A Conversation with God about 4 Funerals, Illness and an Earthquake in Haiti
What a pair of months February and March were last year; so much tragedy. A 13-year-old was killed crossing the street. A vibrant teenager – a student at our local New Community Jewish High School – was lost in a car accident. A 21-year-old rabbi’s son was struck down by a car while at college. A 42-year-old mother – our congregant – died in a snowboarding accident. A 49-year-old “pied piper” of a man – another congregant – dropped dead from a heart attack. Thousands of people came to the funerals.
I noticed that God attended each funeral, but amidst the many tear-filled eulogies, there wasn’t time for God to speak. So God sat quietly at the side – listening, crying. God left quietly after each funeral ended, and almost no one realized that God had been there. I did take notice. Wondering what God might have said had God been invited to deliver a eulogy, I dashed out after the Holy One. Still reeling from these funerals, I wondered if God could make sense of these senseless deaths. I asked if God had time to talk, and God was willing. We strolled through the cemetery, talking quietly.
Man: So God, what did you think of the funerals?
God: (in a still, small voice) Teenagers died. A young mom, gone before her time. A college freshman hit by a drunk driver. It is all very, very sad.
Man: Which was sad, God? The funerals or the deaths?
God: Both. Two fun-loving kids; so much potential, such bright futures ahead. A beautiful mother, whose vivaciousness was surpassed only by her charitableness. But the funerals were sad, too. The speakers, caught up in telling their own stories, understandably left out Mine. They missed awesome opportunities to speak about My love, My pain, and My hope for your future.
Man: You mean you don’t agree with what the rabbis said?
God: Look, one said Baruch dayan ha-emet, the traditional words of “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” suggesting that what happened was all part of a plan – My plan – while another suggested I took a boy’s life because he didn’t celebrate Shabbat that week. Some people, I suppose, find comfort in the idea that I have a master plan. Others find direction through religious rituals, which perhaps they believe help them beat the odds of life. If that brings them comfort, they can cherish those beliefs. But those ideas are built upon ancient words, misinterpreted to suggest things I didn’t say and I never meant. It’s neither who I am nor how I work. I don’t pre-plan untimely deaths and I don’t punish those who don’t keep the rituals. I am not responsible for those deaths.
Man: Wait, with all due respect, You created everything– spectacular sunsets, shooting stars and beautiful California coastline – But, you also created poisonous snakes and ferocious lions, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and deadly diseases. And, forgive me, but You are the One who created the humans who created the automobiles that led to the deaths of three people. Just where do you get off abdicating responsibility for any of this?
God: There you go again! Blaming Me for what you refuse to acknowledge, what you fail to see. Yes, I created it all, each with its own purpose. Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous. So I created lions. Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures. Bother them and look out!
Man: I don’t care about the lions? I’m talking about earthquakes and all those diseases –Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancerous tumors that ravaged my friend’s body!
God: I see how you might want to lay blame on Me for the creation of all of that because, yes, Creation was My idea and My doing. Call them the dreadful consequences of an imperfect Creation. Call it collateral damage of My desire to create humanity. Whatever you call it, know that natural disasters and unnatural disease were all unintended.
Man: How can you call these awful things, existing in the universe of Your creation, unintended?
God: Listen, each one pains Me. They weren’t in any plan. When I set out to create, I began with exactness and perfection. But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me. And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect. Your teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, articulated the story of creation well.
Man: You mean, the mystic from Tzfat, who taught the story of repairing the world, that we call Tikkun Olam?
God: Yes. First there was only Me. Everything was God. Ein Sof, Me without end. Then I contracted – tzimtzum – I pulled back to make space for Creation. I created the universe, as vessels, which at that moment were devoid of anything, including Me. Then I poured My light back into those vessels. But my light was too pure and too potent for the creation-that-was-not-Me. So it blew up – sh’virat ha-keilim – the vessel broke apart, sending shards of creation and sparks of My light all over the universe.
Broken world; bad things happen. The earthquakes and tsunamis. Cancer and heart attacks. Automobile accidents and incomprehensible tragedies on the slopes. All the result of a broken world, an imperfect world.
Man: So the imperfections were fundamentally a mistake. And as the Creator of All, they are Your mistake. But now I see that they were not Your Plan; rather they were an unintended consequence of Your desire to create our universe and us. Of Your aspiration to invest the universe-that-was-not-You with Your perfect light. Hmmm, it sounds like a beautiful experiment that sort of blew up. So how do you live with these tragedies, however unintended they may be?
God: I have tried to provide humanity with the ability to lessen their effect. Since earthquakes are unintended but inevitable, I make sure that everyone who buys a home (at least in California) has to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they will be living near an earthquake fault and that they understand the danger. If I were human, I probably wouldn’t live there. But, given the whole “free choice” component I built into Creation, everyone gets to decide how to live and where to live. So with free choice, you get the freedom to make your own dangerous and foolish decisions.
Man: So if we want free will, we can’t really expect You to step in to protect us. Then we’d just be Your puppets. We get to make the choices and we have to live with the consequences. We shouldn’t blame you then for the car crashes if we have seatbelts but don’t wear them, and know about air bags but don’t insist they be installed in all parts of our cars…
God: But even if you use all this safety equipment, people will still crash and die, or be left brain-dead. Because Creation is fundamentally broken, imperfect.
Man: What about all those diseases, causing children to die young and my friend to suffer so intensely?
God: Unintended but treatable. In a sense, they’re similar to the seatbelt dilemma. I give you humans big brains and teach you to understand science and medicine. Then you must decide whether you will focus your time and research dollars on curing diseases like Parkinson’s and MS, or if you will instead use your God-given resources to build sophisticated smart bombs and laser-guided missiles. Collectively, you humans have the ability to cure all these diseases. Do you also have the inclination to make it the priority?
Man: Are you saying that although you led us to the secrets of building earthquake-safe homes, we freely chose to allow thousands upon thousands of people in Haiti to continue to live in sub-par dangerous housing until it collapsed like a deck of cards when the earthquake hit?
God: Mmm. And don’t get Me started on Hurricane Katrina. The knowledge existed about how to build levees, which could withstand a Level 5 hurricane; I made sure of it. But as a country, you somehow squandered the knowledge and resources. You want to blame Me? You left the poor to fend for themselves! …It pains me to watch you abdicate your responsibility, as you fail to live up to your end of our human-Divine partnership. I cry for each life lost. I cry that you humans are suffering, and will suffer. I cry for the pain that I let into your life the day I decided to pull back and give you free will.
Man: Truthfully God, when I hurt, I don’t always feel that You are close. Where do You go when I’m in real pain?
God: That’s just it. I am still here. By your side. I’m holding you up and making sure you get through the day. Do you ever wonder how you find the strength to get out of bed the next morning? That’s Me. Do you see all those people who came over to your house, to hug and hold your loved ones, to take care of the arrangements so you could fall apart. That’s Me too. I’m making sure you keep getting phone calls and e-mails and all those beautiful memories posted to Facebook. My Friends are your Facebook Friends doing My sacred work. And when you rage at Me in anger, or withdraw from Me in pain, I’m still here, waiting patiently. Still loving. Still helping. It’s the holy work I do.
Man: Okay, but honestly, with the universe so filled with imperfection and bad things that continue to happen, do You regret that you created us in the first place?
God: I wanted to give you life. Like a parent, I brought you into this world so you could love and dream and bring joy to each other and to Me. And I gave you minds to think and hands to work and hearts to lead with compassion. Some of you forget and think you are invincible. Or think it’s only about you. And so you end up hurting yourself and often hurting others in the process. This pains Me.
Man: So God what is it that you want from us?
God: I want you to learn from each loss. Learn to buckle up, to visit the doctor more often, to play safely. Stop sweating the small stuff, and fighting and kvetching. And you should count your blessings more regularly. And to get good grades and do good work, so you can use your amazing minds to repair our world, to create great manifestations of our shared compassion and justice. And I want you to speak truth to power. And speak love to pain. Make sure everyone can be healthy. That everyone has enough. You should go give tzedakah. Go repair your broken relationships before it is too late. And invite Me into your lives by acting humbly, and living ethically, and caring for everyone, whether you know them or not.
And you must remember the teenagers, and the mother and the men. Live up to the best that they were. And comfort their mourners, today, next month and next year, because their pain will continue. And spend time with the ill ones, bringing them comfort amid their suffering. And remember and never forget, that I, the Eternal your God, am always here. Caring, loving, open to listen, to holding you, and to helping you through.
Man: Is there anything else we can do?
God: You can try to make quiet time to meditate and pray. Daily. I do. I pray that the memory of your loved ones – and the teens and the mom and the men and unnamed ones in Haiti and beyond – bring you blessing and joy. And that those who are ill have hope. May you comfort each other, and feel My love, too, and may you find fortitude and courage so that you may endure the inevitable dark times. Remember, there also will be plenty of joy. I love you. I wish for you wholeness and shalom.
That was my conversation with God. Open, honest, thought-provoking. You might find those answers comforting, or you might have different questions or seek different answers. I encourage each of you to approach God with your own questions. God always listens, and often responds back. And of course, you can always come talk with me, your rabbi. Although I am not God, I will gladly help you deepen your own relationship with the Holy One. I hope you will. Now wouldn’t that make this New Year truly a Shana Tova u’Metuka!