In the introduction to her incredibly moving and thought-provoking memoir “The Choice,” psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eva Eger makes a critical and powerful statement about the fallacy of comparing suffering between human beings. She describes a typical morning at her Southern California private practice, when she saw two patients back to back, both middle-aged mothers. The first patient spent most of the session in tears, overcome by the pain of her child’s harsh hemophilia diagnosis, which the doctors believed to be fatal. Dr. Eger’s next patient also spent most of the session crying, because her brand new Cadillac that was just delivered was the wrong shade of yellow. It is easy to scoff at the pain of the latter and notice our hearts clench at the suffering of the former, yet Dr. Eger recognized that “both women were responding to a situation they couldn’t control in which their expectations had been upended… both women deserved [her] compassion.”
Even more affectingly, Dr. Eger writes, “There is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another.” Dr. Eger’s approach to human suffering is rooted in the principles of validation, and the recognition that hardship and the pain of overcoming life’s challenges has almost nothing to do with the actual precipitating events, and everything to do with our reaction to them. We cannot compare suffering because every individual’s experience and the emotions with which he or she grapples are in essence universal, irrespective of what triggered them.
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah taps into this important psychological reality in discussing the laws of Tzedaka. The Pasuk (15:7-8) states, “im yihiyeh bicha evyon,” if there are poor people amongst you, “lo ti’ametz es livavcha, v’lo tikpotz es yadcha,” do not harden your heart and become indifferent or apathetic to his plight, and do not withhold from him. Rather, the Torah commands us, “Pasoach tiftach es yadcha lo,” open your hand to him, [and give him] “dai machsoro asher yechsar lo,” sufficient funds for whatever he is lacking.
Rashi notes that we would understand that we must give Tzedaka to the poor and provide for their needs without the words “asher yechsar lo,” which seem superfluous. What does it add to our understanding of this Mitzvah to be told that we must provide for the needs of the poor according to what they are lacking? Obviously when giving Tzedaka, we are providing the poor person with what he is lacking! If he was not lacking, he would not be poor, and we would be unlikely to give him Tzedaka!
Rashi explains that the added phrase, “asher yechsar lo,” according to what he is lacking, teaches us that the Mitzvah of Tzedaka is not just to provide for the poor person, but to provide for him in accordance with what he was used to having before he became poor. Rashi says this means “afilu sus lirkov alav v’eved larutz lifanav,” even a horse to ride on and a servant to go before him! Rav Wolbe explains that this Mitzvah of Tzedaka implies that we cannot judge or compare the neediness of any one person to determine whether he is worthy of our benevolence. Even if one might raise an eyebrow at the thought of equating lacking a horse (or car, or house) with the concept of poverty, charity is meant to be nonjudgmental, and this is why the warning not to harden one’s heart precedes this commandment.
It is only too easy to dismiss the plight of the wealthy when they lose funds or experience a blow to their finances that forces them to decrease or forgo entirely the material comforts with which they are used to living. Perhaps we might snort derisively and believe the wealthy person ought not to be helped, because after all, he is only adjusting to a lifestyle that so many others have been used to for years!
Yet, the Torah is asking us to employ the use of tools integral to interpersonal effectiveness. We are asked to imagine ourselves in the wealthy man’s shoes, to practice perspective taking, not comparison, and to apply some validation to his suffering. Charity does not only mean reaching into your pocket and handing someone money or making a donation online. Being charitable means making space for other peoples’ pain without demanding that it outweigh some invisible social measurement of “true” or “real” suffering.
Outside the realm of financial assistance, we often encounter the struggle to accept that someone else’s frustration, sadness, anxiety, or even excitement is real for them, despite our lack of understanding or ability to relate. Perhaps this happens for ourselves with our own pain; perhaps we struggle to validate that our feelings make sense in our current circumstances, because we are busy comparing ourselves to those whose life challenges appear significantly, “objectively” worse than ours. All too often, dismissing pain, whether our own or others’ does nothing to decrease its intensity. If anything, this only serves to make us feel even worse.
Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, there is also a distress tolerance skill in DBT that teaches the exact opposite of this idea. When we are so lost and overwhelmed by our emotions that we feel out of control and unable to regulate, it can sometimes be helpful to compare our own situation to other negative experiences we have had and overcome, or to horrible circumstances that have befallen others. This might help shift our perspective, and help us regulate enough to clear our vision and push forward; at the same time, however, the goal of this exercise is not to dismiss our own suffering, just to contextualize it and enable us to fortify ourselves enough to be able to accept help with our situation.
The Mitzvah of Tzedaka and Dr. Eger’s insights teach us that just because we can find a “bigger” problem in the world, or know of someone whose suffering appears monumentally greater than ours, this does not mean that our suffering is not real and that our experience is irrelevant. Pain and suffering must be understood in context, and growth and healing best occur when we are willing to accept that what we or others are feeling is real, regardless of where the pain originates.
This week, let us consider where we falter when it comes to making pain comparisons. Are we used to dismissing our own challenges, needs, or problems because they’re “not that big a deal,” or do we perhaps do this when others are struggling? Though this can be difficult, it is essential to be able to give to others - and ourselves - exactly what we are lacking, and to validate that any loss is real and impactful for the person experiencing it. Pain is pain; it is not a contest.