Beauty Without Pain

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 10, 2021 / 6 Tevet 5782

Summary: If you have ever watched very young children, you will note how fascinated they are by the most mundane features of existence. A muddy puddle, a bug, or a torn leaf are all equally absorbing. To be efficient, we adults tune out these objects. Normally, something unusual needs to occur to make us see what we readily noticed as toddlers. In this week’s Oasis Songs, I offer some reflections on how pain can reawaken us and provide a path to experience beauty much as a young child does.

Reading Time: Four and a half minutes

Nine days ago, we laid Itai Dewar to rest. In addition to being a skillful educator in our Aliyah and adult education programs, Itai was the synagogue shamash, which is to say he was our kehillah’s caretaker, opening and closing the building. His sudden loss has been a blow to many people in the community, myself included. During his funeral, those in attendance witnessed a remarkable sunset. The clouds looked like upside-down mounds of salt, stained pink, covering half the sky. We couldn’t help but notice, and noticing, we all were moved by the exceptional beauty of that day’s end.

Reflecting on that moment, I wondered “What captures our attention, and why do some things seem to absorb us more readily than others?” The truth is that beauty is all around us; if we want to feel moved and touched by it, we simply need to turn our attention to it. That said, most of the time we don’t let the beauty in. We are too busy or preoccupied with our thoughts and worries. Most of the time, we need to be primed to see how exquisite creation really is. Maybe we take a walk each evening, so that is our moment to encounter the beauty which surrounds us everywhere. At Itai’s funeral, our gathering of grief readied us for beauty; as a result, the image of that sunset has become an indelible memory.

It’s a strange gift that mortality offers us. Again and again, I have seen how the pain of loss opens us up to beauty, love, and profound depths of emotion. A midrash on this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) highlights this. After Benjamin is found with one of Pharaoh’s silver chalices in his saddlebag (placed there by Joseph as a test of his brothers), Joseph commands the brothers, who still don’t recognize him, that they must abandon Benjamin. At that moment, Judah steps forward and offers his own body in place of his youngest brother. Judah explains that their father, Jacob, who had already believed he had lost one son, would be inconsolable.

Of all the brothers, why is it Judah who makes this excruciatingly magnanimous offer? A midrash in Midrash Tanchuma provides some insight.

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah: Until now you had no sons, and did not experience the grief caused by sons, but since you tormented your father, and deceived him with the words “Joseph is without doubts torn to pieces,” by your life, you shall wed, bury your children, and suffer the grief that comes with children.” (Translation from Sefaria)

According to Rabbi Neil Loevinger, this midrash hints that Judah’s empathy for his father’s emotional state is learned from the crucible of personal loss. Before this, he was content to let his father imagine that Joseph was dead. After his own child dies, Judah’s eyes are opened.

There is no doubt that pain is a master teacher, precisely because it captures our attention. A hot stove can teach its lesson to young hands in a single instant.

Yet what if there were less painful and equally dependable ways to open ourselves to the beauty of existence? What if we could see the world as artists do, finding beauty in what others overlook? Wouldn’t that improve the quality of our lives, offering countless moments in a day to feel a sense of awe and joy?

I am currently engaged in a professional development cohort on positive intelligence. As the course progresses, I will share more about it because it’s already clear that some of the insights are useful for all of us. At this moment, part of the curriculum involves punctuating each day with numerous mindfulness exercises. Some focus on sound, others on touch, and still others on sight. As someone who once had an intensive meditation practice, most of my mindfulness background was centered on breath awareness. Meditation, at least as I once practiced it, was a major time commitment; unfortunately, I allowed it to slip from my life. These current practices are as short as two minutes and improve the tenor of my day. Within that short time frame, my mood shifts, and I am repeatedly made aware of how beautiful life is. All without any pain.

Over this next week, perhaps you’d like to put reminders in your phone to pause for two minutes every few hours and pay deep attention to an object in front of you. As you look deeply, you may notice that your mind drifts. When it does, gently return your attention to the object. The object doesn’t need to be beautiful in any conventional way. The act of paying attention to it is itself transformative and brings forward the beauty that is everywhere in this, God’s world.

If you take up this challenge, please let me know about your experience.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is your first memory of beauty? What was happening around you so that you remember this moment?
  2. Do you think the appreciation of beauty is important? How often do you make time to focus on beauty?
  3. Have you ever acquired a beautiful object, but over time, you no longer are moved by it? What accounts for that change? How might you refresh your eyes?
  4. For those of us who are unsighted, this exercise can be accomplished with any of our other senses. Please substitute another sense for vision.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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