A 2012 study by a Polish university asked marathon runners several months after a race to recall the pain they had experienced when actually running the race. On average, the level of pain they reported after the race dropped by about 40%, regardless of how long after the race they were polled.
Similar studies have been conducted about the pain during childbirth. It’s common for the memory of the labor pain itself to fade over time. I even experienced this with my C-section. The pain of trying to regain mobility after the surgery was excruciating and I thought I’d never get over that feeling, yet now it seems like a distant memory.
Our brains provide what seems like a coping mechanism, allowing us to move on. For those painful moments that are simply a part of life (childbirth, cutting teeth, accidental injuries) as the wounds heal, the brain heals too, and the memory of the pain fades soon after the pain itself. However, what happens when the pain is something we should remember? What about the instances in which the pain is an important part of the journey or the lesson?
This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion in the second book of the Torah. The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt working for Pharaoh and are having decrees levied on them daily that control all aspects of their lives. Moshe rises as the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and his people. God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and manipulate Pharaoh’s heart as a method of persuasion.
Chapter 8, verse 28 of this week’s parshah is a turning point for Pharaoh and his enslavement of the Jewish people. “And the Lord did as Moses asked: He removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his courtiers and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.” We discover God is no longer the force that is hardening Pharaoh’s heart; rather, Pharaoh becomes stubborn on his own.
How quickly Pharaoh forgets the pain of the previous plague. When he and his people were suffering, we imagine he could empathize with the Israelites and their daily suffering. But when his own suffering was eased, the memory was quickly lost and his compassion was gone. Pharaoh learned nothing from the plagues because he (with some manipulation by God) couldn’t recall the pain in the moment.
Memory is fleeting. This can be helpful when it comes to alleviating some of the pains associated with human existence, but in certain cases it’s the memory of pain that actually helps us move forward. To this day our celebration of Pesach includes symbols like matzah and maror to remind us of bitter hardship. As Jews, part of our tradition is the recollection of pain as a way to pass on the experiences of our people so that we may continually learn and grow.