Families sometimes just have a bad run when it comes to health in the household. From December onwards, it seems like somebody has been sick at our house … but, in between, there were brief periods when most of us functioned OK. It’s been challenging.
Like many folks, I’m also signed up for an exercise class, but I have had to miss it a lot because of all these illnesses. I’m usually game for a long walk with the dog, but not a big fan of exercise – I do it because I should. We need regular exercise to strengthen and care for the body. However, when a kid is home sick, or I am, I have to skip that class, too. Exercising is, in the long run, good for me, but, in the short term, there are days when I just have to sit on the couch.
Figuring out how to care for our bodies is a balancing act. On the one hand, sometimes things hurt, but, on the other, there’s no one else inside each of our bodies, telling us what to do about it.
Some people have a high pain tolerance and, more, we’ve been taught to “walk it off,” “suck it up” or cope with what comes without complaining. Is this choice, to learn to cope with discomfort without complaint, a Jewish thing?
Some might say it is the opposite. If you read the Torah portions about the Exodus from Egypt, you get multiple examples of when the Israelites complained. They wanted meat. They wanted water. They wanted better food. In Numbers 20:5, it says, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
On more than one occasion, G-d does provide for the Israelites, but there’s also punishment. People get sick, or are bitten by serpents. Complaining isn’t rewarded. It might be natural for some to complain of their lot – even the most strong among us need to let out our frustrations after awhile. However, some of us were taught that complaining too much isn’t OK; that, unless you’re dying, you need to get on with things, and save the cries of pain and complaints for when something actually really matters.
Unfortunately, if you hold the pain in and don’t act like you’re dying, sometimes you don’t get taken care of promptly. In some cases, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Also, if you’re not a big complainer, people may forget that there might be anything wrong, though being stoic, understated and self-controlled can make life less complicated, too.
I’d like to say that folks remembered that some in our family weren’t 100% healthy, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes I felt a lot of pressure for us to be joiners and attempt something that I knew just wouldn’t work out – as I recovered from pneumonia, for instance. I’d have to say things like, “Well, we’re really not up to that, but thanks for inviting us.” I feel like maybe we’ve missed out, but good health is really important. It has to come first.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the body is a temple. We have to take care of it. We wish people “refuah shlemah,” or “complete healing.” We say “la bruit” (“to your health”) when someone sneezes. Midrash teaches us that we wish health to someone when they sneeze because, in the past, some saw sneezing as dangerous and deadly – the soul could leave through the nostrils. It’s a mitzvah (commandment) to do bikur cholim (visiting the sick), and many congregations have committees in place to make food and visit those who are unwell.
We have contradictions here. In our oldest stories, there are complainers and punishments for complaining. In our ritual traditions, we wish people health, help them get well, and have an obligation to take care of others and visit them. We’re also not to abandon those who are sick – when Miriam got sick, the Israelites waited for her to get well before traveling on. Yet, we’re also part of a 24/7, on-the-go culture. It’s hard to reconcile the need for good, old-fashioned rest with our modern lives, but both are necessary. When it hurts, it’s OK to say so, within reason, and to expect others to care and wish you better health.
Here’s a funny story of “it hurts.” While I was in labour with my twins, another expectant mother came in. She came with two people (family members? friends?) and made a lot of noise. It turned out that, when the people with her had to leave the room, she stopped making noise. It felt like we were listening to a performance! This lady felt that part of delivering the baby required making noise about it – and we all heard it, on cue.
It’s traditional to be supportive of someone in their time of discomfort – to support and help – but perhaps Hashem would prefer it if we saved the hysterical screaming for when it really hurts rather than just for when someone can hear us. Complaining for its own sake, it would seem, warrants punishment but, when it really hurts, we’re commanded to visit, bring food and help.
Sickness happens to the best of us, and it sure isn’t fair. But, there’s no point in making it worse for everyone by screaming louder than anyone else.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.