Rabbi Kass' Viewpoint: "The Banishment Of Pain"
Americans are highly conscious of pain. We've been indoctrinated for as long as we can remember that pain can and should be banished from the instant we become cognizant of its presence. Purveyors of pain medicine and tranquilizers have become very rich as we elevate even the slightest discomfort into an intolerable condition.
Some psychologists maintain that the basic reason we have so many drug addicts in America is the pervasiveness of a culturally reinforced need to avoid pain at all costs. The problem of pain, however, can't be dealt with simply by getting rid of it. Pain has to be dealt with! Pain is nature's way of telling us that something is awry and requires a response. To conceal or deny pain is self-defeating in the extreme. It is the genius of Judaism that it recognized pain as an essential ingredient of existence to be confronted with courage and confidence.
It is incontrovertible that pain can fulfill several indispensable functions in life. In the Book of Job, for example, Elihu speaks of pain as an instrumentality for educating and disciplining human character. Indeed, the Hebrew word for suffering, yissurim, suggests both the element of chastisement and instruction. The pain of life often reveals depths of strength and greatness that we never thought we had. To experience pain is also a prerequisite to feel the pain of others. Thus, historians have pointed out that it was not until he was afflicted with polio that Franklin D. Roosevelt showed any concern for the sick and poor. As Robert Gordis has written: "Those who have never suffered are all too often insufferable."
Pain can also be a spur to constructive endeavor. The pain of hunger and cold surely drove our ancestors at the dawn of civilization to develop the skills of farming and shepherding. It was the need to resolve real and pressing problems that led to the emergence of science and mathematics. Sigmund Freud has testified that the most fruitful and productive periods of his life occurred when he suffered from "moderate anxiety." The mechanism whereby pain is transformed into meaningful achievement is referred to by psychologists as "compensation."
Pain can also ignite the human aspiration for social justice and freedom. The suffering in Egypt played a dominant role in shaping the Jews' unquenchable thirst for independence as well as their inner capacity to accept God's moral law. Who could imagine the American Revolution without the pain resulting from British misrule? Would there have been a French Revolution had the Bourbon kings been more enlightened? Is the Russian Revolution of 1917 conceivable without the pain of Czarist tyranny? Cruelty and bondage have often been blessings in disguise impelling people to seek liberty and justice for all.
There is a story about a man who saw an emperor moth struggling furiously and beating its wings wildly in an effort to force passage through the narrow neck of its cocoon. The man took a knife and slit the cocoon enabling the moth to emerge without effort. However, its wings never expanded and its magnificent colors never materialized. The moth crawled about listlessly for a short time and then expired. Apparently, the pain struggling to get out of the cocoon is nature's way of strengthening the moth's wings and stimulating the vital process that actualize its beautiful colors.
The pain of human life also plays a crucial role in elevating and exalting the quality of our existence. Don't run away from pain. Heed it! Face it! Use it is a means of coming closer to each other and to God.