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The Paradox of Pain

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This is the land that shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders. Your southern side shall begin in the Zin Desert alongside Edom… the western boundary shall be the Mediterranean Sea… this shall be your northern boundary: from the Mediterranean Sea you shall turn to Mount Hor…  you shall draw for yourselves as the eastern border from Hazar-enan to Shefam… this shall be the Land for you, according to its borders all around

Numbers 34:2-12

Judah has gone into exile because of suffering and great servitude. She dwelled among the nations, but found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in narrow straits [bein hameitzarim]

Megillat Eichah [Lamentations] 1:3

At one time or another we all come face to face with an event that appears so terrible that it threatens us emotionally and psychologically. A loved one passes away, G-d forbid. A job that was thought to be secure is lost. One’s health suddenly deteriorates. Even the staunchest optimist will admit that life can be a wild roller-coaster ride, one moment lifting us to the greatest heights, the next plunging us to the lowest depths. How are we to view the difficulties of our life, when everything appears bleak and we cannot see beyond the limits of our own pain.

Contrary to our experience of challenging events, the Torah tells us that “Nothing bad descends from Above.”[1] This statement by our Sages implies that everything that happens is inherently good, for it stems from G-d, the “epitome of goodness.” But how are we to reconcile Torah’s truths with our perceived reality? The argument that we are finite and therefore unable to see the larger, infinite picture may be sufficient for some, but the persistent skeptic would still demand empirical proof of the puzzling notion that pain equals joy. Furthermore, even assuming that there is some good to be found within difficulty, if G-d truly desires to give us good, why must He send His “blessings” in such strange “containers”; why does He not just send us clear, open blessings without our having to experience pain and distress at all?

Times of Pain

This week’s parshah, Parshat Massei, is always read during the period known as “bein hameitzarim”,[2] the three weeks between the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. These two dates are recognized as the saddest in the Jewish calendar. Indeed, the events that occurred on these days have dramatically altered the course of history, the most notable consequence being our present galut (exile).[3] The 17th of Tammuz is the day on which the service in the First Temple was disrupted, and on which the walls of the Second Temple were breached.[4] The 9th of Av is the day on which both Temples were destroyed.[5] The Three Weeks are thus a time of mourning: we are forbidden to make weddings, listen to music, purchase new clothing, and do anything that brings excessive joy.

Torah does not deal in coincidences; therefore, the fact that Massei is always read during the “Three Weeks” indicates that they share a common theme.[6] At first glance, however, nothing seems to be further from the truth. Parshat Massei contains G-d’s final instructions to the Jewish people prior to their arrival in Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), including a description of the land’s exact boundaries, while, in contrast, the events of the Three Weeks caused the nation to be exiled from that very land!

In order to reconcile this apparent contradiction we must first examine the deeper dimension of the elements mentioned above, namely, the Land of Israel and exile.

It is no accident that among all the lands of the world, only Eretz Yisroel has been given the title “the Holy Land.” In the words of the Scripture, it is “the land constantly under G-d’s scrutiny; the eyes of G-d are on it at all times, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.”[7] When we are in a state of spiritual freedom, as was the case throughout the 810 years that the Temples stood, it is a land in which G-d’s blessings can be perceived as such, without the obscuring veil of nature, and our sustenance is recognized as emanating directly from the hand of G-d. Indeed, it is the only land in which divine revelation occurred on a regular basis, via the ten miracles that occurred daily in the Temple.[8] Thus, in spiritual terms, Eretz Yisroel represents G-dliness as it is clearly manifest in creation.

In the other lands, however, G-d has chosen to hide His presence behind the cloak of nature. Consequently, we associate our sustenance with the toil of our own hands and not with divine blessing. In essence, this is the galut-state, when even in the “Holy Land” nature appears to be the force controlling our destiny, and we are unable to perceive the G-dly spirit that guides us. “We no longer see Your wonders,”[9] laments the exiled Jew. In reality, nothing has changed—the world is still controlled by the Divine Designer of mankind—it is only our perception that has altered.

Although Eretz Yisroel and galut are polar-opposite states of being, it is precisely the Land of Israel—or more specifically, the borders thereof—that lends the possibility for exile to occur. Just as in the physical sense, the borders mentioned in the parshah delineate the extent of Eretz Yisroel and thereby facilitate the existence of “other lands,”[10] the same is true in the spiritual realm: the fact that G-dliness is revealed only in a limited “space” means that all other “space” remains devoid of this revelation.[11]Therefore, the borders of Eretz Yisroel, i.e., the limitations placed on divine revelation, actually create the “space” in which galut, a time when G-dliness is obscured, may exist. In other words, the masking of G-dliness stems from the fact that its manifestation is limited. Thus, the possibility of galut, the time when divinity is obscured, (the theme of the Three Weeks), is a direct result of the limitations placed on the “Land of Israel” (the theme of Massei).

This explanation elucidates the connection between Parshat Massei and “bein hameitzarim” in a somewhat negative light—namely that the constraints placed on Eretz Yisroel enable such tragedies as those that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. However, if we look a little deeper, a completely different view unfolds.

Times of Growth

Although on the surface galut appears to be purely a terrible punishment for our sins, on a more profound level the very opposite is true: the challenge of galut is what unleashes the greatest, most potent forces of our soul.

For almost 2000 years, we have suffered at the hands of others. We have been tortured, enslaved and banished. Yet despite the countless regimes that have oppressed us at different times and in different places, one constant has remained: our unwavering faith in G-d, His Torah and in the ultimate Redemption. There is nothing that the Jewish people who lived during the “golden years” of Jerusalem could have done to express such deep soul-commitment. Only we, who live in the darkness of exile have been challenged to tap the deepest, most powerful resources of our soul, our quintessential self where “Israel and G-d are completely one.” As the Psalmist writes:[12] “Min hameitzar korosi ka”—from out of distress I called to G-d, “anani bamerchav ka”—with abundance, G-d answered me. Through distress we are able to access our true, limitless core—the spark of G-d that is the soul. This is the true purpose of exile, to allow us to access and express our infinite abilities.[13]

The same applies to the boundaries of the Land of Israel. Although they represent the limitation of G-d’s manifestation in the world, it is precisely that concealment which awakens the soul’s true potential.

This is the lesson we may derive from Parshat Maasei and the period of “bein hameitzarim.” We must view difficulty not as a wholly negative experience, but as the greatest facilitator of growth, for it compels us to reach deep inside ourselves and tap the wealth of resources that are buried within. And while these situations are often beyond our control, the attitude with which we meet them is within our control. We have the ability to accept the challenges as they were meant to be—opportunities for positive growth and development. Although we may never fully understand why certain things happen, ultimately, they can—and therefore must—make us better people.

Based on an address of the Rebbe given Motzai Shabbat Parshat Mattot-Massei 5739 (1979).[14]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Ari Sollish


[1] Bereishis Rabbah 51:3; Midrash Tehillim: Psalm 149; Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh 11.

[2] Literally, “between the constraints,” or “in narrow straits.” This term comes from a verse in Megillat Eicha [Lamentations], which is read on the 9th of Av to recount the sorrow we experienced when we were exiled.

[3] Some of the other tragic events that occurred on these dates: on the 17th of Tammuz in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce), Moses descended from Mount Sinai to find the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf, prompting him to smash the Tablets; on the 9th of Av in the year 2449 (1312 bce), G-d decreed that the entire generation would perish in the desert, after the nation—swayed by the biased report of the spies—refused to enter the Land of Israel.

[4] An opinion in Talmud Yerushalmi states that the walls of the first Temple were also breached on this day; but, due to the trauma they experienced, the exact date was forgotten.

[5] The First Temple by the Babylonians in the year 3338 (423 bce) and the Second Temple by the Romans in 3829 (69 ce).

[6] Shaloh, [acronym for Shnei Luchos Habris by R’ Yeshayah Hurwitz, 1560 – 1630] beginning of Parshat Vayeishev.

[7] Deuteronomy 11:12.

[8] Ethics of the Fathers 5:5.

[9] Psalms 74:9.

[10] Every physical entity occupies space. Therefore, in order for more than one entity to exist, there must be clearly defined measurements that delineate each entity. The same is true regarding land: in order for there to be more than one country, there must be clearly defined boundaries outlining where one land ends and the other begins.

[11] The reason why the physical Land of Israel is finite, limited to the precise boundaries laid out by G-d, is because spiritually, G-d’s presence is not manifest throughout the world; it is only in certain, specifically defined “spaces” that we clearly perceive G-dliness. Therefore, in the Messianic Age, when G-d’s presence will be revealed throughout creation, “Eretz Yisroel will spread out and cover the entire earth”—Yalkut Shimoni 503. See also Likkutei Torah on Maasei, 89b.

[12] 118:5.

[13] This is the deeper explanation as to why we refer to “the three weeks”—the catalyst of exile—as “bein hameitzarim.” The term “meitzar” (distress) alludes to the positive potential latent in galut, as expressed in the aforementioned verse from Psalms.

[14] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXVIII, pp.122-126.

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