How many times do we cry out to God, praying for a different course, an alternate reality, only to receive no answer? Tales of our tradition hardly provide comfort, for the legends all relate how the Almighty did everything for the sake of the Jewish People and its righteous leaders. Now we seem to shed tears to no avail.
The Talmud relates that our sages were troubled by this very disparity (B. Berachot 20a). Rav Pappa once asked Abaye why earlier generations merited miracles while later generations did not. Rav Pappa immediately dismissed one possibility: "It cannot be because of Torah scholarship for quantitively and qualitatively we study more!" To buttress his claim, Rav Pappa continued with an example: "We afflict ourselves and cry out in prayer asking for rain and no one pays any attention. In previous generations, when there was a drought, Rav Yehuda would merely remove his shoe as a sign of discomfort and the heavens would open up."
While we may acutely feel the pain of this question, the regal hassidic master, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1797-1850) offered a daring response to the dissonance between respite from adversity in days of old and our unrelenting contemporary suffering.
"Were I there," the Ruzhiner boldly said, "I would have proposed a different explanation for the difference between the former generations who were answered immediately and our generation whose prayers seemingly go unanswered." The Ruzhiner continued likening the situation to a pregnant woman: Were the pregnant woman to experience contractions early in the pregnancy, we would hastily do everything possible to rid her of those pains: medication, bed rest, prayer - anything. The situation is entirely different when the due date arrives: Not only do we not try to remove the pain, we may actually seek to initiate it or hasten its course.
Translating the parable to our talmudic passage, the Ruzhiner explains that previous generations cried out to God and were immediately answered for they were distant from eventual redemption. When they complained of pain, it was quickly dulled for the time for birth pangs had not arrived.
Nowadays, as the end-of-days quickly approaches and it is time to give birth to a new reality, the pains we experience are actually a positive sign. Indeed, in Heaven, these pains are encouraged! Thus in an audacious move that runs counter to the talmudic passage, the Ruzhiner proposes that we should be buoyed by the experience of these painful birth pangs, for they are a positive sign of a soon to emerge new life.
The Ruzhiner's statements may be true, but we know how difficult it is to focus on the eventual outcome during those painful contractions. Taking the Ruzhiner's lead, we might suggest a different analogy: A luscious grape hangs from a vine on a crisp morning, basking in the early sun and drawing nutrients from mother-earth. Without warning the grape is suddenly plucked from its lifeblood, torn from its roots.
"What are you doing to me?" cries the grape tearfully, "You are killing me!" The grape's ordeal is not over. Quickly it is thrown to the ground and trampled under foot. Stamped on, trodden on, squashed and trampled.
Crushed and whimpering, the once succulent grape is a shadow of its former self. Instead of soaking up the sun, it is violently shoved into a wooden barrel and without any compassion placed in a dark, dank cellar. In this gloomy vault the grape cries bitterly, remembering bygone days. The longing and the pain ferment, as the grape is left for days that turn into weeks that become months and years. Time continues, but the poor grape has been forgotten in that murky crypt.
One day the grape hears the cellar door and heavy footsteps approach, "What will happen now?" wonders the grape. Coarse hands bore a small hole in the sealed barrel and a little tap is inserted. The clink of glass, turning of the tap and suddenly the earth falls out from under the grape as it is sucked into a vortex, through a small pipe and spills out. The grape barely has time to grasp a breath of musty cellar air as it crashes onto a clear, crystal glass whizzing around as it regains its balance.
The rough hands take the glass with the grape outside, hold it up to the sun and swish it around. Blinking in the light the grape realizes that he is no longer a grape, but has undergone a fantastic metamorphosis. No longer is the grape destined to enjoy the warm weather, knowing that with the passage of time he will fall from the vine and return to the earth. He has now risen above the limitations of time and actually will improve with age.
If we were to ask the grape at the beginning of this ordeal: Are you prepared to forgo your current juicy reality, undergo untold hardships so that you can become the most tasteful of drinks, surely the grape would vehemently decline. But once the process is over we have the most exquisite of beverages: wine.
While we suffer the pain we cannot envisage the relief. The Ruzhiner is trying to tell us that while the pain may obliterate all thought or dream of eventual salvation, we should remember that a newborn life is around the corner. Just as a mother knows that the pain of childbirth will eventually end, and the reward of a new baby in her arms is only a moderately short time away, the Ruzhiner implores us to feel thus about the exile we endure: We suffer today, but these are messianic birth pangs, to be rewarded with a more fruitful existence in a relatively short time.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.