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Navigating the Stormy Seas of Faith

February 3, 2019 | by Joseph Bornstein

The death of my beloved 3-year-old neighbor challenged my faith in God.

Avraham Moshe Coleman, the three-year-old son of our neighbors, was the first child that I ever loved. I relished our times laughing and playing together. He loved my silly faces and voices, and we’d sing and laugh together. He was an unusually precocious, loving child and we forged a deep bond.

When I was told that Avraham Moshe was diagnosed with cancer, I went through a few weeks of serious turmoil. I have always found Judaism’s framework regarding life’s profound challenges to be helpful but they never really penetrated my heart. I found it hard to accept that Avraham Moshe’s illness could be delivered by God’s hand. Avraham Moshe was simply so pure and good, I could barely fathom accepting this as God’s will.

The most helpful advice I received was from Rabbi Noson Weisz. He told me that it was okay to feel in turmoil and that at this stage it was not possible to feel be whole about the situation. He said that God was asking me to hold the complexity. To hold my upset, anger and pain, and to hold my faith and trust in God. Life is not a cookie cutter model. Sometimes we are at odds with ourselves and the challenge is to navigate that storm to become a stronger and better person.

I found myself standing in prayer, broken that God would allow this to happen to my dear Avraham Moshe, and at the same time drawing God close and asking His support, love, and healing.

I could not come to terms with Avraham Moshe’s condition.

I did not navigate this storm so well. I could not come to terms with Avraham Moshe’s condition. My intellectual, spiritual and emotional contradictions endured and the world became a little darker. I just couldn’t hold the conflicting thoughts and feelings in a way that felt whole.

Sadly, after a harrowing battle, Avraham Moshe passed away at the age of four.

The author reading Avraham Moshe a story.

On my way to the funeral, I thought that my heart would be ripped to shreds. I was expecting to go into a daze for weeks after the funeral, mourning Avraham Moshe.

But a surprising thing happened. Avraham Moshe’s father, David, stepped up to the podium to eulogize his son and he said:

“We were just in the other room with Avraham Moshe, his body, and the one thought – no the sense – that came to me was a big smile. Seeing and feeling his presence with such a smile was something that I’ve never seen before. That was what came over me. So with all my heart, I believe that he is smiling and in a good place.”

David shared how thankful he was for the experience that had unfolded. He cited the millions of prayers, the thousands of people sharing their support, the fact that he felt God’s closeness and support each step of the journey. He expressed that he knew it was all God’s will and that knows Avraham Moshe is now in a better place.

I could not believe it but standing there at the funeral I briefly smiled.

Before this experience, Judaism’s ideas about how we just don’t understand God’s plans, that everything is ultimately for the good, and all the other “answers” to life’s upsets felt hollow. Emotionally these concepts did not fully resonate. And since we are not Lego pieces, I could not force them to “click” within me. The best I could do was struggle with the tension.

But hearing David’s speech and witnessing his deep-seated faith, that all changed. Bottom line, you can either see the world through faith or not. There is no in-between. And seeing those ideas of confidence and faith in flesh and blood, and emanating from a dear friend who I deeply love and care about was simply transformative.

Hearing about how David felt God’s closeness throughout the journey and battle against cancer, listening to the multitude of miracles that provided his family comfort and helped Avraham Moshe live a longer and better life, these were all instances of God being revealed in the midst of a great challenge. These were God’s comforts and reminders of His eternal presence in all facets of our lives.

In life, Avraham Moshe gave me my first taste of a child’s unbridled joy and love. In death, he gave me my first taste of genuine faith.

As David and Gila sat shiva, we gathered around them in love and care. We covered the mirrors and we became our own mirrors of empathy and faith. David and Gila shared memories of Avraham Moshe, and others chimed in. They shared miracle after miracle and expressed a prevailing attitude of appreciation.

With Avraham Moshe’s neshama visiting the shiva house, and with David and Gila leading the charge, we talked and talked, and hugged, and cried. And together we built a new world, a world that contained a glimpsed of peace and truth.

I imagine life as a spiral with peaks and valleys of faith and challenges, turbulent waves if the stormy seas of faith. In life, Avraham Moshe gave me my first taste of a child’s unbridled joy and love. In death, he gave me my first real taste of genuine faith, the very heart and soul of living a Jewish life.


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