I know many people who talk as if their lives are dictated by divine forces beyond their control. Sometimes it comes out in the form of “You know rabbi, I believe that everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes it is as direct as believing that no matter what happens, “It’s God’s will.”
I know lots of people who find comfort in the idea that everything is fated to happen as part of some great divine plan. I hear it expressed often when faced with the death of loved ones, and especially when that death involves someone young and undeserving whose death is clearly a tragedy.
Our minds rebel against the seeming randomness of life – the innocent child killed by a drunk driver; the young parent cut down by a raging cancer; the teenager accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting from stray bullets not even meant for him.
Even the youngest of children know how to spontaneously cry, “It’s not fair” and rail at the seeming randomness and apparent injustice of life. Children want things to be fair and equal and in balance. And so do adults.
As I have spent the last weeks every day watching our close friend’s 31 year old daughter as she lies in her parent’s home dying from a rare cancer I have felt their need to cling to the hope that somehow, someway there is a divine plan into which this suffering and unspeakable horror fit. “I hate God,” my friend said last night. And I knew exactly what she meant.
“The world is a cruel, horrible, ugly, painful nightmare,” she told me. “Maybe someday I will understand why God wanted to take my child, maybe someday I will understand how this all fits into some cosmic plan, but right now it just hurts more than I could have possibly believed any pain could. And I just can’t believe God could be so cruel.”
My friend wants to believe that everything happens for a reason – something grander, larger, and more spiritually meaningful than the simple ugly reality that life is brief, that all bodies begin to decay and break down from birth, and that the minute we are born we begin the process of dying – some of us just get there much sooner than others.
It just isn’t enough for her to think about life as a cold, impersonal collection of neurons and protons and amino acids in the form of a human body. Life ought to be more. Life ought to mean more. And when your child is dying in front of your eyes, you really, really, really want something to hold on to that will help you make sense out of the insanity of it all.
In this week’s Torah portion it describes the famous cloud that hung over the Tabernacle in the wilderness. It was a cloud by day and a fire by night, and as long as it hovered over the people they stayed encamped in one place. The minute it moved, they moved with it. Whether it was one day, a month or a year, it was on the signal of the cloud by day as it lifted and moved on that the people simply followed.
The cloud was as divine sign of the fact that God and not they were in charge of their wanderings and their lives. The Torah says, “By the mouth of Adonai they made camp and by the mouth of Adonai they broke camp.” The story in the Torah makes it clear that their spiritual journey was not really in their hands, but the hands and mouth of God. I suspect that we all long for such an experience – the certainty that comes with hearing the voice of God, seeing that cloud by day and that fire by night.
I have thought a lot this week about how relieved my friends would be if they could only see the cloud of God leading them in the direction they were heading each day and the fire of God illuminating some spiritual truths for them each night. Everyone wants to believe that there is a meaning in life beyond the physical, that lives on when the body dies.
But I guess each of us has to search in our own unique ways to find our cloud and our fire. Perhaps it is as simple as the teaching in Proverbs – ner Adonai nishmat adam – “the soul of every human being is the light of God.”
For even as my friend’s precious daughter Erika lies dying, her light still glows brightly. Perhaps the purity and goodness of Erika’s sweet soul, the intense love she shared with her family, husband, and every friend who has been privileged to know her, and the light that has always been reflected in her brilliant smile will become that fire each night for her family. Then even in the midst of their unspeakable pain, the love they shared will be all the meaning there is to find. And perhaps in the end it will be enough.