Rosh Hashanah 2011: Separating Pain and Suffering

By | September 30, 2011

But suffering and pain need not be the same thing. If I can make contact with the patient and explain that they are not alone, immediately the suffering diminishes even though the pain is unchanged.

I was sitting in temple yesterday listening to prayers that I have heard for over 50 years, when the Rabbi, David Woznica said something that I had never really considered before. The prayer, know as the Unetaneh Tokef is almost 1,000 years old and central to the high holiday liturgy, even though for many people its message seems dated and out of place. The prayer begins, “On Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) it is written and on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?” Now this kind of pre-determinism is problematical in and of itself, but the ending of the prayer “But repentance, prayer and good deeds will avert the severe decree” seems childishly naïve. So far nothing new, but then the Rabbi said that the usual translation in most prayer books is incorrect. Repentance, prayer and good deeds will not change the severe decree itself, but will avert the severity of the decree because they will have changed the way we see the world.

Suddenly I saw this old prayer and my professional calling in a new light. Bad things happen. They happen to good people and bad people and a certain amount of pain is part of the human condition. But suffering and pain need not be the same thing. Whether or not I am able to relieve someone’s pain is really more up to God than to me. If he sends me an easy case, I am likely to succeed and if he sends me a very difficult case failure in a technical sense becomes more likely, but if I can make contact with the patient and explain that they are not alone, immediately the suffering diminishes even though the pain is unchanged. This is why he sends them to me, a weak and fallible human, instead of dealing with the problem himself. This is earth and not heaven. Our job is to make this life livable. No one should have to face their pain and mortality alone. Life and the pain that is inherent in it need not be bewildering and meaningless. So in the coming year, whenever I see a patient suffering, I will try to remember to pay as much attention to his humanity as his pain.

L’Shanah Tovah!  Happy New Year!


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