Although Elana was a couple of years younger than I, spiritually, she was my senior. I first met her when she was 18 years old, working together on Aish HaTorah's Discovery program. Over the summer we became friends. Elana was incredibly sincere, deeply caring, very serious and real about life. A big smile would light up her face when she greeted you, and you knew she was genuinely happy to see you. She had a tendency to notice the best in people and point it out to them so that they felt great about themselves when they were around her. It was impossible for me not to like her, even though I sometimes felt a little intimidated by her sheer niceness. If I inadvertently said anything that sounded judgmental about someone, I remember her ever so gently and naturally changing the topic to more positive lines.
Eventually we both got married, and our respective husbands were good friends. We lived in the same neighborhood for a while, and then Elana moved with her husband, Shaul Rosenblatt, to England to start an outreach organization. She was a young wife and mother of a baby at the time, and we, her friends, marveled at her willingness to leave friends and family and go to a country where she knew nobody, without a word of hesitation. It was the right thing to do, she said, and they would be fine, just great, in fact. That was Elana.
How could this person, who was pure goodness and light, have cancer?
When I first heard Elana was ill, the news hit like a knife. Besides the gut-wrenching feeling that strikes when you hear bad news about a friend, I was overwhelmed with another thought: How could this person, who was pure goodness and light, have cancer? It just wasn't fair! I walked around for a while, angry at God, thinking of Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young." Cynicism reared its ugly head: What was the point of being so good and kind if this is what happens to you?
Throughout the months and years that followed, culminating in Elana's death in August 2001, three years after she was diagnosed with cancer, so many of us -- Elana's friends, acquaintances and even those who didn't know her at all -- underwent a change in our perceptions of suffering, of good and evil, of trust in God and our purpose in this world. This change happened slowly, as a result of articles and updates we received from Elana and her husband, Shaul, sharing with us their insights and how they were dealing with this painful challenge with which they were faced.
Shaul recently published a book entitled Finding Light in the Darkness: The Toughest Challenges and How to Grow from them, based on those articles and insights, describing his journey through pain, adversity, loss, and eventually hope and rebuilding. He writes that he and Elana realized at the outset that although they didn't have a choice whether or not to have cancer, they had a choice regarding their response to Elana's illness. They could choose to be miserable, angry, fearful and anxious, or they could put themselves completely in God's Hands, feel His love for them, grow closer to Him and be joyful and happy.
In his book, Shaul describes and defines, from a philosophical perspective, the understanding he and Elana reached regarding the question of "Why bad things happen to good people." (Their answer: they don't. "And bad things don't happen to bad people either. Bad things simply don't 'happen.' And I'm not playing with words. I'm merely using, as I'll explain, the most meaningful definitions available.")
Definitions of terms like "pain," "pleasure," "comfort," "suffering," and "bad" combined with his and Elana's strategies for dealing with adversity, such as seeing God's individual providence and supervision, prayer, trust and happiness, all create a compelling context within which to discuss the theological underpinnings of the Jewish view of suffering.
TRUST IN GOD
Shaul Rosenblatt discuses how integrating the seven elements of trust in God, discussed by the 10th century classic The Duties of the Heart, helped him personally during Elana's illness. A few ideas that I found particularly powerful:
"I thought: [God] knows the location of every cancer cell in her body. No rogue cell can slip by unnoticed and start growing on its own. He is fully cognizant and aware of all that is going on. He is in complete control and charge of every single cell of her body and takes no time off."
"I would think: He can change the whole situation around in a moment... My wife could jump out of bed tomorrow, free of cancer, as though nothing ever happened. Whether or not He will do so is another matter. But He certainly can do so."
"Taking the cancer away is nothing compared to making my heart constantly pump just enough oxygen to my brain for the last 35 years. And He did that without my even asking."
And yet, Elana died. How does he understand how after all the trust and prayers, she still died? Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Shaul says, helped him find an answer:
"I was asking God to heal my wife. And He did. But not in the way I was looking for."
"I was asking God to heal my wife. And He did. But not in the way I was looking for. The way He healed her was greater than anything I could have imagined. He healed her not physically, but spiritually, and I was and am envious of the spiritual health that she attained... While her body was as sick as a body can be, her soul was healthier than anyone's I have ever met. Even two days before her passing, she told me she wouldn't swap places with anyone.
"Why couldn't God heal her soul and body, both? ... I don't know why both were not possible. But I do know that God did heal her. And if for some reason there had to be a choice between spiritual and physical health, I know which she would have chosen."
This book lives up to its title; it is a powerful and wise guide in helping us find light in the darkness.
"We live in a world of pain -- there is absolutely nothing we can do to circumvent that reality. We can hide from pain, we can experience pain with or without dignity, or we can appreciate that pain is one of God's greatest and most versatile gifts to humanity. It allows us to make meaningful choices about how we want to live our lives. It offers us the opportunity of independence. It shakes us out of apathy and into reality. And it pushes us to achieve and accomplish in a way that we otherwise never would."
I view this as one of the best books on the topic of suffering. The interweaving of personal experience and growth with the philosophical information creates an extremely credible and stirring message for anyone who has either emotional or intellectual questions about this issue.