Suffering and Consolation: A Father's Perspective
My daughter's battle with leukemia taught me how to find consolation even in the midst of terrible pain.
In the midst of teaching a series of classes in San Francisco on the topic of suffering, my wife and I received the diagnosis that our daughter Rivka had leukemia – a cancer of the blood system. This began a very long process of dealing with our daughter's illness, beginning when she was two years old and continuing until she passed away at age 14.
Within the first week of diagnosis we were given a very optimistic prognosis: 85-90% likelihood for complete recovery. She would need to receive 26 months of chemotherapy, mostly on an outpatient basis. After that, varying degrees of follow-up check-ups would be gradually reduced to only once a year. Initially everything seemed to go according to plan. Following these initial two years of treatment, we were very hopeful that as the years went on, our daughter's leukemia would eventually become a thing of the past. She remained in remission and off treatment for seven additional years, during which time we returned to live in Israel.
Rivka's leukemia, which had somehow remained dormant and undetected for almost 10 years, came back into all of our lives – a less than 1% likelihood.
Unfortunately, the nightmare, which every parent of a cancer survivor fears, occurred right after Shavuot, in May, 1999. Her leukemia, which had somehow remained dormant and undetected for almost 10 years, came back into all of our lives. Rivka was then 11 years old. The doctors told us that this was almost unheard of, less than 1% likelihood.
Our daughter's prognosis for a recovery was now significantly worse, and we were advised to attempt the risky procedure of a bone marrow transplant. This involves significantly higher doses of chemotherapy along with intensive radiation over the entire body in order to completely obliterate the person's blood and immune system. The hope was that this would also eliminate the leukemia in Rivka's blood system.
Fortunately, Rivka's baby brother, Yehudah, not quite two years old, was a complete bone marrow match.
She received the bone marrow transplant from her brother just before Rosh Hashanah, in Sept, 1999. It was a tremendously difficult process, involving a complete quarantine for over two months until her immune system was able to rebuild itself. Rivka successfully accepted the transplant and was able to leave the hospital after three months, just a few weeks before her bat mitzvah. Ten months after receiving the bone marrow transplant, however, Rivka suffered a relapse of her leukemia. At that point, her odds of recovery, according to standard medicine, became dramatically worse. We had already tried everything conventional – chemotherapy for over two years, intensive radiation, plus transplanting an entirely separate immune system into her. That was when we decided to add "Ruchama," which means "compassion", to her name. This is customarily done only in cases of very serious illness, as a type of plea to God that she should merit receiving extra compassion.
We attempted a number of different experiments involving a remarkable total of three additional bone marrow transplants over the following two years. The first two transplants, which came from her brother, lasted six months each before she relapsed. The final one, which she received from an unrelated donor in England, only lasted a couple of months. In the end, it was the complications from this transplant that caused her to pass away, early Shabbat morning, this past 19th of Tammuz (June 29th, 2002).
I want to share some of the lessons that my wife and I gained throughout this difficult process that we found particularly meaningful and comforting, in the hope that they will provide comfort to others who may be facing challenges in their lives. Whatever good can come from our tragic situation should be a very significant merit for Ruchama Rivka, may peace be upon her.
"COMFORTING" VS. "COMFORTABLE"
One of the most well known books on suffering is "When Bad things Happen to Good People," written by a Conservative rabbi named Harold Kushner. In his introduction, he explains that he wrote the book in response to a terrible family tragedy – his son had been born with a rapid aging disease and had died at the age of 14.
In order to reconcile a loving God with the existence of suffering, he presents a view of God that is antithetical to the traditional Torah understanding of a powerful and benevolent Creator Who personally supervises the events in all of our lives. He describes a God completely removed from the world, incapable of either intervention or supervision. His answer to "Why bad things happen to good people" is that God did not cause the difficulties to occur, nor could He have even prevented them from happening. "Fate, not God, sends us the problem…Life is not fair. The wrong people get sick and the wrong people get robbed and the wrong people get killed in wars and in accidents."
How could one find comfort within Kushner's chaotic universe that is necessarily devoid of reason, purpose, and meaning?
Curiously, various reviewers of the book describe it as a source of comfort. "An unprecedented source of comfort and reassurance," "Comforting answers," "Will comfort and enlighten."
How could one find comfort within Kushner's chaotic universe that is necessarily devoid of reason, purpose, and meaning? What could be more bleak and depressing?
Perhaps the answer comes from misunderstanding two fundamentally different concepts – "comforting" and "comfortable."
According to the traditional Torah perspective, God created the universe exclusively for our benefit and our pleasure. And not only did He create it that way, He continues to sustain and supervise everything for our ultimate good. While this view of the world is very comforting – because whatever happens fits into some greater, purposeful reality – it can also be quite uncomfortable since it involves clear obligations, responsibilities, and consequences.
The other perspective, in which nothing is supervising the events of the world, may feel quite comfortable due to its lack of obligations and consequences. However, it ultimately offers no possibility for comfort because there is no meaning, and no greater reality for all the events of our lives to fit into.
Victor Frankel, a prominent psychiatrist who developed his treatment methodology from his experiences in the concentration camps, explains in his classic work, "Man's Search for Meaning," that we can deal with anything in our lives as long as it has meaning. Without meaning, even the most trivial events can be devastating.
"…any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche's words, "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how," could be the guiding motto for all…efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."
MEANING FROM SUFFERING
The Talmud gives us direction on how to derive meaning from suffering:
Rava said: If a man sees that afflictions are coming upon him, he should examine his deeds, as it says, “Let us search and examine our ways, and return to God” (Lamentations 3:40; Talmud Brachot 5a).
Taking God seriously means taking the time to think of what areas in our life require fixing or elevation.
The basis of this introspection must be our realization that a complete and perfect God is only interested in our good. The Hebrew word "onish," which is usually translated as "punishment," is more accurately understood as a combination of both consequences and therapy. Taking God seriously means taking the time to think of what areas in our life require fixing or elevation. As unpleasant and uncomfortable as this attempt at introspection and improvement may be, it does, however, mean that we are relating to whatever occurred to us in a meaningful manner.
It is ultimately the individual's response to his personal suffering that determines the meaning of his difficult circumstances, and whether its impact will be positive or negative.
Most of us accept the reality of an All-Powerful, All-Caring God. As Rabbi Ari Kahn, a teacher at Aish Hatorah, points out, one of the clearest indications of this is the very question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The question is based on our expectation of fairness and justice that seems to have been violated. We seem to expect that bad things should not happen to good people. This expectation of fairness and justice only makes sense within a world that is supervised by an All-Powerful and All-Caring God.
However, since this reality of God can feel so uncomfortable, many of us have a strong resistance to incorporating its awareness into our daily lives. Quite often, God's reality seeps into our consciousness particularly when we are confronted with tragedy. Thus "there are no atheists in foxholes." Only when we feel that we are surrounded by the proverbial “foxhole,” with the mortar shells falling down around us, are we willing to – at least temporarily – give up our so-called "atheism".
ACCEPTING TRAGEDY WITH SIMCHA?
There seem to be two contradictory aspects to how Judaism wants us to relate to difficulties that occur in this world. On the one hand, mourners at the funeral of a close relative must express what he or she sees as bad with a blessing of acknowledgement and acceptance – "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" – "Blessed is the True Judge." On the other hand, this blessing is supposed to be said with "simcha," generally translated as "joy."
How do we reconcile these two aspects?
I realized, while making this blessing on the day of Ruchama Rivka’s funeral, that there are two distinct aspects to every tragedy that occurs. First, there is the intense pain of the loss. Beyond this, is the possibility of nechama, comfort.
The pain of loss is obvious. Losing a child is like having a limb amputated. The pain of loss will always exist. Time will never wash away this tragic loss. However, time does help us to adjust to living with this new reality of the “missing limb.”
Then there is nechama – true comfort that comes from the realization that everything that happens in this world serves some ultimate purpose. This nechamah, however, does not require understanding the real nature of this metaphysical reality beyond our world. In the future, when all of the difficulties and pain in our present-day world will finally come to an end, we'll be able to look back and understand why everything that occurred to us needed to happen. Although we may presently lack this full understanding of their necessity, there is a tremendous comfort and consolation right now in simply knowing that they do all fit in to some bigger picture, and therefore the suffering and the pain is not for nothing.
"There is no deed, small or great, whose ultimate end is not the universal perfection, as stated by our sages [Brachot 60b]: 'All that is done by Heaven is for the good.' For in time to come the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make known His ways…showing how even the chastisements and tribulations were precursors of good and actual preparation for blessing. For the Holy One, Blessed be He, desires only the perfection of His creation." (Daas Tevunos, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto)
Our family experienced a dramatic example of awareness of purpose helping to make even severe pain manageable. The main experimental treatment methodology for Ruchama Rivka, once all the conventional approaches had failed, required the creation of a very debilitating condition within her immunological system. However, since she understood that this was her best chance for a cure, she actually welcomed this exceptionally painful process. If you know the suffering is for a purpose, if you know there's some bigger reality, then even severe pain can be somewhat manageable.
As the Chazon Ish, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the previous generation, expressed this in terms of the Holocaust: "For the believer there are no questions, for one who is not, there are no answers."
While this approach does not eliminate the suffering, it can help us to receive consolation, knowing it is all ultimately for the good.
This is the key to understanding the requirement to say the blessing of "Blessed is the True Judge" with "simcha" – usually translated as "joy." Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud, explains that this means we need to strive "to make a blessing on the difficult situations with a complete heart." "Simcha" in this context, means being at peace, without any challenges or complaints. Specifically through the awareness that the terrible tragedies of this world fit into the overall picture of a much larger reality, even if beyond our present day understanding, it becomes possible to accept them.
In a manner which is impossible for me to articulate, as I actually made the blessing of "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" – "Blessed is the True Judge" at the funeral, I did feel the intensity of the pain actually mixed with an awareness of being at peace.
LOSS OF POTENTIAL
Besides the unavoidable pain of loss, there is also the feeling of how much more this person could have done with their life – especially a young person who passed away so tragically early. This second pain, however, is clearly based on assumptions that are impossible for us to ever know. For Ruchama Rivka, it was specifically through difficulties that her life had perhaps its greatest meaning. Via email and the Internet, as well as simply word-of-mouth, her story and her battle for life managed to touch literally thousands of people around the world. Along with widespread prayers on her behalf, numerous spiritual efforts were initiated and dedicated to her recovery. Her numerous challenges, particularly during these last three years, elevated all those around her to a much deeper appreciation of spirituality.
Ruchama Rivka fulfilled her role more completely than most people do in their entire lifetime.
Through their identification with the "foxhole of difficulties" surrounding her, they felt compelled to acquire this deeper awareness of reality in their own lives as well. The absurdity of even attempting to evaluate anyone's loss of potential accomplishment serves as a strong nechama for this second category of pain.
It's important not to confuse our pain from the loss with the thought that we have a legitimate complaint against God. Our numerous expectations cause us to both devalue the blessings we have, as well as to complain when those expectations are not met. From Ruchama Rivka’s “perspective” in her present world of complete truth and clarity, there are certainly no complaints. She entered this world with an enormous task ahead of her, to lift and inspire many individuals through the very great difficulties that she faced during her life. She fulfilled her role more completely than most people do in their entire lifetime.
She is now able to appreciate not only every one of her own accomplishments, but also every one of the accomplishments that she inspired in others. This explains why the focus of the mourning process is specifically to comfort the mourners who are left in this present "World of Darkness," not for the deceased that is now in the "World of Light." As one of my wife's teachers told her during the shivah, according to Jewish tradition, after the soul leaves this world, it begs for the family to be comforted.
While Ruchama Rivka was still battling her leukemia, I felt strongly that if somehow it would be possible for her to fully recover, we would probably end up looking back on this entire challenge, with all of its incredible lessons and realizations, as the best thing that had ever happened to our family. At this point, I can merely say that I would certainly never trade the realizations and achievements that we acquired throughout this difficult period of time for anything else.
In terms of their true spiritual impact, however, all prayers are answered "Yes."
There's an expression: "All prayers are answered. Sometimes, however, the answer is, 'No.'" While this is true to some degree, it is also quite limited. The answer "No" is only true in terms of their physical impact in this world. In terms of their true spiritual impact, however, all prayers are answered "Yes." There's never such a thing as a prayer or a mitzvah that's offered in vain. Every single effort makes an eternal difference, both in this world as well as in the world to come.
One of my relatives told me that upon hearing that Ruchama Rivka had passed away, her daughter had said to her, "But I prayed for her so strongly!"
I told the mother to explain to her daughter that by praying so strongly, she gave her the best possible present she ever could have. And Ruchama Rivka, may peace be upon her, is fully enjoying that present right now.
Ruchama Rivka spent much of the last three years of her life at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Our family has established an endowment fund in her memory to help Hadassah's Children's Oncology Dept.
Donations can be sent to:
Ruchama Rivka Children's Cancer Fund
c/o Dr. Michael Weintraub,
Pediatric Oncology Dept.,
Hadassah Ein Kerem,
Rabbi Asher Resnick is now available for private learning by phone or Skype! Formerly a lecturer at the Institute of Jewish Legal and Medical Ethics in San Francisco, and Aish NY, Rabbi Resnick is now a senior training lecturer for Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. As a close student of Rav Noach Weinberg zt"l, he has a special expertise in presenting Jewish wisdom for living, addressing fundamental issues in Jewish Thought, and bringing classical texts to life. To make arrangements to learn with Rabbi Resnick, contact him directly at email@example.com.