The Shunamite Woman and The Rejection of Suffering

I often get replies and emails from people telling me how fortunate I am to have a life rife with unfortunate events.  I usually trash these well-meaning yet invasive, even brazen, suggestions that my suffering is in fact a blessing.

First I would say that compared to most of the suffering people I know and interact with, mine is petty, and I know it.  But it’s MY suffering, and I will not abrogate my right to express how I feel about it.

I would like to draw your attention to an illustration in the Bible that shows us that even the strong can suffer greatly, although they might not show it to everyone.  There are many such illustrations in Scripture, but this one has always caught my attention: the story of the prophet Elisha (student of Elijah) and the Shunamite woman (Shunam is a place-name): Kings II 4:11-37

True to a common theme in the Bible, the Shunamite woman was childless, and the Man of God (Elisha) caused her to conceive and bear a son.  The son grew and went to the fields with his father, and suddenly cried out “My head, my head!”  And fell down senseless, and his father’s attendant carried him to his mother.  His mother held him on her lap until he died, and then she carried his body to the attic room where Elisha was accustomed to stay, and she laid him on Elisha’s bed.

Then she took a donkey and rode up to the cave of Elijah in Carmel (I have been there and it is on the side of a cliff, no small feat to arrive there).  She called out Elisha and said, “Why did you give me a child if it was just going to be taken from me?”  And she threw her arms around his knees and vowed that she would not let go until Elisha came with her.

Which he did, and found the dead boy lying on his bed.  First Elisha told his servant Gehazi to lay Elisha’s staff across the child’s face, but nothing happened, so Elisha stretched himself out on top of the boy and blew into his mouth.  Nothing happened, so he walked around the house, first one way, then the other, and then repeated the mouth-to-mouth until the boy sneezed seven times and sat up.  Elisha said, “Pick up your son!”  So she fell at his feet in gratitude, after which she “picked up her son and left.” 4:37

This story illustrates that suffering does not always show on the outside.  Elisha knew that the Shunamite woman suffered because she had no child; and when her child died and she went to Elisha, she said, “Did I ever ask for a child?  Did you give me a child just to mock me?”

“What, is this some cruel joke you have played on me?”  says the Shunamite woman.   Elisha had nothing to say to that, so he had to come with her.

This is all very mysterious, and full of implied questions and gaps in logic.  The answers to the many questions raised here are addressed in the Gemara, the huge library of Jewish commentary and law.  One set of the books of the Gemara take up entire walls.

The Gemara is full of stories like the one about the woman whose child dies on Friday afternoon (the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday nights).  Not wanting to destroy her husband’s joy in the Sabbath, she waited to tell him about their son’s death until after the Sabbath, all the while acting as if there was nothing wrong.

I heard of a great scholar in my neighborhood whose wife died on Friday afternoon, and when the Sabbath came in he rejoiced, ate and drank and sang like usual, until the end of the Sabbath, at which time he sat down on a low stool and mourned bitterly.  This he did for the Shivah week, the week after her death, and the following Friday (for Shabbat is not counted in the seven days of Shivah) he got up from his stool, bathed and changed his clothes (part of the intense mourning of the Shivah week is that we don’t do these things), and rejoiced in the Shabbat when it came in.

There is a book put out by the Breslov brand of Hassidim called the “Garden of Emunah.” emunah meaning “faith.”  Since the Breslov sect’s founder, Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, taught (in the 17th century C.E.) that we must never despair, his followers often interpret that to mean “always be happy, never be sad, and depression is a depraved state of mind.”  This book, “The Garden of Emunah,” is filled with anecdotes about horrible things happening to children, and awful illnesses happening to mothers of 12, and the theme is that they all took it as a blessing from God that they got to suffer in these ways.

I am not that holy.

If that’s what it takes to get to….wherever…..it’s like, OK God, these humans are telling me that You don’t give me anything I can’t bear.

Um, let me let you in on a secret.

You made me, right?  And You made the shoulders that are supposed to bear my burden.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the part about how You have wide shoulders, and all I have to do is give my burdens over to You, let go and let God, etc., but let me tell You, Boss, how long to I have to throw myself on the ground and cry out to You before something gives?  Am I a cruel joke, that you’ve created me and now you play with me like a cat plays with a toy?

Elisha, Elisha, where are you?  They say that Elijah the Prophet can appear anytime, disguised as anyone, especially a beggar.  I am certainly a beggar, but I am no Elijah.

I climbed up the cliff path to his cave in Carmel, and I inserted myself into a niche in the deepest part of the cave, and I prayed, and I went into another world.  I lost track of time, and almost missed my ride.  Four years later, I received a healing from something physical, Hallelu-Yah.

I have given up praying for my mental illness to be taken away.  I think of King David and King Saul, both of whom were mentally ill until their deaths.  Saul lost his kingship because of a manic act of disobedience to God.  David’s cycles of elation and crashing depression are clearly written in the Psalms.  Samuel I also illustrates the craziness of both Saul and David, as elaborated in the link above.

So to all you bearers of Sweetness-And-Light, please enjoy your easy lives and don’t envy those whose burdens appear to be heavier than yours.  As a physically disabled friend of mine says, “You are all Temporarily Able-bodied.”

I would add, “You are all Temporarily Sane.”

Leave a comment

31 Comments

  1. Terri

     /  September 22, 2014

    That is just so great. You are a wonderful writer and I so relate to everything you post. It makes me feel not so terribly alone in this suffering. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. goldenbirdsonthewindowsill

     /  September 23, 2014

    I just have one thing to say here.
    Thank you, thank you for changing my perspective of life.

    Reply
  3. Beautifully written!

    I was born in a Muslim family and was a believer. I have asked more than my fair share of the question “why me”, I am a good person, I didn’t rape, pillage or steal what did I do to deserve this. I am often very confused when I meet people who are able to justify away their suffering as being some test or something. I wish I were able to do that.

    I tell everyone that I do not believe in god but I suspect that’s not entirely accurate since I often myself being angry at a higher power. It is better for me to not believe in him so that instead of seeking relief from a higher power, I take steps which are within my power to improve my life.

    I heard someone (I think it was Stephen Fry). He said, either god does not exist or he is of the Greek variety, vengeful, sadistic and capricious. It resonated with me.

    I would like to apologize in advance if this post is hurtful to some. I do not mean to be disrespectful of anyone’s belief. I may be wrong but this is how I feel.

    Reply
    • My blessed son (who is now a wonderful man, in spite of having had me for his mother!) told me yesterday, “You feel how you feel,” and I pass that blessing on to you. I don’t know if there is some dude running the world like a conductor runs a symphony. Sometimes when I look into Nature I feel that it could not possibly be random, one molecule bumping into another and eventually making a world. I like the Hindu way of looking at things (not the gazillions of gods and goddesses, although they have their usefulness too), but the “big picture,” which resonates with mystical Judaism and probably Sufism too, because although both would probably object to my saying this, I think they are pretty darn similar.

      If anyone objects to your expressing your feelings on how you feel about whether or not there is a deity, well, I guess that’s their own issues speaking to them and they will have to deal with that.

      As far as God being judgmental and cruel, that is one of the big sticking points for me in my religious quest. If one reads the Torah, or “Old Testament,” on a literal basis, one will come away terrified or disgusted, whichever applies to person and time. I have questions that I have asked many learned teachers and none of their answers has satisfied me. I have stopped asking myself to believe in anything in particular, and against the advice of many teachers I have elected to pick and choose what speaks to me, and to study the mystical texts which, although very thick and hard to understand, make much more sense to me. I know that the Sufi tradition also has much wisdom encoded in sacred texts. Maybe in my next life I will have time to learn Arabic and find a Sufi teacher, but I suspect I will be born into a context where Sanscrit is the holy language. I would not mind either one, as long as I could find a context where women are revered rather than despised, as I cannot put up with that, even in the context of Orthodox Judaism where one has to travel in certain circles to find communities that are woman-friendly. Oy vey, what a world we live in!

      Thanks for your amazing comment, and I look forward to reading your blog after the Jewish New Year which starts Wednesday night………

      Reply
  4. Another great blog Laura, and I really appreciate your “take it and leave me” attitude. Its too darned easy for someone to play the “grin and bear’ it, “I’m holier than you” game, but they really have no idea what is really going on with someone else. I was always taught that I should never criticise another until I had ‘walked a mile in their moccassins”. Ok — I’m full of cliche’s today, call it cliche Tuesday (sigh), but I think you get my drift.
    If they’re not going to try for understanding why read at all? I admire your spirit and wish you all the best – as I hope you know. I enjoy being your friend on WordPress and find your insights really helpful. You have helped me a great deal.
    Blessings
    Susan

    Reply
    • Thank you, Susan. I love your comments, which always give me food for thought. I think cliches get that way because they are codes for things that are really important, so they get packaged into these little phrases of wisdom for our edification, if we will pay attention.

      Sending much love and blessings,
      Laura

      Reply
  5. I find people are odd at times. .. Really? Someone would wish for bad days? Come ‘ on over to my house. I don’t have bad days too often, but I can make yours suck!
    Yes, I am only sane temporarily. You caught me on a good day!

    Reply
    • Uh….I think I would NOT want to get a sucky day from you, because you are a strong and powerful woman, and if you made someone a sucky day, it would REALLY suck so I think I’ll stay home.

      While I have you a bit captive, did I already ask you about the sad but interesting alternative pollinators that are not honey bees, that look like small bumble bees, kind of halfway between the size of a honey bee and an actual bumble? They are all over the place here. I’m glad they are pollinating away, but I don’t think they make honey, probably just make more of themselves. Interesting that another bee steps up to the pollination plate. Do you know what this bee is?

      I hope your day is a good one, sane or insane :-/

      Reply
      • Haha! You crack me up!! However, you are correct, if someone wanted a sucky day out of me, they surely would get it and never ask for another!!
        Wow, you totally have me on the bee thang. Although I did take a whopping 2 semesters of entomology, the classes were based on plant relationships, mostly in a bad way, like how to ID and rid plants of destructive pests. We didn’t focus on ‘nice’ bugs, maybe some that attack the bad ones, but not the really, really good ones like bees. I can tell you this: honey bees are the only ones that make honey. They are small and don’t have a ‘waist’. Most wasps have a skinny waist (don’t trust them skinny folk!! =-) Most bees are fuzzy also. Let’s see if I can post a photo… This link may help. http://www.indianahoney.org/images/390915_402227249826338_63126470_n.
        My best guess is you’re seeing Yellow Jackets. They are all over the place here.
        Sorry I couldn’t bee of more help. Couldn’t help myself there!! =-)

        Reply
        • Hah! Again. I worked in an apple orchard for three years. We had bee hives brought in in the blossom time. It was a good deal for everybody concerned: the bee guy got the honey, we got the trees pollinated, and the bees were happy bees. When I was working in the trees during bee-time, I learned how to be really still and positive inside, because bees are very sensitive to anger or fear pheromones and will swarm and attack if they perceive them. So I learned to just let the bees crawl over me, and I only got stung when one would land on me and I thought I had an itch and tried to scratch it! I saw this in action when we (the orchard) had a booth at the state fair, and the next booth was an apiary with a plexiglass hive so people could see what the bees did inside the hive. He let the bees out to forage in the daytime, and this lady walked by and saw the bees and freaked out because she was allergic to bees. They in turn felt her fear and swarmed her. The ambulance hauled her off, and everyone went back to what they were doing before. I have nasty white-faced hornets, but not many yellow jackets unless someone is eating watermelon! I also have beautiful blue wasps, and I saw a tarantula wasp hauling off a camo-green little tarantula in my driveway! I didn’t know there were such things in the Blue Ridge. Anyway, you’ve got me started on bees, and I don’t know when to shut up 🙂

          Reply
          • What a great experience to have interacted with the furry gals! Being positive, now that’s a concept! Who knew animal sense emotions? 😉 I can’t remember the last sting I’ve received. Maybe cuz flowers make me happy? 🐝🌻🌼

            Reply
  6. Brilliant. I am anything but a Pollyanna believer. I identify with Jacob wrestling with God. God can handle our wrestling. He may injure us. We may walk the rest of our lives with a limp. But I choose to wrestle with God, to know him intimately. He can handle my humanity, my anger, my sorrow, all of me. God demands honesty from us. Thank you for a theologically thought-provoking post. I appreciate it.

    Reply
    • Beautiful. I appreciate your comment. I relate very much to Jacob and the Angel, who might be God, might actually be an Angel (according to the Zohar), or might be Jacob’s higher self, because after that battle he received the name Israel. That name can be transposed to “Sar Eil.” Sar means “minister,” and Eil is one of the 72 Names of God in the Hebrew cosmology. I love your thought about wrestling with God and getting actually injured, and having to live with that injury for life. It resonates with me, although I had never thought about it that way. Thank you! And be well 🙂

      Reply
      • I debated whether to say God/angel or God. Since wrestling with God as a skeptical believer, I used that interpretation. Higher self is another interesting interpretation. It’s been years since I attended seminary, and I never finished, but I did study the Torah and started learning Hebrew. My inability to cope with the stress of life changes (two moves and my husband’s loss of a job) kept getting in the way of my studies. It was satisfying to study theology, though. Very intellectual, actually.

        Reply
        • Oh cool! A sister in Torah. Where did you learn in Sem?

          Reply
          • I actually attended a multi-denominational Christian seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller believes in studying Hebrew to study Judaic texts and Greek for the Christian bible. Unfortunately, as far as biblical studies are concerned, I only got as far as one Hebrew class and only studied the Pentateuch (granted, the 5 Books of Moses are essential). Fuller’s main campus is in Pasadena, CA, but I attended their satellite campus in Irvine, CA. I first enrolled after quitting work following hospitalization and partial hospitalization. At first I attended a Lutheran church and later a United Methodist church. I currently do not attend church, but identify with mystics. I both acknowledge that my manic and hypomanic ecstatic symptoms were biochemically driven and choose to still embrace them as divinely inspired (God’s call). I believe that God can, but does not necessarily, speak to us in illness as well as in health. The challenge is discerning what is God’s true call for us and what is irrational or delusional. Of course, belief in God could be argued as delusional, but if so, then much of humanity would then be deluded.

            Reply
            • Wow, Kitt, that is cool. I used to live right behind the Rochester Theological Seminary, and wished I had the resources to go there. To understand divine mania, one must look at the Prophets, including King David. There is also a book by Carolyn Myss called “Divine Madness,” highly recommended. She has recorded it, first on tape and now on CD, and she discusses her ideas at length, also highly recommended. Keep on keepin’on, dear friend.

              Reply
  7. Hi Laura, from today our nine days festival of female goddess start. Only past life sins answer my some questions when i see extremely good people suffering for unanswerable reasons. I somehow dont see God as revengeful, vindictive these are not even human qualities. Somehow philosophy of Brahmakumaris seem to answer many of my questions.

    Reply
    • Amazing! Starting tomorrow (actually tonight at sundown) our Ten Days of Awe begin. I realize that because of the way our lunar calendars work, things don’t always line up like this, but am certain, based on this and on an amazing teaching my Guru-ji gave me on the Gayatri Mantra, that we are the same. There is something in the Torah that proves that, but I have to move my bones and cook, so we will take that up at another time. Yes, I agree, that if humans were made in the Image of God, either people have a lot of explaining to do, or God has a lot of explaining to do! Happy Saraswati Puja, may you live a healthy, productive, lucrative, successful, productive, happy life full of good deeds and answers to your dreams, only for the good. Saraswati corresponds to a part of the Divine Feminine in our religion, and she is one of my favorites because she plays the Veena, which Doctor-ji prescribed for me as musical medicine! Be blessed!

      Reply
  8. Hi Laura, To be honest with you, I am not much into philosophy of Brahmakumaris . At times I believe death is the dooms day, how do we know what happens next. What do we know what is going to happen.

    I like Sister Shivani coz her talks are practical and they guide me to combat the difficulties in day to day life. I have personally got over some of my personal anguish. I only listen to her. The Rajyoga center that they teach is not even five minutes walking distance from my house but I have never gone coz i do not want to turn into a hardcore Brahmakumari infact anything hardcore. I openly read about other philosophies and believe that they too have their own importance.

    Reply
  9. The comment got posted half way. Apologies. This year I am not much enthusiastic towards Nav Durga festival coz in a way I am upset with the Goddesss ( it may sound foolish but that is the truth that she favoured someone else over me) I feel this is the best part about Hinduism that we can express what we feel and there is nothing blasphemous about it.

    This is the reason I understand some of your feelings though I can never never actually feel what you have gone through. That there are times we actually feel that we have been let down by God.

    Regarding the Brahmakumari sect, as I have said some of their philosophy makes lot of sense and some part of it is so absurd that no logical mind can accept it. I do not choose that part and choose what is convenient for me and more importantly what works for me. Should n’t be it like that? Should n’t the relation with the higher power on one to one basis.

    Let me know your views about it.

    Love
    Ashu

    Reply
    • Oops, is it the Nav Durga Festival? I thought it was Saraswati Puja. Oh well, I’m Jewish so I only know my own festivals! But having worked side by side with Hindus for a good portion of my life, you’d think I’d know. Yes, I have been angry at God for most of my life actually, and I feel kind of guilty when something good happens because I then have to acknowledge that God does bestow visible good. I am told by my teachers and by our mystical texts that even the apparent bad is actually good, that we are “burning off karma” so that something in the world not even necessarily obviously related to is is getting fixed. I do believe this is true, but that doesn’t make it any easier to be the agent of whatever change is assigned to us. I think if you’re going to be mad at a goddess, Durga can certainly accept your anger and use it for the good, but not necessarily in a revealed way. Not that I am so qualified to make statements about your goddess, but we have certain feminine entities that we do not call goddesses, but they are divine forces. In essence, it’s all the same truth, revealed by deep meditation. I was amazed when learning 3 hours a day with my Guru, how much the same our belief systems are. We just have different names for things and serve the Divine energies in different ways.

      Reply

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