The other night it hit me and I finally understood—there is a difference between pain and anguish. What happened? I awoke from my sleep with a very sharp pain in my thighs. The muscles of my inner legs froze in painful cramps, and the pain radiated down my legs and up to my hips. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move. I took deep breaths and tried to massage the pain away. Even though I could feel my body tense up, I forced myself to relax my shoulders and my jaw, to unclench my hands.
“Breathe,” I told myself. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move“It hurts, but the pain will go away, keep rubbing it, keep breathing. It’s for a good thing. It’s because you are at the end of your pregnancy, and the pain will go away.” I reminded myself of the wonderful fact that I was carrying a child, and this eased the pain. It hurt a lot, but I wasn’t suffering. I wasn’t anguished, so to speak, about my pain. It was clear to me that it had a purpose, and that with G‑d’s help I could and would get through it.
What a contrast to a year and a half ago! Then I also awoke in the middle of the night, my body racked with pain. I was also cramping, but from a miscarriage. Sharp pains radiated up and down my thighs and belly. I cried. I felt so weak. I couldn’t take the pain, because for me it wasn’t just that I was in pain; I felt alone and deeply troubled. I was in anguish and very distressed.
Anguish versus pain. There is a difference.
In the Jewish calendar, there is a period of time that we call bein hametzarim, “between the straits,” which refers to the period of mourning commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Three Weeks start with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and end on the 9th day of Av, the fast of Tisha B’Av. Both of these fasts commemorate events surrounding the destruction of the Temples and the subsequent exile of the Jews from the land of Israel. If you look at the Hebrew word for “straits,” you see that it contains the word tzar, which literally means “narrow,” but also means “anguish” or “distress.”
When we are in tzar, our vision is very limited. We can’t see past the pain and the suffering. We feel anguished, distressed. There doesn’t appear to be a reason for the pain. We can’t see that maybe, just maybe, there is a bigger picture. That maybe, just maybe, there is a purpose for it all. We are caught in a narrow passage, caught in the moment in which we are in. However, when we can broaden our vision, see past the pain, understand that there is a purpose, a “why,” then we might be in pain, but we won’t be in anguish. We know that we are not alone, and that with G‑d’s help we will get through it.
We’ve been in exile now for nearly 2,000 years. It’s a long time. It’s a very long time to be in pain. We’ve come to the point where our vision is so narrow that all we feel is anguish. We mourn the destruction of the Temples, and we do so in a time that is “between the straits,” a time that feels hopeless and never-ending. We can’t see the bigger picture. We get caught up in the pain. But pain is not an end in itself.
On a physical level, pain usually signifies a breakdown in the functioning of the body. Pain is a sign from G‑d that something is wrong. Pain has a purpose: that we should reawaken our will to live.
There are also “growing pains”—pain from stretching, extending, growing, using. Pain—when looked at from a broader perspective, when seen as a vehicle that has a purpose and can be used for connecting, learning, and growing—is good. And this includes labor pain.
Right now, the times that we are living in feel so hard and difficult, and as the days get closer and closer to Tisha b’Av, the mourning, the suffocation, the tightening, intensifies. New life, hope, continuation and connectionBut these very painful moments are the times which the sages refer to as chevlei Moshiach, the birthpangs of Moshiach. Why? Because in birth, a woman might be in pain, but if she can see past the pain and stay focused on her baby, she won’t feel anguish, she won’t suffer. And at the end, what happens? A baby is born! New life, hope, continuation and connection.
The Hebrew word for “birth” is leidah, which can be broken up into the words leyad H’, the hand of G‑d. Exile, like labor, is hard, painful and long. But every moment of it, every difficult test, every “contraction,” serves a purpose. We just need to broaden our vision, have faith, and stay focused on the fact that everything happens through the hand of G‑d. Soon the pain will end, and a new era, a new life of bliss and redemption, will be born.