The pain was excruciating, the worst I ever experienced. It began the day before in my lower back, and I thought I had just pulled a muscle as I have done many times before. I had been jogging on our runner, fast and on an incline, and assumed that I had overdone it. At my age, it is easy to do that.
But this time it was different. In the past it could be bad, but not worse by the hour. By the next morning, I could barely walk up the hill after dovening and headed straight for the sofa when I came home. I could not find a single position where there was no pain, which was not the case other times. Just getting up to go to the bathroom was torture, literally. An hour later, I was in an ambulance on the way to the Emergency Room.
It turned out that I had a herniated disk, and all I could do was take pain killers and wait for it to heal itself. That would take at least six weeks, tons of Percocet, and some unconventional therapy from a kind neighbor. It was completely debilitating, leaving me bedridden, and with what seemed like interminable suffering. I could not imagine living the rest of my life like that without relief.
While in that state, I had answered a question I had for years. I have never been able to fathom how a person of relatively sound mind can take their own life, God forbid. As bad as things get, how can they get that bad? Suffering can be really terrible, but death is so very permanent. There’s no going back once it is done. Isn’t that enough of a deterrent? Maybe the suffering will go away at some time, but death cannot.
The question became even stronger once I heard about a suicide of a religious Jew. As it is well known, suicide is not acceptable under most circumstances by Torah. There are times it is permissible, and the Talmud has some cases. But most of the time it is not considered to be a halachically acceptable way out of life, and committing it means having to account for a terrible sin on the other side. But that’s for God to decide, and we have no way of knowing how He looks at a person who has done it.
Lying there in terrible pain that just wouldn’t go away, feeling emotionally worn down from just coping with it and, having no sense of hope for better times, I began to understand how all of that could override a person’s relatively sound mind. The desperation can become so bad that, a person starts to focus more on ending the pain than ending their life, even though they know they come together. The pain can be so intense that they steal the person’s emotions until they can feel what they need to, in order to hold back from doing something they will regret later.
In fact, I once read that many failed suicides have said that after making the attempt, they changed their mind when they realized what they were doing. The reality of their actions stole back their emotions from the pain, and woke them up. How many people experienced the same awakening, but did not get to change what they had already done?
In any case, I had learned one of the most frightening lessons of my life. I became aware firsthand how pain and suffering can cause a person to lose the battle to their yetzer hara. As the Talmud says, the yetzer hara gets up everyday to kill a person (Kiddushin 30b).
WHAT DOES THIS have to do with this week’s parsha? Because we look at Pharaoh as a meshuganim who was arrogant to the point of destroying himself and his country. And, of course, God only made it worse by making him even more stubborn, so that God could perform His signs in Egypt and make it clear that He is God over everything. I mean, who takes on God?
The Titanic did. Years ago while traveling I came across the book just out in the Duty Free shop. Naturally I picked it up, and naturally I turned to the middle section where they put the pictures. I only needed to see one picture to answer a question I had for years. Lots of ships have hit icebergs and many have sunken. What was so unique about the Titanic that God paid such attention to it? There’s even a children’s song about it.
Then I saw the picture. I was stunned. There were about 20 people on the deck of the ship right before departure holding up a long banner that read, “A ship that even God can’t sink.” After staring at the picture for a few moments I closed the book, put it down, and went on my way, disturbed. I kept thinking to myself, “Why? Why? Why? Why challenge God, even as a joke? Why take that risk? What else was there to prove? The ship was seaworthy, it was a beauty, and everyone was excited to sail on it. Wasn’t that enough to be proud of?”
Apparently not. And though people will argue that it was just a coincidence, do they know for sure? Are they speaking from experience, or just a lack of knowledge about God and how He works in history? Maybe the ship was destined to hit the iceberg. But maybe, had they not been so bold in their assertions, God might have had mercy on them and miraculously save them.
It was the Pharaoh mentality that sunk Egypt, and it may have been the Pharaoh mentality that sunk the Titanic, and who knows how many other things over history.
IT’S CALLED EMOTIONAL investment. When we first approach something, we don’t know how we’ll feel about it. Meet a person for the first time and we don’t know if we’ll like them. Move to a new city and we don’t know if we’ll settle there. Until we do, we will remain neutral to a person or a place or a thing.
But start to like someone, or dislike them, and it will tint what they do in your eyes. If you like them, you will minimalize their shortcomings. Dislike someone, and you will study their every flaw under the largest of magnifying glasses. First we invest emotionally, and then we develop biases for or against.
This is nothing new of course, and Marketing and Advertising companies take advantage of this everyday. So do controlling people, and they constantly force us to do things we’d rather not do, because of some emotional investment we have made in the past.
Just this morning I was sent an article about a “fellow” Jew who prefers Hamas over Israel, comparing Israel to the Nazi regime. And he isn’t some left wing secular Jew, but he’s supposed to be religious though, these days, that does not necessarily mean what is used to. He is gravely mistaken and obviously very hurt. What makes a person become a turncoat to his own people? Emotional investment, because it certainly isn’t logic.
The truth is, we’re all emotionally invested in something. It’s just a part of life. You’re not living if you’re not emotionally invested in life. The trick is making sure your investment is well based, because it is nothing short of tragic to put your emotions into the wrong thing. A person who does that just keeps making the wrong sacrifices the rest of their life. So many people have gone down for the wrong reasons, so many marriages have ended for no reason, and so much of life has been wasted without any reason.
That is as much of the freedom story from Egypt as the rest of it. Personal freedom depends upon being able to stand up for truth and, if necessary, die for it. Our commitment to truth defines who we are as people, and determines whether we’ll live a meaningful life, or just a life. Compromise is good, but only when it is for the sake of truth, not to avoid it.
One of the most difficult parts of analyzing past history is being able to understand how entire societies could make such catastrophic mistakes in choosing their direction. Looking back from a different time period, we don’t feel their emotional investment, only our own. The best we can do is learn the lesson that does stay the same from generation to generation. Choose your emotional investments wisely.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Loose Ends: A Torah Approach to the Loose Ends of Life & History
NO ONE LIKES loose ends. They are so dissatisfying. You can work for months on a project and accomplish a great deal, but loose ends make you feel as if you didn’t really get where you wanted to in the end. It’s like running a marathon, coming within inches of the finish line, and falling before crossing it.
We humans like closure. When we want something to be over, we want it to be completely over. People pay a lot of money for therapy to get closure on dead situations that linger emotionally. It’s hard to move on until we do.
We also tend to compartmentalize life. An organized life is a more carefree life. It lets us know where things are so we can avoid them or find them when we need them. It just makes life more efficient, safer.
It’s like driving on the freeway during the day. We can clearly see the other cars and protect ourselves from them. At night, it is harder to see and trickier to judge distances and speed. It greatly increases the risk of a crash just as loose ends increase the possibility of error.
One of the biggest loose ends in history is God. On one hand, you can’t prove His existence, not like you can prove something physical. Even negative matter, which we can’t see, has a physical impact. God’s impact is far greater, but also far more subtle. The only laboratory capable of assessing it is our mind’s eye.
On the other hand, God’s existence is the most obvious conclusion to draw for how Creation came to be what it is, if a person can get past their fears and biases. Some people think that people turn religious as capitulation to the loose ends. In reality, it is the loose ends that point the intellect in that direction. That’s why Avraham Avinu, even without Torah came to this conclusion and went in search of God.
But we have Torah, and a tradition that three million people heard God speak at Mt. Sinai. That’s quite the head start, if you start with your head. But so many people don’t. They don’t do their homework, even though the most important decision a person can make in life is to believe in God.
After all, if God does exist, then He probably wants something from us. And if He expects something from us, then we’ll have to answer for where we fell short. There might be excuses for not living up to His expectations, but how many of them are valid, especially today when truth is so easy to access?
Besides, who ever said that the truth doesn’t include loose ends?