Elchanan Poupko

Preserving By Finding Strength in Spirituality

Illustration: An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man from Kiryat Sanz prays on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony, in Netanya, Israel, on September 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Sadly, sometimes when all we need is a little crumb of comfort and support, we can’t find even that. If we can’t find that, we owe it to ourselves to find our source of strength. Our source of strength is out there. It does exist. We need to seek it out. 

Regardless of how successful we are in finding external sources of strength or how successful we are in igniting our internal sources of strength, we are all created in God’s image. Times of difficulty are when it is both easiest and most meaningful to find a deep and genuine way of connecting with God. Let us take a look and see how this can help address internal loneliness. 

The Lord is My Shepherd: God as the Source of Strength

As people of faith, our most basic instinct and greatest source of inspiration is God Himself. We turn to Him at all times as we see Him as our source of vitality, well-being, comfort, and resilience. A relationship with God in ordinary times and difficult times is radically different. 

In ordinary times, we turn to Him to make different requests—requests which can seem petty at times or requests that are very important to us. We find strength in our relationship with God and are grateful for all the good things He does for us. 

In difficult times, we suddenly realize that when we said that God controls our fate, life, and death, it meant exactly that. We realize that our very fate—life and death, health and illness—is in His hands. This experiential realization can lead to a radical change in our relationship with God. While humans tend to show great respect and awe to those who hold their fate and destiny, it is hard for love to flourish in the realization of such volatility. 

Despite our anxiety at times of distress, it is in this time that we need God more than ever before. We need Him because we need His help with our situation. We hope for better results than our eyes and ears perceive, and we imagine a better tomorrow. The need for God is not just a need for a miracle maker. Now, we also need Him emotionally; we need to have someone we can turn to at all times. Someone who we feel is on our side. At times of difficulty, focusing on the love and “friendship” in our relationship with God is of the essence.

The ability to cultivate a loving and trusting relationship with God, even in the face of the horrors we experience—in the face of the temptation to feel angry and upset at God—can open to us a new world we have never experienced before.

Viktor Frankl, the great Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who endured the horrors of Auschwitz, used his academic background to help himself survive. Looking at the horrors around him, he realized that conceptualizing what he was going through in an intellectualized way would help him survive the insanity of the Nazi death camps. Looking for what it was that gave inmates the mental courage to survive, Frankl noticed it was those who had meaning to their lives—in many cases, that meaning being the belief in God—were better able to survive against horrifyingly difficult odds. 

This is true for many reasons. The obvious one is that faith gives us “company,” someone we can talk to. It gives us a powerful resource to “talk” with and reason to do so. Another powerful element of the belief in God, even in difficult times, is that we get to know that no matter how senseless our situation might be, at some point, we will know there is a reason for everything we are going through. It helps us make sense of a senseless situation. It imparts to us the notion that no matter how difficult our situation may be, there is always an overarching reason for what is happening. 

There is a powerful story about a person who was going through the horrors of the Holocaust, experiencing unparalleled pain and torture inflicted by the cruelest of men in the most destructive of times. The man lifted his eyes to the heavens and said, “God, I do not need to know what the reason for all my suffering is; I just need to know that there is a reason for all of it.”

This man’s cry reflected a powerful aspect of finding strength through faith in God. Faith enhances our ability to cope with unexplained adversity; at the same time, we have a powerful need to know that our suffering is not arbitrary and purposeless. This need, too is supported by faith in a just God who does not let any of our suffering be inconsequential. 

The idea of faith carrying us through difficult times was very much reinforced by a recent experience I will never forget. 

It was a rainy fall afternoon in 2018 when I found myself making my way to New York City’s Police Department headquarters. The various security checks, gates, and officers all led me to someone who has seen lots of pain and suffering yet whose life is imbued with meaning: the chief of the largest police force in the USA, Chief Terence Monahan.

Chief Monahan described to me some of the horrors that the NYPD must fight on a daily basis. Whether it is violence, rape, murder, or armed robbery, the NYPD is there. The question of suffering and tragedy is a glaring reality with which officers need to deal every day. And yet, the chief was optimistic. He alerted me to something we so often forget when we encounter evil: the number of people doing good things outnumbers by far the number of those engaging in negative things.

With today’s never-ending news cycles and media attention, we often feel like crime is everywhere. And yet, crime is drastically lower than it used to be. Learning so often about the horrible things people do around the globe—not recognizing how outnumbered the negative things are by the goodness of ordinary good people—can make us miss so much of the good; we forget the many people who are just kind and gracious and never make the news.

When we confront adversity, the chief reminded me, we must always remember the goodness out there. The number of good people outnumber—by far—the number of those who are seeking to do harm. Always look for the good in people and seek to see the astonishing amount of positivity there is out there. Even when things radiate doom and prospects seem bleak, look out for the good. For every negative experience we go through, there are other positive ones we should try and find. If there is not enough positive, if the negative just keeps on outweighing the positive, fight—and fight hard—for the positive.

Chief Monahan brought to my attention the heartwarming story of NYPD Detective Steve McDonald. A young police officer, just twenty-nine years old, McDonald’s life changed forever, changing so many lives with it.

One morning in 1986, Detective Steve McDonald saw something unusual in Central Park, a place that, to me—someone who loves frequenting the park—symbolizes peace and tranquility more than anything else. After seeing something suspicious with three teens, McDonald recalled,

“When they [the three teens] recognized us as cops, they cut and ran. We chased after them, my partner going in one direction and I in another. I caught up with them about thirty yards away. As I did, I said to them, ‘Fellas, I’m a police officer. I’d like to talk with you.’ Then I asked them what their names were and where they lived. Finally, I asked them, ‘Why are you in the park today?’

“While questioning them, I noticed a bulge in the pant leg of the youngest boy—it looked like he might have a gun tucked into one of his socks. I bent down to examine it. As I did, I felt someone move over me, and as I looked up, the taller of the three (he turned out to be 15) was pointing a gun at my head. Before I knew what was happening, there was a deafening explosion, the muzzle flashed, and a bullet struck me above my right eye. I remember the reddish-orange flame that jumped from the barrel, the smell of the gunpowder, and the smoke. I fell backward, and the boy shot me a second time, hitting me in the throat. Then, as I lay on the ground, he stood over me and shot me a third time. 

I was in pain; I was numb; I knew I was dying, and I didn’t want to die. It was terrifying. My partner was yelling into his police radio: ‘Ten Thirteen, Central! Ten Thirteen!’ and when I heard that code, I knew I was in a very bad way. Then I closed my eyes…”

The first bullet went to McDonald’s head, right above his eye; the second was shot at his throat, causing him a lifelong speaking disability; and the third and worst hit went to his spine, shattering his spine and leaving him a quadriplegic and needing a ventilator to breathe for the rest of his life. At just 29, married for less than a year with a pregnant wife, McDonald found himself a quadriplegic, hardly able to speak, and not able to do his job.

Anger, outrage, despair, and a quest for revenge are all feelings that could have come naturally to McDonald, but he chose a different path.

Shortly after becoming conscious and working to gain whatever strength he could, McDonald phoned Shavod Jones, the boy who shot him. McDonald told him he forgave him. Though paralyzed from his neck down, McDonald chose to spend the rest of his life speaking in schools, addressing police gatherings, and other social functions advocating for the power of love and forgiveness.

Up until his death at the age of 59, McDonald inspired thousands to lead more positive, loving, and forgiving lives. McDonald took what could have been the most disabling experience a human can ever experience and turned it into the most enabling one. He injected this most horrible predicament with life, meaning, positivity, and kindness to others. 

Finally, on January 10, 2017, at the age of 59, a heart attack put a stop to the loving heartbeat Steven shared with so many. Thousands of New Yorkers paid a last tribute to his courage as he was honored with a full police funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

In 2018, a plaque dedicated to Steve was placed in Central Park. This plaque encapsulated the essence of what Officer McDonald had done. It read:

Born out of tragedy in 1986, came a life of service and forgiveness. Steven became a messenger of hope and goodwill to the community and city he loved.

McDonald’s son chose to enlist in the NYPD and now continues his father’s legacy as a police officer.

Did Detective McDonald have the right to be angry? Did he have the right to feel enraged, to despair, hate, or to be pessimistic? Of course, he did. He suffered so much—as a result of trying to keep others safe. “How could this have happened to me, of all people?”, he could have easily thought. “Why me?” Perhaps he did have those thoughts, thoughts that naturally occur to us when we encounter adversity, but he chose to fight for a life of meaning. He took those lemons and made them into lemonade, injecting his life with meaning and leaving a powerful and lasting impact on so many others.


This is the energy we need when confronting adversity. The power of positive over negative. The power of good to triumph over bad. The power of meaning to defeat pain and the power of the transformation to triumph over what seems fixed and unchangeable.

I then heard from Chief Monahan about a very different perspective of faith. I asked him how it was that faith affected his own life. I was especially curious about this in light of what I have seen with my own eyes in my own home, New York City. 

In 2014, the social fabric of the United States was shaking. The death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, followed by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, sparked huge clashes between police and protestors from coast to coast. The tensions could not have been higher. I got to see the women and men of the NYPD hard at work every day in New York City and knew how much good they were doing. I and many other New Yorkers feared these tensions escalating across the country would escalate even more here in New York City. That didn’t happen. Violence went down. Tensions between police and community went down. Cooperation and coexistence went up. Why? Chief Monahan introduced Community Policing into the NYPD—a program that radically changed how community and police interact—turning New York City into the safest large city in the United States. Community policing helped ensure that the police officers knew the districts they were serving in, lived in the area and made sure they built trusting and respectful relationships with the people they were serving. It was an incredible success. At the same time, crime levels were rising elsewhere, crime levels in New York City were plummeting. Without many bells and whistles, Chief Monahan worked tirelessly and modestly to keep tensions down and save lives.

How did faith inspire this? Chief Monahan told me he found in his career that whenever you make the right decisions, everything else falls into place. While faith is often seen as something inspiring hope and meaning, faith can also act as a moral compass, a compass that guides us to make hard decisions. Taking the path we believe is morally correct may not always be the easy decision, but it is something that ends up being the rewarding one.

I was reminded of one of Senator John McCain’s last interviews. In this interview the late John McCain was asked about his accomplishments, personal pride, and regrets of his life. McCain said he found that making the right decision—even when difficult—always paid off, and vice versa.

Faith plays a great inspirational role in times of difficulty, but it can also play a great guiding role. Difficult—and often inconvenient—decisions can be empowering when we follow our faith.  Doing what is morally correct and following our consciousness are powerful examples of faith, not only inspiring us through difficult times but also guiding and carrying us through difficult decisions. 

This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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