibility to ensure that no one is left to die alone. On one level, this meant accompanying God at the person’s bedside. Being there for him or her wasn’t only an act of kindness, but also a way of emulating God’s compassion in the world: “Just as God visits the sick, so too should you visit them…” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a)

But deep down, I wondered if we were accompanying God, or rather serving as God’s representative at the bedside. It occurred to me that since all of us are created in God’s image, perhaps we are responsible for bringing that image to the sick person’s bedside in the first place.

Or perhaps God is there but not quite visible, and it’s the presence of others that enables the patient to see a manifestation of God at that moment. However I chose to explain it, it became clear to me that simply being there for one who is facing a difficult and frightening time is a godly act.

Joseph is Alive

In this week’s Torah portion, we witness Jacob, who for years has believed that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead, learn that Joseph is in fact alive and prospering in Egypt. Naturally, Jacob wants to see his long-lost son. But rather than making a short visit, he finds that it’s become necessary to move his entire family to Egypt due to famine in the land of Canaan. The idea of leaving his homeland frightens him.

Sensing Jacob’s fear, God appears to him in a vision and says: “Jacob! Jacob!…I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46:2-4).

Commenting on God’s promise to personally accompany Jacob into exile, the Rabbis teach: “The relationship between God and the Jewish people is like the relationship between twins. When the head of one aches, the other feels it, too. Therefore, we see that the Holy One said to Moses, ‘I am with him in distress’ (Psalms 91:15) and again, ‘In all their afflictions, [I], too, was afflicted. (Isaiah 63:9). Are you not aware that I am wracked with pain when Israel is wracked with pain? Take note of the place from where I am speaking to you--from the midst of a thorn bush. I am [if one may ascribe such a statement to God] a partner in their pain’” (Sh’mot Rabbah, early medieval collection of midrashim on the Book of Exodus, 2:5).

Real Companionship

We are so often focused on relieving pain and suffering--and rightfully so!--that we sometimes lose sight of how important it is to provide real companionship to those in pain. We search for ways to remove pain because we genuinely want to do everything possible to bring their suffering to an end. But we also do so because opening ourselves up to sharing in someone’s fear and suffering is extremely difficult and uncomfortable.

Yet as I learned in the hospice that summer, sometimes it simply isn’t possible to provide immediate or permanent relief to those who suffer. At such moments, being fully present is all we have to offer; distracting ourselves by seeking a way to do something is avoiding the real work before us.

To promise to be there with someone in difficult times isn’t a small thing. It’s what we do when we establish communal structures that ensure that children with disabilities, recent immigrants, or the frail elderly receive not only services, but also the knowledge that they will not be left to their own devices. It’s what we do when we form committees to visit

the sick and to make minyans to comfort the mourner. It’s what God promised our forefather Jacob and his family on their way down to Egypt and, when we act at our best, it’s what we promise and provide to one another.

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Rabbi David Rosenn

Rabbi David Rosenn is the Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.