NO PAIN NO GAIN
by Rabbi Alexander
The great posek (authority on Jewish law) of our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, used to say that the popular expression of many first-generation Jewish immigrants to America, "S'iz shver tzu zain a Yid - it's difficult to be a Jew," did much to destroy Jewish commitment among their children.
The great posek (authority on Jewish law) of our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, used to say that the popular expression of many first-generation Jewish immigrants to America, "S'iz shver tzu zain a Yid - it's difficult to be a Jew," did much to destroy Jewish commitment among their children. If it is so difficult, the (perhaps unspoken) argument went, why bother with it? Instead, Rabbi Feinstein explained, it is important for parents and educators to stress the greatness and beauty of the Torah way of life. When difficulties do arise - as they inevitably will - then the child or student will be able to put them in proper perspective, realizing that, in fact, nothing important in life comes without difficulties.
Still, there is no getting away from the fact that mitzvot are certainly not always easy, convenient, or comfortable. In fact, some of them almost seem to be designed specifically to be inconvenient: it does take a fair amount of willpower and self-control to walk to synagogue on Shabbat when one could far more easily drive, or to pass up that scrumptious-looking pepperoni pizza in the office.
So what should our attitude be about the difficulties of certain mitzvot? As with so many other entities in a Jew's life, we can look to our father Abraham as the prototype. Brit milah (circumcision) is a rather painful operation, especially for a 99-year-old man. Recognizing this, Torah law permits one to violate Shabbat, if necessary, in order to provide post-operative care for a baby (or adult) who has undergone a brit milah. In particular, our sages tell us, the first three days are the most critical. So when Abraham circumcised himself and his household at Hashem's command, Hashem Himself came to "visit" him on the third day, thus establishing the importance of the mitzvah of bikur cholim - visiting the sick.
As with most mitzvot, there is a protocol to follow in visiting the sick; one detail of this is that, generally, relatives may visit at any time (provided it's not a burden on the patient), while everyone else should wait a few days, to allow the sick person to start recovering. But Hashem is, as we repeatedly said in the High Holiday prayers, "our Father and our King." What's more, our sages say that a close friend's visit takes away one-sixtieth of the patient's illness, so surely the presence of Hashem - who describes Abraham as "my friend" (Isaiah 41:8) - would have lightened Abraham's discomfort at least as much as a human visitor. So why did Hashem wait until the third day?
The answer is that Hashem's presence did more than just lighten Abraham's discomfort; it caused Abraham to be healed completely! Had Hashem visited on the first or second day, then Abraham would have been cured immediately. But mitzvot are meant to be performed in the natural way, without miracles to help us along - and brit milah itself is, in that sense, the prototypical mitzvah in which we take nature and mold it according to Hashem's desires. The physical pain of brit milah is a natural part of the mitzvah, and Hashem wanted Abraham to have the mitzvah in its fullest form, especially since his act of self-sanctification through brit milah made it possible for us to do the same. Now, of course, Hashem allows - even mandates - us to use whatever natural methods we have at our disposal to alleviate the discomfort of brit milah or of any other mitzvah. However, we find that Hashem did not just cure Abraham with His presence, but rather sent the angel Raphael to heal him.
Isn't healing through an angel also a miraculous event? The truth is that an "angel" (the Hebrew word, malach, literally means "messenger") is nothing more than Hashem's power personified. In that sense, for example, our sages tell us that every blade of grass has its angel to oversee its growth; this is just another way of saying that blades of grass do not grow haphazardly, but that each one's development is part of the Divine master plan and therefore receives its life-force through a special act of Divine providence. So when any sick person is cured, that is the angel Raphael, the conduit of Hashem's healing power, at work. The difference, then, between Abraham and us is that we get to see this Divine power only in a very corporeal garb - the doctor, the pills he prescribes us; while Abraham, because of his great spiritual level, was able to see it in the more spiritual guise of an angel. But both Abraham and we have to wait three days for Raphael, in whatever form he appears, to come - because that is the natural order of events; that circumcision takes three days for the pain to subside.
The lesson for us to take from this is that while on the one hand we can, and should, do whatever we can to make it easier for ourselves to do mitzvot - move closer to the synagogue so the walk is not as long; bring a kosher pizza to the office so you do not have to feel left out while all your coworkers are enjoying their non-kosher slices - there is no reason to feel resentful towards Gd for the difficulties that do exist. At the very least, we can keep in mind the saying of our sages, "The reward is proportional to the difficulty" (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:26). What's more, overcoming natural adversity to perform a mitzvah makes that adversity itself part and parcel of the mitzvah, thus refining another corner of the universe, making it into a "dwelling-place for Gd," and bringing us all a large step closer to the ultimate perfection of the natural world that will come with the Mashiach (Messiah).
This essay is adapted from a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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