Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
A beloved is diagnosed with a terminal disease. A young person takes their own life. A terrible car crash claims another victim. Why? Whether we ask that question out loud or keep it within, so many times we find ourselves asking that question. Even when, intellectually, we understand that there is no response to that question that will satisfy. Sometimes the question is addressed to the world and the universe in general. Sometimes to God. Sometimes accompanied with deep sadness. Sometimes with burning anger.
We tend to ask ‘why’ in the face of loss and tragedy. We are less likely to ask ‘why’ when life is going well, things are unfolding as we hoped or planned, and our loved ones are safe and healthy. But underlying the ‘why’ of a specific event or occurrence is a much bigger ‘why’ – the ‘Why are we here?’ What meaning is there in this? What am I living for, striving for, existing for, in the face of such precarious existence? The ‘why’ is also a searching to re-establish control when something interferes with the comfortable flow of life to remind us that we are never fully in control.
In recent weeks, as a rabbi, I’ve been asked to provide support for people facing some of the challenges and tragedies mentioned at the start of this piece. At the same time, I’ve been reading two books that offer profound insight and inspiration in the face of the heartache, loss, and challenge of living of a life. The first is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi had nearly completed his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford when he was diagnosed with Stage lV lung cancer at the age of 36. Despite the stubborn progression of his disease, Kalanithi was able to write, work, and delve into a number of profound issues before the end of his life. Faced with the certainty of death (something that, he points out, we are all faced with, but not with the kind of intensity that comes with knowing that one will not live a long life), Kalanithi reflects profoundly on what makes each day of life meaningful. The second book that I’ve been reading is Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Taking the sudden death of her husband as the moment that changed everything, Sheryl goes on a journey to process her grief and loss and, in the process, comes to understand how to live more fully.
All of us experience these moments in life. For some, the changes that they bring are more momentous than for others. But these moments are an integral part of the human condition. Where do we go to find the tools that can help us navigate the world at these moments, and continue to live a life of meaning?
Judaism, along with many spiritual wisdom traditions, offers a framework for considering a meaningful life and finding our way to live it. I’ve been reading these books with the High Holy Days, just over a month away, in mind. The ten days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur, are a gift of focused time to help us navigate the pages of our lives. They invite us to face the hard questions, to adjust our habits, to renew or rebuild relationships, and to reset our compass so that we start the New Year having chosen a direction that responds to the winds of change around us rather than simply being buffeted by them. The Hebrew month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah, will begin on August 23, 2017. It calls on us to begin the process of reflecting on the meaning of our lives, giving us the time we need to go deep and arrive at the New Year with a renewed sense of purpose. I highly commend ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ and ‘Option B’ as guides for the journey.