Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wrestling With God Till It Hurts

This will probably not be a fun post to read.  It may not even be coherent at all.  My heart and head are so full right now that it's all I can do to put my thoughts and feelings down coherently.  But I'll give it a shot…

My dear friends, Phyllis and Michael Sommer, have been helping their 8-year-old son Sam (aka "Superman Sam") fight a battle against a particularly aggressive form of leukemia (they nicknamed it "ninja leukemia").  Earlier this week, they learned that his cancer has relapsed, and that there is little that can be done.  Sam and his family have amassed a huge network of friends, and each of us undoubtedly wish that we could erase this hurt and eradicate cancer for good.  But ultimately, sadly, we cannot.

As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Sharff has written, as rabbis we deal with far too much death and illness.  Every case is tragic, and keeping our emotions in check while we support and counsel our friends and congregants often requires tremendous effort.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, himself no stranger to loss, writes in his seminal book on Jewish grieving, When Bad Things Happen to Good People that people who receive devastating diagnoses or suffer a sudden loss often go through a spiritual self-examination: perhaps there was something they did, or didn't do, that incurred God's wrath and brought this upon them or their loved one.

I am not implying that this is the approach hat the Sommer family is taking.  They are navigating their own way through this personal, painful journey.  But I can pretty much guarantee you that neither Phyllis, nor Michael, nor Sam, nor his siblings David, Yael, and Solly, nor anyone else in their network committed any sin or made any halachic error that gave Sam cancer.  Sam got cancer because Sam got cancer, as will be the case with an average of 36 children EVERY DAY this year.  This statistic is equal parts sad, frightening, and infuriating.  And, lacking an individual or cause to blame, we grasp for someplace to direct our anger and hurt.

We might ask what kind of God could allow this suffering?  If God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, does that mean that God knows about the suffering, is here to watch us suffer, and chooses not to intervene?

There's a story of the Talmudic sage Elisha ben Abuya, who became infamous because of his apostasy.  According to legend, he witnessed a boy honoring his parents AND shooing away a mother bird before  taking her eggs.  Both of these are mitzvot for which the Torah states, v'ha'arachta yamim, and your days shall be lengthened [if you fulfill them].  But as soon as Elisha remarks to his colleagues about the meritorious act of the boy, the boy falls out of the tree and is fatally injured.  Elisha cries out in anguish "leyt din v'leyt dayan- there is no justice and there is no Judge!"

There's a similar episode in The West Wing: President Jed Bartlet's longtime secretary Mrs. Landingham  buys the first new car of her life.  As she drives it off the lot, she is struck and killed by a drunk driver.  The president goes to the National Cathedral and launches into a rant against God.  Though presented in Catholic terms, the essential sentiments are the same as Elisha's. [Warning: TV-14 Language]

It's OK…God can take it.  Now, the God I believe in does not callously and capriciously visit such suffering upon us, but nevertheless accepts our cries and our anger and our venom. And ultimately, even if we were able to identify who or what to blame, it would not reverse the diagnosis.  It would not change the stark and frightening realities that all those who are battling cancer must face.

Jews are known as B'nei Yisrael, literally, "children of the one who wrestled with God."  This is the week that we read in the Torah of Jacob's wrestling match (Parashat VaYishlach).  But the wrestling does not end with our patriarch; we continue to struggle with God- to rant and scream, and cry.  But we also hold onto the hope that in the end, when we are hurting and yearning and searching, God will be there to soothe our aches and comfort our pain.  And, we pray, God will help us to redirect our pain and indignation toward renewed resolve to find a cure for this awful disease.  We pray that God will help us to set aside our differences and learn to embrace one another during this brief time that we have been granted upon this earth.  And we pray that God will send a loving embrace to Sam and his family, and to the families of all who struggle with this terrible illness.

There's another famous "crisis of faith" that we encounter in the Tanach.  It's experienced by the prophet Elijah in the book of Kings.  Elijah is in a somewhat thankless job; prophets weren't exactly the most popular people in his day.  All the prophets of Adonai have fled or been killed, and Elijah wonders whether all the effort is worth it.  God decides to show Elijah a display of the Divine glory.  So God places Elijah in the cleft of a rock and brings a variety of bombastic natural phenomena: whirlwind, earthquake, and fire.  After each of these, Elijah expects to "see" God, and after each he is disappointed.  But after all of the storms and noise have subsided, Elijah experiences God as a still, small voice.

Yes, we cry and scream and shout and curse.  But when that all is done, we seek ways to come together in community, and to fill even the still, small moments with love.

At the end of the wrestling match, Jacob says to his opponent, "I will not let you go until you bless me."  Sam has already blessed so many people.  Nonetheless, it seems far too soon to let go.

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