Sparks in a Jagged Darkness

Man alone in a caveIt is written in the holy Zohar that those who have their needs provided for today and sit and fret over what will be tomorrow are not being practical – they are simply incorrectly focused.

Every day you are nourished straight from His full, open and overflowing hand, Everything in between – all your work and accounts and bills and receivables and clientele and prospects and investments – all is but a cloud of interface between His giving hand and your soul, an interface of no real substance which He bends and flexes at whim. If so, if He is feeding you today, and He has fed you and provided all you need and more all these days, what concerns could you have about tomorrow? Is there then something that could stand in His way? Could He possibly have run out of means to provide for you?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?Matthew 6:25-27

But what if you’re starving?

Sometimes when reading and studying, I hit a wall. While the Bible and the Talmud are replete with encouragement and promote the ideals of faith and trust in God, there is still great suffering in the world, even within the community of faith. People die in pain and loneliness every day. Children are starving to death. Women are beaten and raped. They rely on God’s goodness and kindness even as do you and I. But what happened to God?

I’ll put it another way.

Last week, an 8-year old Jewish boy named Leiby Kletzky who lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn was kidnapped, brutally slain, and dismembered by Aron Levi, a 35-year old man who lived in the same community. While the event was truly horrific by anyone’s standards, the fact that it happened in the insular Haredi community and that the crime was committed by another Orthodox Jew living in the same small group rocked the Borough Park Jewish community to its core. Sadly, some exploitive groups wasted no time in trying to turn this tragedy to their advantage, adding insult to mind-shredding grief.

Losing a child by any means is beyond devastating. But how can any two parents even begin to cope with the circumstances surrounding the death of young Leiby? Showing unbounded grace in what is doubtless the most difficult time of their lives, Leiby’s parents, Nachman and Itta Kletzky, issued the following public statement:

“We are forever grateful and thankful to Hashem (G-d). We would also like to express to each and every individual – to our friends and neighbors and our fellow New Yorkers and to all the volunteers and to all the agencies from the local, city, state, and federal, who assisted us above and beyond physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and to all from around the world, who had us in their thoughts and prayers. From the depths of our mourning hearts, we thank you!”

Though this statement is brave and open, no one but Nachman and Itta Kletzky can know the immense depth of the pain they are enduring and will continue to suffer under for the months and years to come. They buried their son last Wednesday evening. Does even God know how they’ll continue to walk with Him now?

Sometimes, you’ll hear it said in church that, “what was meant for evil, God means for the good.” In Judaism, the sentiment is expressed as “everything is for the good, perhaps not immediately, but eventually”.

This is true in principle since we must acknowledge that everything in Creation, every object and every event, has a single Source.

Still, how can we not search for a reason beyond the simple platitudes of religion when something hideous and horrific enters our world? What miracle of God could give meaning when an 8-year old boy walking home in his own neighborhood is viciously extracted from life? Can even something like this make a difference?

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” –John 9:1-5

Jesus subsequently heals the blind man so that, for the first time in his life, he can see and his life-long suffering “for the glory of God” ends, but those events happened half a world away almost 2,000 years ago. What about suffering today? The pain is real; the anguish is almost a tangible thing. How can anyone endure without God and even with God, suffering is hardly a matter of saying, “don’t worry, be happy”.

The Rebbe’s lesson as told in Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s book gives an answer of sorts, but I’m not convinced it’s particularly satisfying:

In every hardship, look for the spark of good and focus upon it with all your might. If you cannot find that spark, rejoice that wonder beyond your comprehension has befallen you. Once you have unveiled and liberated the spark of good, it can rise to overcome its guise of darkness and even transform the darkness fully to light.

Man aloneI wonder at what future point will (or if) Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky be able to rejoice again. The Rebbe lived in the same community in Brooklyn where Leiby was murdered and although Rabbi Freeman now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, he spent many years studying under the Rebbe in Brooklyn. Staring the spectre of ghastly death straight in the face, how would he feel reading the words of his book today?

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I don’t have an answer to even a single one. I know what the answers are supposed to be and I know the ideals behind them, but there is often a difference between ideals and when horrible events have brought you to your knees or have ground your face into the dirt and sand.

In Rabbi Freeman’s book, he writes of how anxiety and uncertainty can be like a raging storm at sea. He calls to mind the ark of Noah and how that ark endured the greatest flood the world has ever known, brought about by the wrath of a completely just God. From the Rebbe’s wisdom, he suggests the following:

Do as Noah did and build an ark. An ark in Hebrew is “taiva” – which means also “a word”. Your ark shall be the words of Torah and of prayer. Enter into your ark, and let the waters lift you up, rather than drown you with everything else.

That’s a bit like saying, “when you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on with all of your might”. That’s probably what the Kletzkys are doing right now and will do for some time to come. But a life of faith cannot be lived all of the time in prayer and Torah study. Eventually, you will have to stop sitting shiva and re-enter your day-to-day existence. How can this be done?

It’s a paradox: The greatest revelations are to be found not in meditation, study and prayer, but in the mundane world – but only if you would rather be meditating, studying and praying.

It is one of the most ingenious innovations of chassidic thought: Even if you fail to conquer the darkness entirely, even if you are still rolling in the mud with the enemy – you can still find G-d in the struggle itself.

Jacob, when facing what he thought was certain death at the hands of a vengeful Esau, literally found God in a struggle (Genesis 32:22-32), and despite many other hardships, including the death of his beloved wife Rachel and the perceived death of his favorite son Joseph, he went on to found a twelve tribes of Israel. Could something like this be true of us?

I have some Christian friends in the Puget Sound area who both struggle with cancer. To face this struggle with courage and composure isn’t the same as a lack of suffering. Once recently, I responded to their plea with this:

Our greatest blessings were uttered not by Moses, not by David, not even by G-d Himself. They were uttered by a wicked sorcerer, hired to curse. The most brilliant diamonds hide in the deepest bowels of the earth; the most intense blessings in the darkest caverns of life. -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

In suffering, no one thing helps all that much, if at all. Even the awareness of God with us may not comfort sufficiently and His presence may even remind us that the all-powerful Sovereign, who could have turned aside our disaster, chose not to. All of the words of the Bible, all of the well-wishes of friends and family, all of the prayers and cries ripped straight from our souls still do not cause the pain to vanish and the jagged reality to become smooth.

The only thing I can offer is that, put all together, they may help us make it through one hour, or even one day. Then we start over again and try to make it through another day…and then another. God’s vision is infinite, but an hour at a time or a day at a time is as far as most of us can glimpse when extreme hardship strikes like a heartless predator. We seek shelter from the storm in the ark and try to ride it out. We exit from the ark and struggle through the aftermath of our world that’s been destroyed.

We pray to God to please help us make another one.

Please.

9 thoughts on “Sparks in a Jagged Darkness”

  1. James,

    That was beautifully written, made me cry. My own anxieties seem so trivial in light of this families tragedy. This is despair beyound words, who could bear such a thing? How could any one survive this without God?

    Michelle

  2. Thanks, Michelle and Gene.

    I guess Leiby Kletzky’s death has been “stewing” inside of me for the past week. I knew I was upset about it, but I didn’t realize how upset until I started writing this. I can’t imagine what Nachman and Itta Kletzky are going through right now and I’m selfish enough to not want to know. The pain must be overwhelming and, as I mentioned, even with the presence of God, it must still feel like your skin is being slowly peeled from your flesh.

    A friend of mine lost her husband suddenly in an accident about eight years ago. She finally told me what those first few days and weeks were like and she said, as horrible as everything was, after the first 24 hours, she could feel God was with her, comforting her. The next year was still the “year from hell”, but God made it possible for her to endure.

    May God be so gracious to us all.

  3. Shalom James,

    Thanks for this! I also have been struggling with what happened to Leiby Kletzky and the pain that his parents are going through. It’s un-imaginable im sure. I have been studying on the subject of suffering and why do the righteous suffer on the book of Job while at the same time reading much on the Holocaust. And i will tell you that it has been a very difficult time, i’ve come up with thousands of questions but no answers! I’ve been depressed and plenty of sleepless nights, and i’m sure there is more to come. May HaShem shed His love upon the Ketzky family and guide them through this very difficult time.

    “And Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the LORD.” – Job.1:21

    How was Job able to utter those words?
    (Rey)

  4. Hi Rey,

    I suppose the short answer as to why there’s suffering is that we live in a broken world. People broke it originally when they disobeyed God and when the Messiah comes again, he will fix it. In the meantime, the world is a mess and lots of bad things happen.

    I like how Judaism considers human beings as minor partners in Tikkun Olam (fixing the world). Each act of kindness, charity, and goodness we perform helps just a little to repair the brokenness. We’re not helpless against the onslaught of darkness but rather, God gave us the ability to be little “lights” or “sparks” in the world, even against a darkness so evil as Ketzky’s murder. In fact, Jesus said (Matthew 5:14-16) that we are lights to the world, so that pretty much makes it so for both Jews and Christians.

    The world was fallen long before we were born and, unless the Messiah comes soon, it will still be fallen after we die. We can’t “un-fallen” it, but we can make it a little better place to live in. Instead of sleepless nights, try to think of some things you can do to offset the darkness. Commit an act of charity in Leiby’s name. Be a light. Free some sparks. You’re not powerless. You can fight back. We all can. If we all did, maybe we could push back against the shadows that surround us.

  5. James,

    Amein! Thanks for that!

    “Instead of sleepless nights, try to think of some things you can do to offset the darkness. Commit an act of charity in Leiby’s name. Be a light.”

    That is a great idea! Actually it is what we must do! May Moshiach come soon and in our days! “B.H”.

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