Home > Judaism, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal > Commentary: Remembering pain in the midst of joy

Commentary: Remembering pain in the midst of joy

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — The breaking of the glass at the end of a Jewish wedding was originally not greeted by cries of joy but rather with tears. This custom originates from a story in the Talmud. In the middle of sumptuous feast a rabbi stood up and threw an expensive goblet against the wall, smashing it. This surprised and sobered everyone. He explained that, even in the middle of a time of joy, it is important to remember that the life of the Jewish People is broken because we are in exile.  Until the Temple is rebuilt and all Jews move back to Israel, our lives are shattered and our joy is always diminished.

At the weddings I perform I also explain that the broken glass reminds us that we live in a broken world and that the obligations of a bride and groom include not only the need to support and encourage each other, but also to heal the world in which we live. When we see suffering, we need to share the pain and help alleviate it.
During a terrible famine in Russia, Rabbi Israel Salanter ran into a very poor Jew who was always hungry and complained constantly about the bitterness of his lot. This time, however, he was free of complaints and even appeared content. Rabbi Salanter was puzzled and asked him: “This is the first time I have spoken with you that you seem happy. Have you somehow escaped the famine?”

“No,” the Jew replied, “I am just as hungry as before. But now, everyone around me is hungry as well, and that others know how I suffer every day brings me omfort.”

Rabbi Salanter said to him: “A real Jew (yehudi kasher) does not suffer less when others suffer; he suffers more! A real Jew feels their pain! This is why the Torah says in Parashat V’etchanan ‘When you (pl.) worship other gods and serve (pl.) them and bow down (pl.) to them’ the Torah speaks in the plural. But when the Torah speaks about suffering ‘when you (s.) are in distress because all these things have befallen you (s.)’ (Deut. 4:30) the Torah speaks in the singular: it is to teach you that when others suffer, so should you.”

“Misery loves company” the saying goes. There are some people who derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing others suffer as do they. “Now they know how I feel,” they say and it lifts their spirits.

Rabbi Salanter wants us to learn that the pain of others should never bring us pleasure. We should share their pain and use it to motivate us to bring them support, uplift, and healing, even if we share their complaint.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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