From Mourning to Teshuvah:  On the Distinction between Pain and Suffering 

A guest post by Talia Kaplan

On the heels of Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of many calamities throughout Jewish history, we move from mourning to consolation, readying ourselves for the work of teshuvah during the High Holiday season. COVID, the climate crisis, and racial injustice leave us no shortage of destruction to reflect on this year. We do not need to imagine ourselves moving out of a period of destruction. We are here. In this moment of pain, I find myself reflecting on the Torah of Audre Lorde, 20th century black lesbian poet and activist. She wrote,


There is a distinction I am beginning to make in my living between pain and suffering. Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action.

Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain. When I live through pain without recognizing it self-consciously, I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it. I condemn myself to reliving that pain over and over whenever something close triggers it. And that is suffering, a seemingly inescapable cycle.” 


Lorde acknowledges how pain is an inevitable, even healthy part of human existence. Yet when we do not properly make space for this pain, it can cause unnecessary suffering. During Av, we have the opportunity to tap into, to process collective and individual pain. Honoring pain–both our own and that of those around us–is precisely what allows us to ease suffering. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering may not be. 

Through kindness, empathy, and presence, we can break the cycle of suffering and begin the work of teshuvah.

At the beginning of the Babylonian Talmud on Berakhot 5b, we find a series of stories about the rabbis and suffering. In the first instance, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba falls ill. Rabbi Yohanan asks him if his suffering is dear to him. After Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba says he welcomes neither the suffering nor its reward, Rabbi Yohanan takes his hand and lifts him up. In the subsequent story, it is Rabbi Yohanan who falls ill and Rabbi Hanina who asks him if his suffering is dear to him. After Rabbi Yohanan says he welcomes neither the suffering nor its reward, Rabbi Hanina takes his hand and lifts him up. The rabbis ask, why could Rabbi Yohanan not lift himself up? After all, he knew just what to do when Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was in a similar situation. The students replied that a prisoner cannot free himself from prison. 

When left unattended, pain can become unbearable suffering. This anguish is not dissimilar to that of a prisoner who cannot break free from their oppressive conditions. Berakhot 5b illustrates how an external intervention–in this case, a compassionate listener–can disrupt the cycle of suffering. This intervention also demonstrates that we can recognize pain without glorifying suffering. The insistence that the rabbis welcome neither the suffering nor its reward seems to diverge from certain attitudes reflected on the other side of the page; Berakhot 5a contains both the idea that suffering can be divine punishment and the notion that suffering can be an invitation to teshuvah, or changing course in one’s behavior. The belief that suffering is a punishment from God can itself cause harm. In what way might moving away from the guilt and shame inflicted by such ideas allow us to heal from painful experiences? How might it precipitate the introspection necessary to do teshuvah in other areas of our lives?   

The third and final story in this Talmudic treatment of suffering rabbis adds an additional dimension to this discussion. When Rabbi Eliezer, a student of Rabbi Yohanan, fell ill, Rabbi Yohanan went to visit him. Rabbi Yohanan finds Rabbi Eliezer on the floor weeping. After a few attempts by Rabbi Yohanan to reassure Rabbi Eliezer that possible sources of his tears–not learning enough Torah, having an inadequate income–are problems with answers, Rabbi Elizer interjects, “On account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth I weep.” Without any further reassurances, without any silver linings, Rabbi Eliezer replies, “On that account, surely you have reason to weep.” Rabbi Yohanan then weeps with Rabbi Eliezer. Sitting together in tears, the rabbis allow the pain to move through them, perhaps avoiding what Lorde referred to as the “unscrutinized and  unmetabolized pain” that can easily lead to suffering. 

Often, our inclination is to look for solutions. Yet what Rabbi Yohanan comes to realize is that the best way he can help Rabbi Eliezer is by affirming and empathizing with his pain. Rabbi Yohanan only takes Rabbi Eliezer’s hand and lifts him up after sharing in his tears. 

Last week, in the hospital where I am doing a chaplaincy unit, I visited a patient who just had a stillbirth. The woman explained to me how every time she would start crying, her family and friends would tell her “Don’t cry, it’s ok. You’ll have more children in the future.” “In my culture,” she told me, “crying is seen as a sign of weakness.” Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that what the woman struggled with most was not feeling embarrassed by her tears, but realizing that those who loved her most were not giving her space to grieve a real loss. At the end of the visit, the woman thanked me for letting her cry. It is never easy to see someone in pain. Yet, as this patient, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yohanan, and Audre Lorde remind us, pain must be honored. In doing so, we interrupt cycles of suffering and create the potential for radical change. 

As we move into the season of repentance, we can ask: How can we accompany others in their moments of hurt without looking for a quick fix? When have we not honored the pain of others or perhaps even our own pain? When have we tried to explain away our pain with theologies of suffering that do not serve us? Where are the places where we need to sit with our pain? 

After a year of tremendous grief, loss, and trauma, pain can be our teacher. Honoring pain without glorifying suffering readies us for the teshuvah necessary to respond to the brokenness in ourselves and in the world. Making space for impactful emotions and experiences–including painful ones–gives us the capacity to work on ourselves and to show up for others. This year, may our proximity to pain help us decrease suffering in the world.  


Talia Kaplan is a passionate organizer and educator, building spiritually rooted communities effecting social change. She serves as the Rabbinical Student in Residence at Brown RISD Hillel and is pursuing ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter: @TaliaKaplan27 

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