Perhaps spurred by the trial over Michael Jackson’s death, there has been increasing concern over what is being called a painkiller epidemic. A Los Angeles Times found that deaths from prescription pain medication far surpass those from heroin and cocaine combined. An estimated 50 million Americans live with chronic physical pain, and countless more are facing emotional distress. Many of them are people are doing all they can to deaden their torment, and their doctors are obliging.
We are witnessing the Numbing of America.
Judaism advocates just the opposite, encouraging us to engage the pain head on, echoing the advice author Jonathan Franzen recently gave to a group of graduates, “To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” Jews spend nearly half the summer in an uncomfortable state of mourning over tragedies that occurred centuries ago, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av. Leviticus 16 commands us, regarding Yom Kippur, “Afflict yourselves,” and from the Hebrew word “afflict” we get an entire Talmudic tractate called “Ta’anit,” which describes numerous fast days prescribed by the rabbis particularly in times of drought. The rabbis were gluttons for fast days, it seems. More pain, more gain — and more rain.
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav would go to extremes to torture his body. He would fast for days on end to control hunger. Legend has it that he would roll naked in the snow to manage his physical desires (and this is without having a hot tub on the backyard). Most amazingly, he never scratched himself. Never.
Over the centuries, Jews have had lots of practice in the art of managing the pain caused by others. The sages called divinely inflicted trials “Yisurim shel ahava,”“Afflictions of love.” Thank you very much, God. And “Ta’anit” extols the person who joyfully bears the misery that befalls him.
Late last summer, I gained a new perspective. One Friday evening during services, I began to experience severe discomfort in my abdomen and headed for the emergency room, where the problem was diagnosed as a kidney stone. I spent the next three nights in the hospital, where managing the pain from that stone became the defining factor of my life.
The nurses kept asking me, on a scale of one to 10, how much pain I was feeling. I was never sure what to answer. If I said “10,” I’d come off as a wimp. Football players feel more agony than this while they’re still singing the National Anthem. But if I said “two,” they’d wonder why I’d even bothered to come. I hovered at somewhere around a 6.5 but really just wanted to say, “a lot.” All I can say is that the morphine didn’t help.
I’m not sure pain can be quantified. The throbbing of a kidney stone can’t be compared to the agony of a broken leg, the breakup of a marriage or a sudden death in the family. It all hurts. But for me, the proper number at that moment was infinity. All that mattered was the pain. Everything else became secondary.
I’ve made hundreds of hospital visits over the years, but never before was I the one in the bed. I thought of that old joke where the shul president visits and tells the rabbi the good news that the board passed a resolution calling for his full recovery, by a vote of 8-5. But with Hurricane Irene roaring outside, no one could visit, not my president, not my family. It was just me, my kidney stone and my Percocet.
By the third day, I was attuned almost exclusively to the rhythms of my own distress. With the hospital on emergency power, the world around me was tuned out. The same nursing staff cycled back a few times, so I got to know them. But interestingly, no one asked what I do. It’s just one of the ways pain transports us to a totally different world, one that bypasses the outer trappings of a life and cuts right to the core, stripping us, Job-like, as naked as we were at birth.
In a moment of weakness, I remarked to a nurse, “This is a nightmare.” She looked somewhat taken aback. And then I heard a voice within me, the voice of the guy who has been on the other side of that bed for all these years:
“Idiot! Are you kidding me? THIS is a nightmare? Walk down the hall and I’ll show you a real nightmare. You call yourself unlucky? You’re walking out of here. There are people dying and you’re carrying on and kvetching because of a little pebble. Get a grip! Man up!”
After that, I was OK. Grubby, but OK. I realized my pain would in fact recede. It gets better. For those with kidney stones, it really does.
So I stopped complaining. I left the hospital with a supply of pills and managed my pain until the stone finally slid from my body three weeks later. My personal Passover — it passed, and it was over.!
Judaism is not sadistic, but it does encourage us to confront our own pain, right from day one (or more accurately for boys, day eight) because only then can we become more attuned to the suffering of others. Percocet has its place, but pain does too. And so does Tisha b’Av — it reminds us of the unbelievable courage of so many and of our miraculous ability to heal.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.