“This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he took to wife Rebecca, daughter of
Bethuel of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. But the children struggled in her womb and she said, ‘If so why do I exist?'” (Genesis 25:19-22).
How do we answer those in pain?
This week’s Torah portion begins with an issue that is a recurrent one for our foremothers — difficulty conceiving. As Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebecca has trouble getting pregnant. After her husband Isaac pleads with God, she does conceive. But the pregnancy is a painful one — so much so that Rebecca cries out with words to the effect of, “Would that I did not exist!” Out of this depth of despair she approaches God.
She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
God’s response is profound and gives us great insight into how we can help those in pain. The most noteworthy element is that God does not seek to take away Rebecca’s pain. Rather God listens to her with no interruptions. While such listening does not cure Rebecca of her pain by removing it, it heals her because it helps overcome some of the isolation and loneliness that often accompanies those who are suffering.
In addition, God points out that her pain is due to the nature of the fetuses that she carries and is indicative of the way they will be as both individuals and even as kingdoms. In essence, God informs Rebecca that her pain is not random and pointless but that it has meaning and significance. After being heard, Rebecca is able to motivate herself and endure her suffering until the end of her term.
So often when we encounter those who are in pain we make several mistakes. Our natural reaction is to want to take their suffering away. While understandable, it is also highly impractical since we cannot really do it (nor by the way do people expect us to do so). But since we cannot directly relieve them of their suffering, we search for the right thing to do or say in an attempt to make everything OK.
Another error we make in our desire to help is to talk. We either say that they should not worry and that everything will be all right. Or we hear their pain and then tell them of our own experiences in an attempt to show that we empathize with them.
But these responses make us feel better and not those who we are seeking to help.
When someone is hurting, there truly are no right things to say or do. It’s sometimes enough merely to be present, to show people that they are heard and hence not alone. We must acknowledge where they are so that they know we have heard them in all their pain. Furthermore, we must help them see that their suffering is not for nothing, but has meaning and purpose; for these two things allow them to bear that which would otherwise be unbearable.
To be able hear someone’s pain and give meaning to his or her suffering are the most important things we can do when we approach those in difficulty — and in doing so effectively we act divinely.
Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village. He can be reached at email@example.com.