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.