A father's struggle with faith amidst loss and pain.
At first, I thought he was a hallucination.
He was a big black man, maybe 6-foot-5. He looked both ancient and futuristic in his loose-fitting, pale blue hospital fatigues. That morning after the longest, sleepless night of my life, I could have been seeing anything. His size and the suddenness of his appearance, at first made me judge him as menacing. But soon it became clear that before me (or rather above me) stood a gentle man of sensitivity and simple depth.
My baby was lying in the hospital strapped-in and motionless, wired from head to toe.
I had been crying. My eyes were still red and teary from the marathon session of reciting Psalms and sobbing over my baby's bed, or should I say, his space capsule. He was lying there strapped-in and motionless, wired from head to toe. He was wearing only a see-through plastic loincloth where his diaper should have been. Most of the night, it was just he and I, spending a Shabbos night, his first on earth. He with his injured brain, and I with my broken heart.
So when I saw my visitor, I could only look up, yield, and prepare to accept whatever was to come. When he placed his giant hand on my shoulder I didn't flinch. I was too tired to care.
"The child's going to be fine," boomed a voice like a French horn. "Man, you just gotta have faith and he's gonna be just fine."
His reassuring message seemed to lift me up, for just a moment, into a warm place -- a place where light was permitted to shine again. I could only nod a wordless "thank you" as he moved down the hall with his cleaning cart, like a temple priest purifying the corridors from their terrible night, preparing them to accept the new sacrifices of the emerging day.
While I will always be grateful for his good intentions, the giant's prophetic-sounding words did not come to pass, and my son, Yisroel Nachman, was not to be fine. But for me, his brief life was my introduction into the world of faith.
FAITH IS LEARNED THE HARD WAY
Although I had imagined myself as a seeker of spirituality since having entered the yeshiva several years before, faith had been a topic that eluded me. I simply didn’t know what to do with it.
The rise and fall of Yisroel Nachman, z"l, changed all this.
I was soon to realize that the Torah's view of faith is quite different from the one I grew up with. The latter was expressed by my well-meaning hospital angel-janitor, as well as countless old Jimmy Stewart movies, i.e. "If you believe strongly enough, it will happen."
Although our thoughts can and do affect our perception of the physical world, this is not faith.
The Torah’s view of faith, called emunah, has an entirely different starting point.
Faith is accepting that God knows what is good for us better than we do.
God, the Higher Source of all Being, is in active and intimate contact with everyone and everything. His guidance is based upon His knowledge and loving desire to bring about that which is in our best interest, for our ultimate good. Our faith is that -- as Creator and Designer of all -- He knows what is good for us better than we do.
There were many times that I fought, at least inwardly, against this perception of faith, against the Torah that taught it, and against God. It seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to bring a person to the threshold of happiness -- the happiness I felt when I held my newborn son -- and then smash a person down only a few days later in such a shocking manner. As one relative put it at the time, "If that's what happens to you when you become religious, who needs it?"
Part of me wanted to agree. I had been pushed to a brink, placed at a crossroads where there was no standing still. My choice was clear: either claim my faith, or abandon it. I felt I understood a little better what is said about Holocaust survivors. They either came out with their faith strengthened or abandoned, but nobody came out from the camps the same as they went in.
FAITH IS A CHOICE
My choice was to either declare that life had a purpose, which the Torah describes, or it doesn't. The decision was painfully easy. I had seen too much in my life, too many miracles with my own eyes to ever be able to claim with any honesty that life was without purpose. I found myself stuck, as it were, with the conclusion that yes, life had a purpose. But I couldn't see a purpose for this comatose baby lying in front of me.
Wearily, reluctantly, I felt compelled to dig, claw and scrape to try to find meaning, despite the pain, or perhaps because of it.
Wearily, reluctantly, I felt compelled to dig, claw and scrape to try to find meaning despite the pain.
Ironically, one thing that gave me strength was another tragedy I had experienced seven years earlier -- my mother's untimely death after a long, painful struggle with cancer.
In retrospect, it had become crystal clear to me that the pain and confusion I had experienced then had directly resulted in my receiving a precious gift -- an inner awakening that had brought me to a more spiritual perception of life, and a lifestyle deeper and more real than I had ever known before.
I reasoned that this present suffering must also have hidden within it a gift. But what?
I tried to let my intuition guide me. I found myself drawn, for the first time, to the many teachings of the Torah that speak of emunah, of faith. I was drawn to the men and women who lived it. Words of emunah became a balm for my aching soul. Not an anesthetic that just covers up the wound, but a true and deep inner healing -- a kind of "faith-healing" that was beginning to make everything feel whole.
STRENGTH COMES WITH ACCEPTANCE
I discovered a sort of patient, bittersweet acceptance and even love of life, and an inner strength that comes with the realization that we don't control reality. We can only hope to respond in the most elevated manner possible to the challenge before us.
Slowly, slowly these feeling began to take root within me. People sensed it and would comment.
For example, there was the time when my wife and I were beside Yisrael Nachman's bed in the intensive care ward and a very prestigious neonatologist exclaimed, "I've never seen parents react to something like this in such a balanced way. How do you do it?" I found myself answering: "It's in God's hands, we don't know what's best."
Everything does work out for the best, and we are not left alone to wander in a random universe.
Everything does work out for the best, and we are not left alone to wander in a random universe. We are on a "guided tour," personally tailored to direct us to our spiritual perfection, to our ultimate good. For the Jew, faith means putting forth our best effort and then accepting whatever results occur. Everything is for the best even when we don't understand why. In the world to come, it will all be revealed to us.
Yet this faith is not easy to put into practice.
In his brief lifetime, Yisroel Nachman introduced me to this path and for this I owe him eternal gratitude. He taught me a lesson I'm still struggling to learn -- not only that in the end everything will be just fine, but that despite appearances to the contrary, everything is really fine right now.
Heaven on Earth.
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