“Who by fire, and who by water…” — Reflections on Jewish belief in the face of randomness

“Sylke died last night.” Four short words, simple, yet so powerful and devastating. When I read my friend’s text message on October 6, I was shocked. Disbelieving. Sylke, this energetic woman, passionate journalist and smart Stanford scholar – dead? My frantic research in German online media confirmed the terrible truth: Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of the journal Internationale Politik and a member of the board of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), had been killed during storm Xavier in Berlin. On her way home from an event, she stepped out of her car to move a branch of a tree that had fallen on the road and blocked her way – and was struck by another falling tree that killed her on the spot. Her two passengers got away with slight injuries – and, of course, the traumatic experience of seeing someone get killed before their eyes. Sylke was not Jewish, but a fervent supporter of Israel. She studied History, Political Science and Jewish Studies in Munich and received a scholarship to conduct research in New York before she completed her Ph.D. with a dissertation about “Attitudes of American Jewish Organizations towards Germany after 1945”. Sylke then went to Israel to work as a Middle East correspondent, covering the Oslo peace process and the Intifada from Israel and the Palestinian territories for numerous magazines. Due to her sharp wit, humor and charm, she was a popular guest in talk-shows and panel discussions, one of which I attended in June of this year and where I was introduced to her by said friend. I did not realize until later that her partner, also a political journalist, used to be one of my group leaders at Jewish summer camp during the 1980s.

Seven people – and 18 flamingos – died in Germany during “Xavier”, and while this may seem like nothing compared to the numerous lives that were tragically lost during “Harvey”, “Irma”, and “Maria”, having known one of the victims makes it so much bigger, closer, sadder. Yes, we all mourn our friends and family members that we lose to car accidents, cancer, or just old age. But this feels different. Being killed by a falling tree is so unlikely that it has become an expression for sarcastically describing something that is probably never going to happen. And having that happen to a person you knew feels like death is looking you right in the eyes saying “see, it can happen to anyone, any time”. Scary, right? Just days ago, we recited the “Unetaneh Tokef”, casually acknowledging that “on Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death.” For the duration of this solemn prayer, or even until we close the Aron Hakodesh after Ne’ila, we sense that our lives are not a given, that they are fragile, that every moment is precious, every day a gift. And we promise to ourselves, to G”d, that we will do everything do be a good person, not to waste time and energy on stupid things, but cherish the time we are given on earth and make it meaningful to us und to others. Naturally, this effect will wear off over time, and we will return to our daily lives and routines, return to taking our lives and the lives of our loved ones for granted. Until we read that text message, “Sylke is dead”.

We ask ourselves – why Sylke? Why now? Sylke was 54 when she died. Professionally successful, fully engaged in her career and her personal life, “in the prime of life”, you would say. Her death does not only seem “untimely”, but also unfair. Random. This is the worst. Randomness is scary. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the victims of the many recent mass shootings and terror attacks all over the world. Each time, we think “I could have been one of them”. As Jews – like most religious people believing in some form of “Him”, we tend to believe that G”d has some kind of a master plan, that in fact nothing is random but a piece of a puzzle of which we see only parts, never the whole picture, and this is why this doesn’t make sense to us when in reality, we comfort ourselves, it does. While I am strongly convinced that mankind is driven and surrounded by a higher force which shows its face and power in the beauty and brutality of nature, but is otherwise beyond our “reality” that is, let’s face it, only a limited perception of the world around us, I have a problem believing in this admittedly soothing, but equally limited conception of a master plan.

Many Auschwitz survivors, including my parents, who have seen her loved ones being deported and murdered, for no other reason than being Jewish, have trouble or stopped believing in G”d. “How could G”d, if he exists, let this happen?” they are asking. “Where was G”d during the Holocaust?” On the other hand, there are ultra-orthodox Jews who, with their perverted minds, advance the view that the Holocaust was in fact intended – or at least approved – by G”d who wanted to urge the Jews to be more faithful to the laws of the Torah. A “call to duty”, as it were. While I have strong empathy and understanding for those questioning G”d’s existence after the Holocaust, and am appalled by and profoundly despise those who abuse G”d for their own purposes, both attitudes show a similar fear: the fear of randomness. Randomness, we assume, does not go together with religious belief and our image of a “good, protecting G”d”. The Holocaust became quasi the “litmus test” for G”d’s existence – for some, it is proof that G”d does not exist, for others, it is the exact opposite. Whenever innocent people die, we look for a reason. We ask, like I did in Sylke’s case, “why?” But what if randomness is not the opposite, but a reflection of G”d? What if what we perceive as “randomness” is nothing but yet another indication of our arrogance as humans, thinking we can – or should be able to – control the world? What if we acknowledge that the gift of life that we “miraculously” received, not earned, can be, in fact, taken away from us any time. That we are not entitled to it although we like to believe that. That EVERYTHING happening to us, good or bad, is “random”: “Who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.” That the time, the place, and even the sheer fact that we were born is “random”. We are, says the Unetaneh Tokef, “like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, […], like a fleeting dream.” Which does not mean, however, that we have to consider our lives as insignificant or even irrelevant. It does not mean that we have to believe that nothing matters. The exact opposite is true. Because nothing is granted or “deserved”, everything good that happens to us is a precious gift, and, this is the good thing, it can happen to anyone. We can try to create or multiply those precious moments or events by being a good person, doing our job whatever it may be, but we cannot eliminate the possibility of “missing out”. Being faithful means being humble. Not the “sack-and-ashes” kind of humble, but showing respect for nature, for the people around us that are in the same boat with us, and for a perception of G”d that enables us to have that kind of respect. This, in a way, is indeed a call for duty.

About the Author
Daniela B. Britton is a multilingual writer, lawyer, and entrepreneur. She has lived and worked in various places in Europe and the United States. She has a passion for the arts, technological innovation, and cross-cultural communication.
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