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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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.