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Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

My struggle to find meaning in suffering.


I woke up with a sharp pain on the left side of my head. I looked around but did not recognize my surroundings. The only thing that was familiar was my mother who sat on a metal chair with her legs up on my bed. But even she was almost unrecognizable. Her face was lined with fear and sadness. Her chapped lips were shut tight, as if she were consciously trying not to cry out in her sleep.

“Mom?” I said, in confusion. "Where am I?”

Her eyes popped open and for a moment she too looked lost. “You mean you don’t remember?” she asked, clearly surprised.

“No. Where am I?”

She got up to adjust my blanket. “You are in the hospital, Cheryl. You were hit by a car.”

I had absolutely no recollection of being hit by a car or being taken to the hospital. The last thing I remembered about that day (was it even that day?) was sitting in my college cafeteria trying unsuccessfully to study for a test.

“Am I okay?” I asked nervously taking a quick survey of my body.

My mother breathed deeply and spoke slowly, as if each word might shield me from the next. “Cheryl, the skin was torn from a large portion of your leg and your kneecap was shattered.”

Physical therapy would strengthen my knee, but it wouldn’t get me through the next few months of questioning.

I looked down to my leg that was covered with the yellow hospital blanket and lifted the covering. The leg was wrapped in bandages protecting me from what lay beneath them.

“What’s going to happen?” I asked.

We are transferring you to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for surgery.

I was transferred and three and a half weeks later I received a skin graft. My knee cap was put back together with pins. I would emerge from the hospital with a disfigured leg and a very weak knee. Physical therapy would one day strengthen my knee, but it wouldn’t get me through the next few months of questioning.

I had suffered a severe concussion in addition to my other injuries. Later I would be grateful for those sharp headaches and temporary amnesia. It put off the larger religious issues that would eventually plague me. It was the wedding of a close friend that ultimately brought out the questions. My friends had gone off to dance with the bride leaving me at the table with my leg, encased in its fiberglass cast, resting on the chair next to mine. I sat there half listening to the energetic music, but mostly feeling completely and utterly alone. And then, at the height of my depression, I allowed myself to question. Why did God do this to me? Did I do something wrong?

I desperately needed some answers. Fortunately, as a philosophy major in college I had the tools with which to begin my excavation. I scrounged the writings of Saadya Gaon, Rambam, and others, gleaning a tremendous amount from their works, but something was still missing. I learned so much about faith and the philosophical problem of evil, and yet I was still so utterly alone. Everyone around me functioned as if nothing had happened…and yet something did. And my philosophers could not make the pain go away.

It took one particular Jewish thinker to make me understand why my search for answers left me feeling cold and empty. I needed to grasp the concept that no intellectual answer would ever suffice. It was acceptance that I needed to embrace, not intellectual satisfaction. And I needed to understand that these types of situations should be perceived as communications from God; not punishments. They are God’s way of trying to tell us something.

In his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, the 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes two different types of people -- the Man of Fate and the Man of Destiny. The Man of Fate responds to tragedy by questioning. He wonders how a God who is all good could cause evil. He comes up with solutions to his queries, but the philosophical solutions don’t address the real issue.

If we perceive suffering as a message from God, we can begin to ask the question: what can I do to respond?

The Man of Destiny responds very differently. He doesn’t ask, Why? He asks, What? He doesn’t ponder the philosophical ramifications of evil, which do nothing to further him as a person. Instead he asks: What can I do in face of this evil? How can I respond to it?

The Man of Destiny creates a life altering experience out of his suffering; while the Man of Fate sits on his brown leather couch and continues to ponder. If we perceive suffering as a message from God, we can begin to ask the question of the Man of Destiny: what can I do to respond? Only then can we redeem the tragedy; only then can we find meaning in suffering; and only then can we begin to sense the true hand of God.

So that’s what I did. I started to ask myself new questions: What can I do with this experience? How can I transform it into a positive force within myself and the world at large?

The answers to those questions were not simple. They required a deep understanding of myself and my relationship with God. The difference between this search and my former search however, was that this one brought me what I had really sought from the beginning: a deeper connection to God. Finally, I felt no longer alone.

December 12, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 26

(22) Scott, May 31, 2013 7:44 AM


My daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome. People keep talking as if that’s a bad thing. But they don’t know anything. You see the year before, after three miscarriages, we finally had a pregnancy that made it to the eighth month. We had the stroller were talking about the color of the nursery. We had a shower scheduled (We’re not superstitious.) And then on a Wednesday morning at a sonogram the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat. My wife had to deliver a dead child. And we had to bury her. It was terrible.
G*d put us in a community where the Rabbi and the Cantor were amazing. The chevra kadisha handled everything-we had no idea and were absolutely crazy with grief. Our neighbors, who were Jewish-but with which we really had no more than a hi and bye relationship-took the shovels from the cemetery workers and made sure they finished burying our child. One of my oldest friends came and stayed with us for a month and kept us from going crazy. Those were all miracles.
Three months later another pregnancy. And nine months later she was born. When the doctor handed me my daughter and I held her little hand I saw she had Downs. But I didn’t care. She lived. What a miracle. Isn’t G*d amazing? She had a heart thing that kept her in the hospital for a month and it was hard (we had just made aliyah and had no apartment as of yet) …but there she was breathing. She came home a day after I found an apartment. The heart thing has corrected itself and she’s rolling around on the floor at my feet right now.
When I think of the meaning of things in life, I think of gratitude. G*d didn’t kill my daughter. She died. He gave us support that helped us through it and then a beautiful baby daughter. G*d didn’t give her Downs. He gave her parents that are so grateful for her that we don’t even care about that. Maybe it’s a little simplistic for the deep thinkers of the world, but it works for me.

(21) Jenn, May 29, 2013 12:46 AM

Anonymous, you are soo right sometimes it's just so so painful, you can't philosophize, and your left with so many questions.

(20) Anonymous, May 28, 2013 11:45 PM

Great conclusion

Great conclusion, don´t ask the why of your suffering but the what, that completely changes the perspective. Thank you for remember me this important concept in Judaism. Best of luck!

(19) ruth housman, May 28, 2013 9:48 PM

asking the right question

most people don't, so the answers are slow in coming, if ever. I just visited The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at The MOS, in Boston. You have to ask if you are me, about the massive coincidences, recorded, about these discoveries & dates. Why now? There used to be massive sacrifice re offerings to God to bring us closer, a Hebrew word meaning closer is associated with this. It seems in life, given such suffering, we are all being sacrificed. The Isaac story? Job? So is this to bring us closer to a Divine Prime Mover? We need to ask deep, troubling questions to arrive at answers. Why This story when there could have been, so many others? As in our collective Jewish saga.

(18) Rebecca S, May 28, 2013 4:19 PM

Excruciating pain

I live with excruciating pain and have learned to accept that this is my reality. Now I'm focused on finding the best doctors to help me heal. I have a beautiful teenage son who I want to be fully present for. There are days when I feel like giving up.

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