Dec 29, 2019

Pain & Healing: Beyond Language, Beyond Words

Pain & Healing: Beyond Language, Beyond Words
A Torah comment in solidarity with the Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, NY and West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Think back to a moment in which words failed you.  What was it you were feeling?  Anger?  Joy?  Pain?

When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers in this week's Torah portion, it is because he can't hold it back any more ("veLo Yachol Yosef", Gen. 45:1).  Judah, the eldest brother has demonstrated his growth by offering himself in the (new) youngest brother's stead as a slave.  This is not the same Judah who collaborated in Joseph's sale.  Joseph can't hold it back.  His heart is broken and overflowing.

And his self-disclosure renders his brothers unable to say anything at all ("veLo Yachlu Echav", Gen 45:3).  This scene evokes an earlier encounter between Joseph and his brothers, the one that set the whole story in motion.  When Joseph seeks his brothers (Gen. 37:16) they are already unable to tolerate even his simple well-wishes ("veLo Yachlu Dabro leShalom" Gen. 37:4, see N. Sarna).  It is just too much.  They can't speak to him for the suffering he causes them.  They are out of control with hatred and resentment.

Once Joseph reveals himself, he and his brothers are in the throne room, all alone (Gen. 45:1).  All there are, once the revelation has occurred, is unspeakable raw emotion.  The brothers are literally 'thunderstruck' (45:3).  What could they do other than tremble?  Joseph falls on Benjamin, his mother's only other son, and cries on his neck.  What can Benjamin do?  He cries back on his long-lost brother's neck.  The text tells us that "only then were his brothers able to talk ('Dibru') to him. (45:15)"  The word here is almost the same as the one in 37:4 ('Dabro').  The vocalization is different, but the letters are the same.  The brothers are still the same people, and yet so much has changed.

Originally the brothers couldn't endure kindness due to a context of resentment, insensitivity, and hatred.  Much later Joseph can't sustain the emotions of love and release tearing at him.  In return the brothers can't speak from shock and fear.  Words aren't.  It's just…  And it is the very unspeakability of certain experiences that pushes us hardest to reach for words.  But some things just defy communication.  As Elaine Scarry writes of pain:

"Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability though its resistance to language. 'English,' writes Virginia Woolf, 'which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache… The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.'  True of the headache, Woolf's account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke, as well as of the severe and prolonged pain that may occur unaccompanied by any nameable disease.  Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned. (The Body in Pain, 4)"

These are moments that matter, moments we wish we could escape.  But we can't.  And we can't describe them either.  And it's very painful.  If only we had the words to let out the emotion, the experience would be endurable.  Recent studies indicate that the more saying any commonly-used expletive can work to alleviate pain.  Lead Author Richard Stephens expressed the very basic need we have when we experience more than we are capable of processing: "The No. 1 priority is to make the pain go away. (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1910691,00.html)"

Escaping pain.  What if we could?  Aldous Huxley imagined a world where that was possible wherein 'John the Savage', Huxley's created character who believes that rapture isn't possible without accepting pain, exclaims that this invented world of no pain pay a fairly high price for their happiness.  But, when attempting to explain this 'other world' of yearning and by extension frustration,

"The Savage hesitated.  He would have liked to say something about solitude, about night, about the mesa lying pale under the moon, about the precipice, the plunge into shadowy darkness, about death.  He would have liked to speak; but there were no words. (Brave New World, 156)"

We can't make the pain go away.  And, when the emotion is just too much, we don't have the words.  It's not that we can't find them; they don't exist.  But we can cry, and we do.  We cry so much.  When we're brave enough to fall on each other's necks and just let it out, our tears are all we have.

On the threshold of a new year, one we pray includes less pain and fear than the last, may our inability to speak be a response to birth, which has the potential to reduce every mother to rapturous, unendurable wordless moaning.

May our reversion to a state anterior to language be followed by the cry of a world reborn.


Dec 22, 2019

A Reflection on the First Night

A Reflection on the First Night
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor 

The first candle. This night. Why is it different? On all other nights, the light is differentiated into multiples. But not this night. Not this holiest of nights. Tonight is seven plus one, creation and a little more. Tonight one flame contains all of the light we need to see the universe completed with a surplus of energy for the world to come. Tonight we have enough. Tonight we remember we have more than enough. 

Thank You, Holy One of Blessing, for tonight. Thank You for the miracle of sufficiency. Thank You for all of this glorious light. 


#Hanukkah #abundance #light #buildonlove

Dec 9, 2019

A Rabbi at the UN: A Prayer to Remember and Prevent Genocide


I am barely able to register where I stand, what words of mine were just recited by the Multi Faith Advisory Council to the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development. And as part of International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime... How can a Jew be unaware of the enormity of what faces us? 

These are the words from my heart that we recited: 

A Prayer to Remember and Prevent Genocide 
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor 

Most Sacred Source,
We stand before You, united in heart and prayer.
We see You in each other’s eyes, and in the eyes of every human being.
It is for that purpose that we gather today, to commemorate our promise, learned through harsh histories and unfathomable loss.
We know that we have yet to truly learn. 
We know that Genocide remains a threat in our fragile world.
We know that when we hurt each other, we sin against You.
And so, today, we leaders of many faiths, reaffirm the covenant our nations made in 1948 to protect each other.
We will call to account those who perpetuate the sin of Genocide.
We will love each other.
We will protect each other.
We will do more than pray in our particular ways.
We, Your children, will stand united in defense of each other.
Bless us to succeed in this holy service.

Dec 1, 2019

Auschwitz Ornaments: A Blasphemous Christmas Tale (Times of Israel - December 1, 2019)

Auschwitz Ornaments:
A Blasphemous Christmas Tale
Rabbi Menachem Creditor | Times of Israel | December 1, 2019

In 2004, Major League Baseball decided to allow a Spider-Man movie to advertise on bases on the playing field, but were forced to rescind their decision due to angry reactions by the fans. That ads are making their ways onto batting helmets and selected team uniforms again is a cautionary tale of the patient and seemingly inexorable march of capitalism and a seemingly weak long-term societal memory.
So is it simply capitalism doing its thing when Christmas ornaments with images from the Auschwitz death camp are for sale [update: the item has been taken down due to the public outcry, though this Birkenau Jewish Death Mousepad is still available] on the world’s largest online retailer? Who’s idea was that anyway? Is it a personalized item, generated online by a Neo-Nazi in Des Moines? Perhaps it was the teenagers in London who beat a rabbi this past Friday night while screaming “Kill Jews” and “F$$k Jews.” The blasphemy of using Christian symbols to amplify Anti-Semitism has a complicated history. So too does the online peddling of hate, well-articulated (and dressed-down) by Sacha Baron Cohen just last week. [to continue reading, click here]

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