Ramblings on god and the book of life

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  I spent some time thinking about the meaning of the day, my seemingly endless sorrow and my spiritual journey.  My search for understanding our profound loss seems to be taking me everywhere except within my own faith.  And I really have no explanation why, as I feel as Jewish as ever.  But, my Judaism has never had much to do with my spirituality.  My connection to my faith was always rooted in tradition, history and social justice.  Surprisingly, in the wake of Maxie's death, I haven't found anything from my own background to lean on.  I don't remember any kind of teaching about what happens after we die, I can't remember learning anything about why some people are forced to live nearly unbearable lives, only that we should help those who are less fortunate.  I have wondered if perhaps the answers I am seeking lie not within the Conservative and Reform traditions that I have been brought up with, but maybe rather in either the more religious or fringe practices of Judaism.  I thought about studying Kabbalah or meeting with an Orthodox rabbi but I just haven't gotten around to it.  I feel failed and punished by god and somehow, for me, that has translated into anger at my faith.  I'm not so much even looking for another god to connect to, as I truly believe that we are all praying to the same god, we just have different interpretations of him (her/it).  I am looking for some kind of meaning.  I need to understand WHY US?

Someone brought a copy of Harold Kushner's "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People" to Maxie's shiva for me (I frankly cannot believe I only got one copy of this book, especially considering I got 4 copies of "Goodnight Moon" when Max was born).  Rabbi Kushner speaks early on about how when he was a young rabbi, he made a visit to a young family whose child had just died.  One of the first things they told him was that they believed their child's death must have been their fault, since they hadn't attended services the past Yom Kippur.  He assured the family that our god is not a punishing god, that he would not take their child's life as revenge for their absence from synagogue on the High Holidays.  He found it incredibly distressing that Jews (or people in general) would think that the bad things that happen to us in this life are a punishment - that our concept of god is so "godless".  I may have mentioned before that I started reading this book and had to put it down before ever really getting into it.  It felt like a defense of god, and at that time, right after the death of my baby, I really felt there was no defense.  I am still not sure there is. And, whether god is punishing me, or Maxie's death is a random tragedy, or this is karma getting me back for something....it SURE FEELS UNFAIR!  It sure feels like we are being punished.  If god has no hand in this at all, what are we praying and atoning for?  If, as Jews, we don't even believe in an afterlife as such, what is the role of god?  It seems fairly irresponsible to create emotionally complex living beings and then just leave them to die and work out all of this pain.  

Which brings me to my feeling that this can't be all there is!  I mean, this just can't be it!  Will I really never see Maxie again?  Was nine and half months all he was really given?  And, while I have been searching for meaning (or god) in everything, I still haven't really found him (her/it)...though I am more and more convinced of there being "something".  Truth is, I don't even think I am searching for god...it's almost too late for him (her/it).  I am searching for Maxie..because I cannot BEAR the idea of never seeing my child again.  Victor Frankl talks about a similar search for understanding in the concentration camps in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning".  He refers to the seances that were held in Auschwitz, where prisoners secretly gathered desperately hoping to connect to the loved members of their families who had already been gassed and murdered.  It is only human to find meaning in such a devastating loss.  It is only human to feel like our loved ones can't be gone.  Afterall, they were so alive just moments ago.  If I could only understand why...if I learned that it was predestined somehow...that our souls had a contract before we were born perhaps...that we will be together again in Heaven or the Invisible World or a parallel universe...if I could know that I WAS indeed being punished for something in this life or another one....perhaps then I would understand why us...  Why Max...perhaps it would be more bearable??

After young people finish the army in Israel, it is customary for them to go on a big trip.  Many Israelis leave for a year or more to spend time abroad.  More and more they are leaving Israel, a place that most people go to to find a connection to their faith, to seek out meaning in treks to places like India and Tibet.  There is an ongoing conversation about why young Israelis feel the need to look for spirituality outside of Judaism.  Going to synagogue, saying the same prayers over and over and in the same order every time, hearing the rabbis sermons that most often are uninspiring to my generation, watching the people who haven't been there in a year all dressed up and greeting each other....it's devoid of inspiration for me.  And, although my own rabbi's sermon was actually inspiring last year, when almost nothing could have inspired me, it was basic and common sense about how to be a more caring and empathetic person.  I honestly would have liked to have had it streamed into the homes of some people in my life who didn't get the memo.  But none of it helps me understand one bit what my purpose is, what the purpose of suffering is, why some people lead charmed lives while others have to fight it out.   We learn to be good people, to be charitable, to take care of our neighbors....well, I did all that and my baby died!!!!  I am not feeling inspired.

The year that Maxie was born, we prayed for him to be written into the book of life, and our prayers were mocked.  This year, I silently asked for Mo to be given a chance that his brother was not given. I know that there are other religions that promise more to their followers - that teach that if I follow the rules I will be blessed in the next life - but I am not sure I can get behind some people being saved and others not.  It just doesn't resonate.  I think a Christian god would love me too, even if I wasn't bright enough to understand his teachings in this lifetime.  If I am wrong, and I am going to hell, how much worse can it be than the hell of losing Max?  And, really, I am not sure if my search this past year has been for "god" or "faith" anyway.  I mean, I am still pretty sure that I like my own religion.  I like that we are taught to be good just because it is the way we should be - not because we will be rewarded for it here or in the next life.  Although, to be on the receiving end of such pain, I sure wish there was something we could do to avoid bad things happening again.  But, I look around on the internet at other blogging parents and children die of all religions, and as far as I can tell, all of the parents I am reading about are really good people...and more importantly, they are all really good parents!

So, what does Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar mean to me now?  Now that my worst nightmare came true?  I guess it was a day to think about how Maxie's life fits in with my search for truth.  It was a day that I spent some quality time thinking about the pure love that we will always have for him.  It was a day that I spent wondering what my connection to god really is now in the wake of this tragedy.  The truth is that I never gave much thought to god before Max died and now all I think about is the order of this universe and what part god plays in it.  And, it makes me mad to think that Maxie's death was meant to be some kind of wake up call ... so I spent much of the last year aggressively fighting that idea by being mad at god.  This Yom Kippur, I tried my best to make peace with god because the truth is that I might need a relationship with him (her/it) in order to connect to and be with Maxie again, which, along with Ted and Mo, is the most important thing in my life.  So, just in case, starting this year, I am working on making my peace with god and praying that Mo is written into the book of life this year and for many, many, many to come.  I was mocked before but I won't be mocked again.  I don't believe god could possibly do it to us again.  The premise of Kushner's book is that the role of god is to comfort us when bad things happen, not cause them to happen and fighting that is just exhausting.  So, while I am not a particularly religious person, I am thinking that I might try that angle for a while and see where it gets me.  I'll let you know.

G'mar Chatima Tova - May you and those that matter to you be written in the book of life.

Maxie - we are missing you desperately every day of our lives.
You will never be forgotten.
We love you to the moon and back again baby!


Tiffany said...

Abby, i clung to every word you wrote. why? because i feel like you were writing for me too. i am catholic - cradle catholic. i thought i was a good catholic/person. and then Julius passed away, and i found myself so incredibly angry at god. i just couldn't understand why he was punishing me when i felt like i was living a good life. and then i read "when bad things happen to good people." it helped me so much. my relationship is definitely not the best with god. but i've let go of a lot of that anger. and now when i pray, i pray to my son. like you, i just can't believe he is gone forever. i can't. 4.5 months can't be all that i got with him. so now i live my life for him. i'm working my way back to him. i just wish he was here...

greg said...

I thought of Maxie in temple yesterday and I agree...it's all horribly confusing. You and Ted are two of the best people I know...would god punish you? No god worth worshipping would do such a thing. Maybe we just don't get to know why, but, like Kushner says, we can turn to him (her/it) for comfort not blame.

G'mar Chatima Tova

Adina said...

This was beautiful, Abby. G'mar Chatima Tova.

Jacky Abrams Lavine said...

Do you have a Chabad House near you? You most likely do. They are the MOST welcoming people. Every jew is important to them and no one jew is better than another jew, regardless of the level of observance. I found them after my dad died (I understand thats a completely different loss) but they are so very helpful and loving.

I wish I had answers for you. I wish I could turn back the hands of time and keep Maxie here. I wish I understood the whole life and death thing....... and why some wonderful beautiful children pass away so young.



Susan said...

Yes, this resonates a lot with me. I prayed when Catherine was in intensive care and they told me her life was in the balance - and she died anyway. It makes no sense to me now. It all feels very random, and I am pretty sure it is.

Rose said...

This is truly beautiful. Sending love today and always.

Vic Jackson said...


Molly told me she got the chance to talk with you today and we have been reading your blog. I hope you will be blessed in your efforts to make sense of it all. It is certainly an anguish and sorrow that will be with us throughout our lives. I hope that you will feel God's presence and love in your life and know that you are not being punished. Max is most certainly written into the book of life and I am certain he is looking out for you. I have every confidence that God does intend for us to be reunited with our loved ones, joyously and gloriously; that the experiences in this life will stretch us and help us grow into more than we can currently comprehend. Max, as I am sure you have felt, is exceptional - don't doubt that for a second. One of my favorite statements from someone I really admire: the cavity carved by pain will someday be the receptacle for our joy. I trust that it is true, that God does have purposes for us and our lives that this brief life is a journey to a greater existence. In the meantime I think you are doing great at enduring an incomprehensible sorrow. We love you and hope that we can get together again soon. Vic