This article appeared in the June 2013 Shofar newsletter of
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation
If our Humanism and our Judaism are meaningful to us, they should help us
through difficult times. After all, it’s easy to believe that you are in charge of your
life or that your cultural inheritance has given you emotional and intellectual tools
to succeed when life is going well. But health challenges, death, pain, trauma make us ask if what we are doing is working, or even worth it when the rubber hits the road.
In my own family, we have had a very challenging few months. Between my father’s surgery, my half-brother’s sudden death, and our own household health issues, I have been reflecting on how my Humanistic Judaism can provide perspective, insight, even comfort. One can imagine the comforts of imagining a future life or the power of supernatural intervention, even as placebos or anesthetic to mask our pain and
anxiety. What comfort can I derive from facing the reality of the natural world and human mortality?
You see, it’s not only about problem solving. Yes, science and reason and human experience are much more reliable to address disease and illness than faithful prayer or traditional rituals; anyone for a good bleeding to balance the bodily humors? But
facing sudden tragedy or ongoing illness is not just a question of making sure the paperwork is in order or that steps are being taken to fix the problem. We need emotional support as well, both for improved outcomes and for our peace of mind while working through the problem. Especially if the problem is not just a quick fix but rather a new, more difficult reality to which we must adjust.
Getting perspective on the problems can help our emotional state, as can redirecting our energies and time to what is truly most important. Learning from the experience to do better next time or to be more present with our surviving family can also provide a kind of restorative comforting; it doesn’t fix the tragic loss, but it helps us to feel that we are making something good result from something sad.
And Judaism? Perhaps the Jewish tendency to complain is an example of Jewish skepticism: if everything was truly believed to be a gift of divine providence, why so much kvetching [complaining] unless there really were theological doubts? It can be comforting to know that we are not alone in our questioning within our own family tradition, even before Woody Allen quipped, “if it turns out that there is a God… he’s an underachiever.”
Most important, we find comfort from being with other people. The writers of Genesis reminded us that “it is not good for humanity to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Shiva visits and family time around a death do not change the reality of loss, but they do provide a wider, loving context for working through our grief. Even when one doesn’t talk, comfort can be found: “the merit of visiting a mourner’s house is in the silence.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b) Sharing loss and challenges with one’s community, family and friends is one more way of using human power to improve human life.
We cannot do everything, and we cannot change reality. But we can face reality with courage and compassion.