Precious Sufferings: The Dynamics of Transformation

Va'era By :  E. Noach Shapiro JTS Rabbinic Training Institute faculty member Posted On Jan 27, 2017 / 5777 | Main Commentary

To download this week’s PDF, please complete this brief survey.

Listening to Moses try and wrap his mind around becoming an agent of change and transformation for the Israelites and the Egyptians is, at times, painful. As we eavesdrop on the early exchanges between God and Moses, a raw intimacy between Moses and us emerges. In his back and forth with God about his assignment to be God’s voice in Egypt, Moses immediately reveals his deep insecurity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?!” (Exod. 3:11).

At this point, God is simply asking Moses to be a mouthpiece. And even though God promises to do the heavy lifting (with signs and wonders, etc.) of persuading Pharaoh, the Israelites, and the Egyptians that big changes are coming and the God of the Israelites is up to the task, Moses remains one hundred percent convinced that he is the wrong person for the job. Speaking of the Israelites themselves he says, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say ‘the Lord did not appear to you’?” (Exod. 4:1).

After God tries to reassure him, Moses says even more desperately: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod. 4:10).

The crescendo of Moses’s aria of self-doubt peaks with his worst nightmare actually coming true: “But when Moses told [the Israelites that God would liberate them from slavery in Egypt and deliver them to the Land of Israel], they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9). And right then, when Moses undoubtedly thought it couldn’t get worse, it does. After the Israelites refuse to believe him, God suggests that Moses go back and tell Pharaoh himself to let the Israelites go. It is in this moment, it seems, that Moses sinks into full despair, actually begging God to reconsider that last instruction: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!?” (Exod. 6:12).

This dismal first run at becoming God’s agent of change and liberator of the Israelites begs the question: Why is Moses failing? Is it the content of the message? Is it, as Moses himself suggests, the deficiency of the messenger? Or, perhaps, the problem lies with the Israelites who do not seem capable of absorbing or accepting the message that change and transformation are even possible. What is going wrong?

There is a passage from the Babylonian Talmud that, in its own way, speaks powerfully to the question of the nature of the relationship between an agent of change and those who would be changed or transformed:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill and Rabbi Yohanan went in to visit him. [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: “Are your sufferings precious to you?” [Rabbi Hiyya] replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: “Give me your hand.” [Rabbi Hiyya] gave [Rabbi Yohanan] his hand and he [healed] him. (BT Berakhot 5b)

What an evocative, enigmatic question Rabbi Yohanan asks before he heals Rabbi Hiyya! “Are your sufferings precious to you?” What could he mean by that? Why in the world would Rabbi Hiyya’s suffering be precious to him? Why would someone even pose that question to someone suffering? Just beneath the surface of Rabbi Yohanan’s question, we can hear a deep truth about human beings that we already knew: that we are psychologically and spiritually complicated and have complex relationships with all sorts of aspects of our lives, even our suffering. Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan was asking whether Rabbi Hiyya was attached to the sympathy and attention his illness brought him; perhaps Rabbi Hiyya was attached to the clarity of perspective his illness provided him as to what is and isn’t important in this life; perhaps Rabbi Hiyya had simply become habituated to the comfortable or at least familiar role his illness played in his everyday life.

In a way, the specifics of the answer don’t really matter. What’s important is that Rabbi Yohanan asked it. The overarching message of Rabbi Yohanan’s asking that question was, “to heal you, I need first to know your relationship to what is happening right now. Before I can help you move forward, I need to know at least that much about you and your life.”

Why were Moses’s first attempts to connect with the Israelites and ignite their journey of transformation and healing such a splashy failure? Perhaps Moses was so focused on the performative aspects of his mission, the delivery of the lines fed to him by God—a task for which he clearly considered himself wholly deficient—that he neglected to think of (much less ask) the Israelites some version of Rabbi Yohanan’s rich and multilayered question: “Who are you, what is your story, and what is your relationship to your life, even to your suffering?”

The hard-learned message for Moses as a leader of people, as well as for those of us blessed with a front seat to the evolution of his development as a leader of the Israelites and facilitator of their transformation and change, is that everything healing, everything important, everything transformative begins with authentic connection.

And to facilitate healing and transformation in others, we need first, in some important way, to heal ourselves; we need—through friendship, love, and some self-compassion—to silence or at least dim the distracting and spiritually depleting inner voices that tell us we’re not good enough. We need to ask—and then, having asked, we need to listen. Really listen.

Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro is a psychotherapist in private practice in Montclair, NJ.