Culture, Religion

“Pain Don’t Decompose When You Bury It.” Maimouna Youssef Asks Us to Excavate our Pain During the Chagim.

“We take the burden on and carry it/But pain don’t decompose when you bury it”

So sings Maimouna Youssef, aka Mumu Fresh, on “What’s the Use in Praying?,” a critical track near the end of her stunning new album. And in so doing, Mumu Fresh adds another essential song to the traditions of the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe), which take us from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. And with those words, she also speaks more directly to me about working through pain and trauma than perhaps any of the holiday liturgy has for me in the past. More on my own journey with that later.

The Days of Awe are, in many ways, mostly about pain: the pain of our ancestors, the traditions our rabbis developed to help us navigate our own pain, and the recognition of the pain in our community and world. We spend several days in synagogue immersed in readings from the Torah and the Prophets that lay out, either explicitly or implicitly: 

  • Sarah’s lingering pain and trauma from years of not having a child that causes her to demand Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael; 
  • Abraham’s pain at Sarah’s demand, which he nevertheless fulfills;
  • Hagar and Ishmael’s pain at being cast into the wilderness and nearly dying;
  • Isaac’s pain at nearly being sacrificed by Abraham on Mt. Moriah (we never quite know what pain Abraham may have felt at being commanded to do this, but the father and son never speak again in the Torah);
  • Hannah’s intense pain at not having a child, her cry and emotion so intense that the priest Eli mistakenly thinks she’s drunk when he sees her from afar; 
  • Isaiah’s pain at the corruption and emptiness of ritual devotion that is not connected to ethical and moral behavior in the world. 

The pain in these passages from the Torah readings and Haftarot then permeate the entire Mahzor: prayers centered on how we have sinned and caused pain individually, as a community, as a people. The U’netaneh Tokef delineates the painful ways in which many of us may die and then reminds us that the way to work through that pain is through prayer, acts of charity/righteousness, and repentance. Prayers, readings, and the blowing of the Shofar all emphasizing that God is present for the pain of the Jewish people. 

It is challenging to be more or less bombarded with pain for 10 days. Especially when we live in a world outside the synagogue walls (or livestream screen) that is immersed in pain: from a brutal pandemic that is surging as destructively as ever; climate change; conflict and war around the world; violence directed at those of different races, genders, sexual orientations; political divisions, conspiracies, and polarization; and so much more. 

And between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year, we marked the 20th anniversary of one of the most painful days in American history, made perhaps even more painful as Afghanistan returns to Taliban rule. 

The quality and quantity of pain is, well, painful. So much so that the most human thing to do is to feel overwhelmed and push it down. To become steeled and go through the motions of prayer, of ritual, and even therapy, without truly digging into the core of the pain itself. 

We live in a society that is ever more conscious of the effects of pain and trauma, but which provides few meaningful opportunities to actually acknowledge and go deep into our own pain and heal it. Social media feeds teem with posts and articles detailing and honoring the pain of others, or cut/paste posts saying “I’m here for my friends; who will post this on their own wall?”, yet paradoxically, many, including me, feel compelled to present only the pain-free components of our lives. 

Health insurance in America still fails to cover mental health at the level it covers physical, despite laws requiring equality and study after study that shows the interrelationship between mental/emotional/spiritual pain and its physical manifestations. Tens of millions have no coverage at all.

Given the societal peer pressure and the potential financial cost, it takes incredible resolve and determination to truly work through one’s pain. To follow up the beating of your heart with your first during the “Ashamnu” and ripping your heart open altogether to excavate the artifacts and remnants of life’s pain that we have ritually buried in a crypt hoping never to see, hear, or feel again. And when we do, we realize that not only are those remnants still there, they have continued to grow and metastasize. Pain that we bury does not remain frozen, it extends into all parts of our lives like an invasive, even if often invisible, vine.   

I am learning this firsthand as I watch someone close in my life do the daily work of this excavation process and admitting that I, too, have focused on the rituals, the words of the Yomim Noraim without doing as much of the work. I also see that I have expected the pains of my past were firmly there: in the past. 

But it took hearing Mumu Fresh’s lyrics — within a song that asks why we bother praying if we are still going to spend our time sinning and then worrying about those sins — to make me truly feel that they are not in the past. They are here with me, just like the stories of our ancestors’ pain that I come back to every year during this period. 

The question is whether I will leave them buried, or keep excavating. I’ve started to dig and focus on a few areas of real pain for me: childhood pains that continue to impact my relationships with my parents (even though my mom is now deceased) and with my wife and two teenage boys; parenting pains that stem from decisions and actions that I know have hurt my kids; pain that ties back to poor financial decisions, which were often rooted in fear, that have left my family in a challenging position today and for the future; pain from the turns in my professional life that were not connected to my heart that set me back; and pain from friendships lost or sacrificed too soon. 

It’s a lot of pain, and for much of my adult life, it’s been buried for fear of the deeper pain that may come from digging it up. 

But Mumu Fresh’s album addresses that, too. A few tracks earlier, she invites stellar MC D Smoke (if you have not watched this performance of his song “Last Supper,” do so immediately) on a track called “North Star,” and he raps, “Love lost/Same Peers/Paid Cost/Pain Heals/Made adjustments through the changes/That’s exactly what a king is.” D Smoke may have meant in the simple phrase “Pain Heals” that pain will eventually go away. But as I read it again, especially in conjunction with Mumu Fresh’s lyrics, I see it as him saying that feeling pain itself, then adapting to what we feel in the pain, is what heals us. 

Rather than spending our time trying to prevent pain or make it immediately go away when it comes, Mumu Fresh and D Smoke are telling us that we can’t be healed without feeling the pain. Pain isn’t the symptom or the problem keeping us from healing; it’s the medium to achieve healing. So too, perhaps, does our tradition tell us the same thing.

That’s where I am headed, anyway.

May you begin 5782 by honoring your pain and beginning the process of digging into it, such that it is no longer buried in the same way when we reach 5783. 

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