Excerpted from Erica Brown's 'In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks’ Click here to buy the book
One of the most beautiful expressions in Eikha is “Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to God in the heavens.” (Lam. 3:41). When we visualize this verse, we can imagine pieces of a broken heart held high in our hands, a gift to God of our innermost feelings. “Look, God, see our pain. See these fragments, these emotional shards, pieces of our heart. We show them to You. Have pity and compassion upon us.”
There is a Hasidic reading of this verse that offers us a different image. It aids us in constructing a positive way to handle human hardship. When we are in pain, personally or collectively, we may turn to others for guidance or cry to heaven for divine assistance, but we still have to struggle profoundly with how to manage with the pain and how to feel about it. Rabbi Soloveitchik once made a distinction between pain and suffering: Pain in the physical universe is what we experience when we get hurt. Suffering is an emotional, existential state that can exist long after the physical pain is gone. It can be wrenching, seem intractable. In the face of immense loss, we feel our smallness and vulnerability. Rabbi Naĥman of Bratslav, Hasidic rebbe and master story-teller, used the narrative form to give advice about this difficult human problem.
As a thinker, Rabbi Naĥman rejected despair and believed that humanity needs to cling to faith, joy, melody, and movement, authoring the famous statement of optimism: “Mitzva gedola lihiyot besimĥa tamid – It is a great mitzva to always be happy.” He believed that communication with a tzaddik, a righteous man, is critical for the soul, and that every person yearns for God. With that spirit in mind, we turn to one of his stories.
A Tale of Suffering:
A king once sent his son to distant places to study. When the son returned home, he was well versed in all branches of wisdom. The king then told his son to take a boulder the size of a millstone, and bring it up to the palace attic. The son looked at the huge, heavy boulder and realized that he would not be able to lift it. He felt very bad because he would not be
able to fulfill his father’s request.
The king then explained his true intention to his son: “Did you really think that I wanted you to carry this huge boulder? Even with all your wisdom, you could not do it. My intention is that you take a hammer and break the boulder into small pieces. You will then be able to bring it up into the attic.”
Many Hasidic tales center around a king and his son. The king obviously represents God, the ultimate King, imagined in human form, and the son represents the children of Israel. The king is both the stern, authoritative figure and the sympathetic father, playing on the tension that exists when these two roles are embodied in one person, much like our prayer “Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, Our King,” beseeches God through the prism of two different relationships melded into a difficult whole.
In this story, the king, as is often the case, tasks his son with an assignment that on the surface seems impossible. No one can shoulder such a large rock and carry it up to an attic. The king is, in essence, testing his son’s ingenuity. How will the son interpret the task? Will he have the originality of thought to find a way through, or will he give up in hopelessness because a solution is not immediately apparent? Although the prince has been sent to learn the world’s wisdom, he must pass this test that requires more than book knowledge in order to be worthy of becoming king. Indeed, in most such stories the king tests his children or his charges in order to check their worthiness, and to prepare thenext generation for the tribulations of leadership.
The son in this study does not measure up. He could not see beyond the size of the boulder to find a way through the challenge that his father posed. The stone was too big and heavy. And the father understood at that moment that his son’s wisdom was severely limited.
Academic learning is not the only, or predominant, requisite for sitting on the throne. The prince lacked a creative problem-solving instinct; he saw only one dimension in the father’s request, and that led to paralysis rather than innovation.
This story also has a wider application. Suffering is at the core of the human experience. Religions like Buddhism aim at helping people grow through suffering rather than shrinking in the face of it. Much of Hasidic thought, based as it is on an eternal sense of optimism, also aims at managing suffering by breaking it up into incremental pieces, each of which can be carried up to God – placed in the divine attic, so to speak. The way to manage suffering, the king wanted his son to know, is not to shoulder all of it at once, but rather to chisel away at it bit by bit, and only then lift it. That way it can be borne, and carried to a high place – given meaning and redeemed before God. Rabbi Naĥman implies that God wants us to “lift up our hearts with our hands to God in the heavens.” But our hearts may be like heavy stones, which we cannot possibly lift. What we then must do is take a hammer of words and break our hearts of stone. Then we can lift them up to God.
We have another biblical verse that has been interpreted in a similar way. In Jeremiah we read, “Is not My word like fire? says the Lord; and like a hammer that shatters a rock?” ( Jeremiah 23:29). In one Talmudic interpretation, Jeremiah is saying that just as a hammer can shatter a rock, so too can the words of Torah combat the evil inclination, breaking it apart so that it has little power to rule over us. This is a wonderful approach to managing temptation. Instead of looking at desire as a solid, immovable rock that obstructs our way, we need to view ourselves as the holders of a hammer, who can break the rock into manageable pieces that will then present little challenge.
So often in our lives we stand in front of a mountain of despair or temptation, before an immovable stone. At the bottom of such an incline, our capacity to scale the heights seems questionable. We can’t move mountains. But we can wear down the mountain, piece by piece, day by day, crumbling the rock, lifting it high to God, asking for compassion, realizing that we are far stronger than we’ll ever know.
Kavana for the Day
Recall a situation in the past that seemed beyond your ability to manage: it may be a family problem, an educational challenge or a professional struggle. Or perhaps there’s a mountain in front of you at this very moment, or a stone too heavy to lift. Write down what made or makes it seem so overwhelming and frightening. Now list ten small ways that you can chisel into this rock, and some reasons why you should offer up to God each piece that you’ve broken off. Think how this will make a difference.
Tackle the first on your list. Don’t leave it until tomorrow. You begin healing your suffering now. Believe that the King has faith in your creativity.