I had just started my consulting assignment at Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood, California. By outward appearances it appeared that I had life firmly in hand. I pulled my British, racing green Jaguar through the fabled arch gates of the oldest movie studio in the world, found my temporary parking space (isn’t everything?) and walked to my new office. But my life was in turmoil and the Paramount lot was a fitting place to be – it was filled with faux edifices and shallow, ephemeral experiences with sets built in the morning and struck down by nightfall.
Ryan, a colleague, took me to lunch on my first day and the conversation turned to the obligatory “So what’s your story Mike?” I live by my late father’s fabled line, “I sleep well because I hide behind the truth” and I began to honestly summarize the vicissitudes of my life. I told Ryan that I was mad at God after going through what felt like a compound fracture. In the last 48 months I had lost my father (my hero), my mother, my beloved English setter, was ‘reorganized’ out of my senior position at another fabled studio after four dedicated years, lost my home in the housing crisis, and my wife – the love of my life – left me after 25 years. It was nothing short of soul-crushing.
Ryan looked at me with compassion in his eyes and said, “Gee, Mike – your life is like a walking Country western ballad.” You know the ones penned by Cash, Nelson or Jones, with lyrics like: my dog died today, my truck won’t start, and my gal just ran off with another cowboy – only it was my life here.
I began to doubt if God was in my corner.
I began to seriously doubt if God was in my corner. I felt I didn’t deserve this relentless onslaught of heartache, loss and pain. I had lived my life as a good Jew, a good husband, father, son, son-in-law and uncle. My trust in the Almighty was severely shaken and my belief in his unconditional love came into question. What did I do to deserve this? Didn’t God realize that I was endeavoring to live a meaningful life filled with performing mitzvahs, giving charity, bringing my daughters to the Torah, and trying to perform Tikkum Olam, doing my part to fix the world whenever I had the opportunity, however small and seemingly insignificant?
I was grappling with one of Judaism’s oldest conundrums: “Why did seemingly bad things happen to good people and the arrogant, evil person thrives?”
I needed answers. I needed someone I could relate to, who wouldn’t judge me. In fact, I was bolstered by the words of a friend, a newcomer to traditional Judaism, who said to me, “It doesn’t matter what rung of the Jewish learning ladder you’re on, it only matters that you’re on the ladder.”
I was raised as a Conservative Jew. We raised our children mostly in a Reform temple. But I needed some high octane fuel at this intersection in my life.
I had a light bulb moment. I remembered Marc, a friend of a dear friend of mine who used to hang out at the beach with us and listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash. He had become a religious Jew, strictly observant. This is what I needed. Some guidance and inspiration from a peer, and someone I could relate to (and who understood that Neil Young added a layer of nuance and complexity to the trio).
I called Marc after many years, gave him a short de-briefing, and asked if we could meet to get his perspective. “Let’s meet at Coffee Bean, it’s kosher.”
And thus began my deeper dive into Torah.
Intellectually I believed in God, but I didn’t genuinely trust Him.
I began to learn more about Judaism, inside the texts, and I began to pray more deeply. I delved into the concept of Bitachon – unshakable faith in God, even in the face of adversity. I discovered that I had succeeded in attaining Emunah – an intellectual understanding that God exists, but the crucial element was getting Bitachon – genuine trust in God. Even Moses struggled with Bitachon, so I felt I was in good company. I needed to struggle to see the blessing in the hardships.
God wanted my attention – and I learned He has His ways of getting our attention. I now feel that I have become closer to God than ever before. And that everything that happens, even the seemingly soul-crushing experiences in life, are for the ultimate good: To get closer to God and to know that He loves us more than we can ever possibly imagine.
I previously thought that if God really cared about me, my life would be stress-free, without challenges; certainly not filled with relentlessly numbing personal and professional loss.
When I reflect on all that transpired, I can now see that God actually had my back in myriad ways throughout the struggle. He brought me even closer to my cherished daughters who taught me the power of unconditional love and loyalty. My hardships crystalized for me the meaning of genuine friendship and illuminated for me the difference between the "wheat and the chaff," what is really important in my life.
It gave me, in a word, clarity. The clarity to recognize the difference between those who are there for you when the proverbial chips are down, and the ones who are only there when you're good company. I learned who my friends really were and witnessed the beauty in people (some brand new to my life as a suddenly single man) who reminded me that compassion can come from corners you didn’t even know existed.
I also learned that in life's harshest moments the opportunity for expanded self-awareness and personal growth is exponential. I felt as if I took my soul in for service and got it re-calibrated.
But perhaps the most important benefit that came out of this struggle was a firm renewal of my personal covenant with God, which had become something I took for granted. I became more diligent in my Sabbath observation, my Torah study, and my level of gratitude. And with more Torah study comes more wisdom and more spiritual growth. And with more selflessness comes a deeper contentment and a richer understanding of life.
Now that the tsunami waves have subsided and I can finally pick the seaweed out of my ears and the rub the saltwater from my eyes (in more ways than one), I can see that God has my back. He certainly has my attention. What I thought was a God who was ignoring me was in reality a God who wasn’t going to stop until He got my attention, just like a good father who loves his child more than anyone and will stop at nothing to get his point across.
My late father used to say, “Son, kites can’t fly very high without a heavy head wind.” I am flying a bit higher these days.