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. (,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.


Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.