Grief & Theology

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written; On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live, and who shall die. Who shall see ripe old age, and who will not…”

As a child, this passage frightened me. And if I’m being honest, I have to admit that it still does.

I find it to be pretty horrifying actually – sitting in a room full of people, reading these words and wondering: Who will it be this year? Will it be me?

When I was young, my parents could reassure me. “It most likely won’t be you, Emma, or anyone you know. Mostly it will be people who have lived long lives, or people who have done something really bad.”

That’s what we tell children.

But as we age, every year, death becomes more and more a part of life.

As we get older, we experience more tragedies,  more loss; those we know, those who are close to us, those we have loved.

When I was little, the only people I knew who died were old people. But in high school, and in college, I began to lose friends from youth group to traffic accidents, and to suicide.

The first person I knew who was my age, and who died was Eric Barr. We were camp and youth group friends, and he died suddenly, in a car crash, during my first year of college.

I was shaken by the idea that someone my age could die. And on the Rosh Hashanah after his death, I heard the liturgy with new ears: On Rosh Hashanah it is written; On Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Did he know? I wondered. When he read these same lines a year ago, did he feel a shadow? Did he have goosebumps? Did he know?

I wonder that every year now, when I think of the people I have lost in the year preceding. My friends, my grandparents, my teachers … Did they know?

As a kid, I wasn’t very popular. I was bullied by my classmates through most of elementary school, which meant that I spent a lot of time alone.

Looking back on it now, I know that in a lot of ways, that difficult experience made me a stronger person. One of those ways, was that I developed a strong relationship with God early on in life. Coming from a religious household, with a rabbi for a father, and daily involvement with the Jewish community, it was natural for me to seek out God during these too-often moments of loneliness.

In those days, God was sort of like an imaginary friend – someone I could talk to, share my pain & suffering with; someone who was always there, making the alone times, well, less lonely.

Even though this early stage of my relationship with God was somewhat juvenile, feeling that God was always present, that God cared, and that God was directly involved in my life, profoundly impact the person I became.

As a rabbinical student, it was no surprise that I chose a theological focus for my thesis, and studied the development of Judaism’s theology of the afterlife. In my research I discovered that although the early Israelites had very little in the way of eschatological theology – that’s fancy speak for the branch of theology dealing with death and what happens after we die – the experience of suffering, oppression and exile, experienced by the Judeans in the beginning of the common era, led them to develop a more concrete belief in the afterlife.

Because they were experiencing the unfairness of life, and finding it difficult to justify the horrific events that they were witnessing, the rabbis of that age began to invasion God’s justice, love and mercy – which they were having a difficult time seeing played out in this life, as being something that would be experienced  in the next life.

In a simple sense, the wrongs they were being subjected to today would be set right tomorrow, and even though at the time, evil people reigned in glory while the innocent were harmed, God would ultimately punish the wicked and reward those who lived righteously.

This is the theology that is woven into so much of our High Holiday liturgy: If you live righteously you will be rewarded, in this life or the next. If you do not, you will be punished, in this life or the next.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written; On Yom Kippur it is sealed.

This type of theological evolution though – where beliefs develop out of a human need to explain the imbalances and injustices of our lived experience is in no way unique to the Jewish people. Nor is it something that only religious leaders can formulate and pass on.

As a child, my personal theology developed in much the same way. Since I couldn’t understand the injustices that I was being subjected to by other kids, and the unfairness of my social standing, I needed to attach a reason to my suffering, in order to make it bare-able. And so at some point in those early years, I chose to believe that everything happens for a reason – and that every experience – be it good or bad – comes to teach us something.

I got through those painful years because I clung to the idea that every cloud has a silver lining, and that there was always a lesson to be learned.

If God, my invisible BFF,  wasn’t stepping in to change my fate, it must be because the lesson was valuable enough to justify the pain of the moment. Sometimes I found it easy to imagine what the lesson might be. Other times, it was enough to think that I might eventually understand, even if meaning alluded me in the moment.

The final piece of my personal theology came one summer in high school, when Cantor Ellen Dreskin, one of my teachers and mentors, taught me about God’s gift of free-will to humanity. Cantor Dreskin taught me about the belief that the first thing God gave to humanity was free will, and that because Jews believe that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, it’s impossible for God to contradict Godself. Therefore, God’s giving us freewill, means that God can’t interfere when we use our will to make choices that hurt ourselves or others.

This is the theory that many people use to explain why people hurt one another, and why God doesn’t intervene even when millions of people are being affected.

Even though God doesn’t directly intervene to prevent people from doing bad things to one another, God’s involvement comes through the teachings God has revealed to us, so that we can be guided by them to use our will for good rather than evil.

Thee ideas made a lot of sense to me at the time, and so my personal theology was complete. My theology – a personal, involved, caring God; a universe structured around reason and meaning – carried me through childhood and adolescence, and well into the beginning of my adult life. It wasn’t the only factor that led me on my rabbinic path, but a close and unbreakable – I thought – relationship with God, certainly helped me along the way.

And then I met Toren, and we fell in love, and it seemed as if my happy ending was just around the corner. But just as Toren and I were hitting the peak of the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship – where everything was sunshine and roses – and we were begin to talk about a future together, it all came crashing down around us.

One minute everything was fine – perfect, actually – and the next minute Toren was having a seizure from which he would never really recover. A rare epileptic disorder took the doctors almost a year to properly diagnose and begin to treat. During that year, Toren had several seizures, each one doing more and more damage to his brain. Although we tried to make it work, his condition made a romantic relationship impossible, and 9 months after his first seizure, we parted ways.

During those 9 months, especially in the beginning, I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t speak to God – and had difficulty finding comfort in prayer, which had always been easy for me, and which had always lead me to feelings of reassurance. Suddenly, my carefully crafted theology wasn’t holding up. How could there be a silver lining to something so random and unfair? What lesson could possibly be worth the price being paid?

Nothing I could learn would justify the cost to Toren and to myself; the end of his independence;  the end of any hope for the future we had envisioned and looked forward to. My previous rationalisations were no longer rational.  It simply didn’t make sense.

And so I got mad. I got very, very mad. I felt I had been betrayed by God, my invisible best friend. I couldn’t believe that God would intentionally subject us to such unjust tragedy, but I also couldn’t imagine God not being there at all. A world without God was not a world I could rationalise either. And so I was left with a God I no longer understood, and found it increasingly difficult to love.

For many months, I existed in a sort of spiritual Switzerland. I wouldn’t pray to God, but I wouldn’t deny God’s existence either. I felt a kinship with the biblical character of Job as I railed against God – hurling powerful words of anger, demanding an explanation, even though I didn’t believe in a God who would answer directly, and even though the answer that God gives Job in the bible didn’t help me one bit.

At the time, I was in rabbinical school, two years away from ordination, and I knew that if I didn’t want to start my life all over again, I was going to have to find some way back to God. I knew that my relationship with God would never be the same, but I also knew that no relationship with God was, for me, an impossibility.

Also, not everything about my personal theology had been changed. I still believed in the doctrine of free will, and meaning could still be found in many experiences – even bad ones. The problem was those experiences that were too horrible to be justifiable. It was a spiritual paradox: I believed in God, and I believed that God cared about me. I believed that God was all powerful, but for some reason, didn’t act to prevent meaningless things from happening. I needed to figure out a way to reconcile myself to the realisation of meaningless suffering, but I also wanted to be able to hold onto the parts of my personal theology that were still intact. I needed to find a way to understand how a loving and involved God could allow for meaninglessness in an otherwise carefully structured universe.

I could understand why God didn’t intervene when we misused our free will, but I couldn’t explain how anything could make what happened to Toren understandable, justifiable, or meaningful. If there wasn’t a reason for something, why would God allow it?

I was stuck in an endless loop of questioning, and often I would just throw up my hands and walk away from it for days or even weeks at a time. Because I’m a rational thinker, and a pursuer of knowledge and understanding, I knew that I would have to think and study my way back to God, and because I loved my Judaism, even though I didn’t, at the time, love my God, I knew that I had to work within my Jewish tradition, to find the answers I was seeking.

Lucky for me, Judaism’s teachings are vast and varied, and have developed over a long history of human struggle. Although mainstream Jewish theology was failing me, I eventually found the answers I was seeking in Judaism’s mystical teachings.

The Kabbalistic tradition’s explanation of creation, provided me with a new way to think about God and God’s relationship with humanity. The Kabbalists taught that in the beginning, there was only God, so when the time came for God to create the universe, God had to make space for us. To do so, God retracted or withdrew into Godself, to make room in which to create the world. The Kabbalists call this act of retraction, tzimtzum, and explain that in having done so, some of God’s power was lessened.

Because there now existed the concept of a space where God is not, the Kabbalists viewed our world as being filled with cracks of imperfection, and that is how they explained the evils of our world. To me, this idea was similar to the doctrine of free will. God sacrificed a part of God’s power to allow us to exist, just as God withholds from interfering to allow us the gift of free will. God’s love for us, in a sense, is actually the very reason that bad things happen. It’s the price God paid to create us, and it’s the price we pay to exist.

When I came across this teaching, I began to feel like I was on a path back to a relationship with God and an ability to be reconciled with the reality of my lived experience. But something was still missing. In the doctrine of free-will, God gives us Torah – the teachings of God’s will – in order to compensate for the inevitability that we will misuse our own freewill. So the question I now faced was: what did God give us to compensate for fact of randomness and meaninglessness in our world?

But before I even fully formulated the question in my mind, I knew the answer. In the months and years following Toren’s seizures and the end of our relationship, when I found that I was not comforted by prayer, I discovered comfort somewhere else – in my family and friends, who surrounded me with love and support in that dark and painful time. The people who loved me became, in a sense, my church. They did for me the things I could not do for myself: when I was so mired in grief that I couldn’t function, they functioned for me – feeding me, transporting me, making sure I had clean clothes to wear… but also, they stayed positive when I could only feel loss, anger, and sorrow, they believed when I couldn’t believe, and they hoped when I couldn’t hope.

Anyone who is blessed with such people in their lives knows that what God gave us to compensate for the evils in our world, is each other.

Although this was, for me, a profound realisation, it is in no way a new idea. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, taught that God could be found in the moments of connection between I and Thou. Before him, other great teachers and founders of other religions, preached the values of love and connectivity.

My theology, developed out of grief and loss, and a determined struggle for understanding, is in no way particularistic to me, or to Judaism. I am one person, and this is my story, but our world is filled with billions of stories of loss and grief, and billions of stories of determination and struggle. In all likelihood, many of those stories end differently than mine. With different processes and different understandings.

And truthfully, I don’t think it really matters what terminology you use, what prophet you follow, or even what conclusions you ultimately draw. I think the important thing is to struggle, to demand answers, to seek out the truth that works for you, and that allows you to reconcile yourself to your own lived experience in a way that inspires you to self-betterment, and to acts of goodness.

I, personally, am inspired by the sacrifices God made for us to exist and be free, and I am inspired by the love and support of my family and friends.

My prayer for each of you this year is that you will find what inspires you, that you will hold on to it with every bit of your strength, and that it will carry you through the dark times that inevitably come upon us all.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written; On Yom Kippur it is sealed.

We may feel the shadow of tragedy hanging over us. Or we may be completely unaware of what’s to come. We hope it’s not us; That no one in this room will suffer loss this year; But if we have one another; If we hold on to what inspires and motivates us toward good; then we will weather whatever’s ahead with grace, and understanding and strength.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.


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