It's an age old question: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Thinkers and philosophers of every generation, as well as every person afflicted by the vicissitudes of existence, have struggled to find clarity on the subject.
Moses, the greatest prophet known to man, asked the Almighty, "Show me Your face," rendered as "Let me see up front why things happen as they do." God's response was, "No human being in this lifetime can see or apprehend the meaning of My ways." God did however show Moses His back, intimating that it is only hindsight that will provide meaning, coherence and perspective.
There are moments in everyone's life when we feel as though we are hovering over the abyss -- a vertigo of sorts - when the world seems to be moving uncontrollably, serving up waves of events that threaten to overwhelm and crush us. King David in the book of Psalms cries out to God and says, "When you hide Your face, I am thrown into this state of vertigo, of losing my bearings." Elsewhere he exclaims, "It is only when You shed Your light that we glean enlightenment, that our plight is illuminated."
PAIN AND DEFERMENT
I rushed to the hospital where my dear friend Debbie had just given birth to a Down's baby. Entering her room, I was greeted by what appeared to be a reaction of contradictions -- tears streaming down her cheeks, coupled with a big smile that illuminated her beautiful face.
"I never would have chosen or asked for this challenge," she admitted candidly, "but if God was looking for a kind, loving home for this little soul, He has found the right place."
Debbie's response to suddenly finding herself confronted by adversity captures the classic, courageous faith-based attitude. It admits to the pain and sorrow, and simultaneously acknowledges and defers to the will of the Almighty, the Omniscient, All Knowing Being whose unfathomable wisdom drives and orchestrates all the circumstances of our life.
Faith does not eliminate suffering, but it does provide a perspective of meaning and purpose.
Sir Bertrand Russel, philosopher and well-known agnostic, in a conversation with a cleric, asserted that he could not believe in a God in whose world a child cried out in pain. The cleric responded that as for him, he could not believe in a world in which a child cried out in pain and there was no God to justify it. Clearly, human beings pay their dues in life. Pain is the inevitable lot of the human condition. Faith does not eliminate suffering, but it does provide a perspective of meaning and purpose. It allows for the comforting knowledge that although the Almighty's ways are often inscrutable and beyond our comprehension, they are not arbitrary or capricious. They follow His plan for the ultimate destiny of human kind which takes into account past, present and future.
Only a Being, who is not circumscribed and limited in time, can see the whole picture. We all exist in a small slice of time, out of context, and we have access only to a tiny segment of the huge puzzle that will make sense only when all the pieces fall into place.
FINDING MEANING IN SUFFERING
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, was fond of relating the story of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for many years in the time of the Czar in Russia. Before beginning his incarceration, he pleaded with the guard to give him something constructive to do during his long solitary confinement behind bars. The guard pointed to a wheel on the wall of the starkly bare cell. He advised the poor fellow to keep turning the wheel, which, according to the guard, would activate an irrigation system that would bring trees and vegetation into bloom.
For 20 years the prisoner tirelessly turned the wheel, picturing in his mind magnificent gardens resulting from his hard work At long last, old and spent, he was set free. His first request was to be led to the gardens, the product of his many years of tirelessly turning the wheel. The guards laughed scornfully at his gullibility and informed him that the wheel he had been turning all those years was connected to nothing at all.
Upon hearing this terrible news, the prisoner instantly collapsed and died. Dungeons and confinement of many years did not destroy his spirit, but he could not survive the knowledge that all those years had served no purpose. Indeed, if suffering has no meaning, life is reduced to nothing more than a cruel joke, and hardly worth the effort required to make it through the day. As Nietzsche once said, "He who has a why can endure any how."
There are instances when events at the outset appear tragic or less than desirable, and down the road prove to be an impetus for growth and development, indeed a blessing in disguise.
Miriam, a young, beautiful woman struck in her prime by a debilitating and terminal illness, expressed gratitude at the conclusion of her long struggle. She shared that left to her own devices and her life in the fast lane prior to her illness, she had been marching headlong into oblivion. Jolted by the turn of events, she sobered up and was forced to dig deep into her being and find a path of constructive living and meaningful existence.
The Sfas Emes, a Chassidic commentator, explains the concept of God in search of man. He sees it expressed in the consequences suffered by Adam and Eve following their fateful mistake of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The apparent difficulty in the narrative is why the snake, which was responsible for luring man into the act, was simply condemned to a life of crawling on his belly and eating dust, whereas human destiny would thereafter be one of hard work and endless toil. "By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread," and "in pain shall you give birth" would be their fate. Is it fair that the perpetrator, the snake, should be set for life, since dust is ubiquitous while the descendants of Adam and Eve have to struggle in every aspect of existence, i.e. livelihood, raising children, etc.?
The Sfas Emes suggests that the snake did indeed suffer the ultimate punishment. He would eat the ever-present dust and thus his needs would forever be accounted for. He would never have to raise his head heavenward to ask God for anything. In effect, God rejected him and never wanted to hear from him again.
In contrast, Adam and Eve and their progeny would inevitably encounter the challenges of sustenance and parenting. Their struggles would ultimately motivate them to seek and importune the Almighty, Who longs for a loving relationship with each and every one of us. There is no worse fate than estrangement from God. Adversity can often be a powerful catalyst for connection.
Miriam understood that her illness, though painful and challenging, was an invitation, a wakeup call from her loving Creator. It forced her to stop, think and take stock of her life, run awry. It ultimately gave her the opportunity, after much soul searching, to forge a gratifying bond with the source of her being.
MY SON-IN-LAW'S ACCIDENT
My son-in-law, Rabbi Elimelech Eliezer ben Henna Fraydel, a Rosh Yeshiva (dean of an American academy), was in Israel, on his way to Tzfat to conduct a Shabbos of inspiration for his alumni. He was on a chartered bus with 60 of his rabbinical students when the driver fell asleep, crashed into a disabled army vehicle that was jutting out into the road, and was thrown through the windshield. He suffered a massive brain injury, and four months later is still unconscious. He is the father of 12 children.
My daughter, Baila, hadn't accompanied him on this trip because she was at the beginning of a pregnancy. Rabbi Elimelech Eliezer is a mentor to thousands. His yeshiva, bearing his unique imprint, is a model of learning and living every aspect of life with passion. He is an imposing six-foot-two figure, whose presence and brilliance brought a remarkable energy and joy wherever he went. "Gevaldig" (awesome), was his ready and consistent response to every inquiry about how things were going.
Ultimately he did not know where he was going when he left on his trip. No human being, no matter how great and powerful, can predict the circumstances of their life. God Alone knows and is in charge. What we can control, however, is our response to those events. Response-ability - the ability to choose our response -- is always our prerogative.
Victor Frankl, in his work on logotherapy, maintains that even in the concentration camps, where death was inevitable, there remained a choice of how one would die --whether with dignity and compassion for others, or railing against God and behaving inhumanely to others. Life presents us daily with many challenges and the measure of a person is in the responses we choose. Someone aptly observed that everyone's life is circumscribed in one way or another, in a prison of limitations. The challenge is do we focus on the bars that confine us or do we look through and beyond them?
TRANSFORMING THE GASHES
A king in ancient times owned a diamond of unparalled beauty. It was his most prized treasure. In times of celebration or when he hosted foreign dignitaries, he would proudly display it. On one of these occasions, as he lifted it out of the case, it fell to the ground and suffered an ugly gash that severely marred its extraordinary beauty. The heartbroken king announced that whoever would repair his valued possession would be granted any request. But should they undertake the task and fail, they would be summarily executed.
Artisans and craftsmen came from near and far, but upon viewing the extent of the damage, declined the attempt. Finally, a craftsman agreed to undertake the risky task. He was provided with a room and the requisite tools and after a long time emerged and presented the diamond to the king. The king gasped. The diamond still had the massive gash, but the artisan had turned it into a stem, around which he engraved petals that formed a magnificent flower. As striking as the diamond had been before, it was now manifold times more exquisite.
There are those among us who are capable of taking the 'gashes' of life and by drawing on inner resources, transforming them into strengths that make of them human beings of far greater depth, understanding and compassion than they could have been otherwise.
A cautionary note is in order. It must be noted that taking the high road does not mean that we deny the pain, or that we look at those afflicted and expect them, with self-righteous piety, to be stoic and to rise to the occasion. Our role is to do everything we can to mitigate the suffering and misfortune of others.
When another person is in crisis, it is not the appropriate time to preach faith. Rather one should alleviate the situation, by offering one's emotional, material and spiritual resources.
Some pointers for survival in times of crisis (God should spare us all) are in order.
- Beware of the 'why' question. I.e. Why did God do this to me? Why must I go through this? These questions often get us nowhere. Perhaps a more constructive approach is to change the 'why' question to a 'what' question. Given the circumstances, what is my role? What does God want me to do? What should be my response? What goals do I need to set for myself to both survive and make this a growth experience?
- 'Let go and let God' -- the basis of all 12-step programs. Relinquishing the illusion of control can be very liberating. The caveat, a psychologist noted, is that in many instances when people 'give it to God,' they have a set of expectations of how things should turn out. If they do not get met, they quickly cease trusting that Power's capacity and grab their personal steering wheel back. Their attitude seems to be "I'll give it to God, so long as God does things my way." Although "turning it over" may sound easy, it is actually a profound act of trust through which one relinquishes control to something unseen and, for many, uncertain. Sometimes, the result is not a convenient, painless or clear path toward problem resolution, but rather a proverbial long and winding road. 'Let go and let God' is a catchy phrase, but the real catch is that many of us simply don't have the faith and courage to take a leap into what feels like very thin psychological air.
- Faith is a learned response. It is not an innate conferral or revelation. One must work hard to develop a faith position. It is an inner discipline. The Hebrew word for faith is 'emunah', which shares a root with the root, 'emun', which means to train. The soul must train itself to achieve a meaningful response. This is done by surrounding oneself with people who model this faith, support groups, experiences, reading materials, tapes and appropriate guidance. Introspection and meditation can be very helpful.
- The power of prayer. Prayer and the recital of Psalms are powerful tools towards cultivating the most significant of all relationships -- our connection with God. Only that bond will give us the strength to navigate the trials and tribulations of life. Many Kabbalists and rabbis have intuited that my son-in-law's accident was orchestrated from Above in order to evoke worldwide prayers on his behalf. Precisely, they claim, because of his beloved and revered status in the hearts of so many, he was chosen to unite the prayers of Jews everywhere to our Father in heaven. Every person can begin where they find themselves, and build day-by-day and bit-by-bit.
The sages of the Talmud teach us that the verse in the book of Zachariah, "On that day the Almighty will be One and His Name will be One," refers to the time when all the puzzle pieces fall into place, and the Almighty's elucidating light will illuminate the darkness. Currently, in our times, we recite two separate blessings. When events occur that in our estimation are 'good', we recite, "Blessed are You, God, Who is good and does good." However, if the nature of the event is death or misfortune (Heaven forbid), we state, "Blessed are You, the just Judge."
In our world of illusion, this is the best we can do in the midst of pain, suffering, loss, bereavement and tragedy. But in the time to come, when we will be the beneficiaries of that ultimate clarity, there will be only one blessing for everything, thanking God for everything that is ultimately the 'good.' We will understand then why all things had to be as they were and as they are, and that all along they were ultimately for our good.
May that day come speedily in our time.
Please continue to pray for Elimelech Eliezer ben Henna Fraydel. Thank you