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How suffering may transform our lives

More Beautiful than Before, Rabbi Steve Leder, Hay House, £13.99

    Steve Leder draws from his long rabbinate and his own life, warning that each one of us will face painful situations and that “we all walk through hell, the point is to not come out empty-handed”.

    With vignettes exploring how he has seen people deal with crises in their lives, some well and some not, Leder tries to make sense for us of what he sees. He is clear he is not glorifying suffering, nor trying to suggest that lessons learned through pain are worth the cost, but he notes that for most people, real change is generally the result of real pain.

    After a car accident that left him in agony, dependent on heavy medication and on the support of others, he had to learn quickly to accept help, to make peace with his physical limitations, to change his own behaviour. 

    Noting that “when you must endure, you can endure”, he focuses not on the suffering but on surviving, healing and growing that can come from any such traumatic experience. He believes that increasing compassion and kindness can flow from the disturbance to our ordinary lives.

    While he quotes many teachers, my favourite was Chris Abani: “The world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion”. He speaks of the help each of us needs to get out from our own personal prisons of pain and offers wisdom — don’t ask what you can do or say “call me if you need me”, the most important thing any human can do for another is to show up, to  be there with them. 

    The  Shema tells us: “These words… shall be on your heart”. Asking “Why are God’s commandments on our hearts?”, he answers, “One day our heart will break and the words will fall in and move us.” 

    Ordained in the same year as Leder, the lessons he articulates here are ones I, too, have come to understand. I, too, have seen how extraordinary ordinary living is, how we don’t notice the many things that go right for us, until we choose to do so. I have seen how people organise so that others will not have to go through the trauma they have, how in heart-breaking situations unexpected goodness shines through. This is an optimistic book and his lens a valuable tool as we go through our own inevitable traumas.   
     

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