Looking to draw a crowd to a lecture? Veteran speakers will tell you that the topics with the highest hit rate are “Life after Death” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The latter talks to one of life’s most challenging questions: “Why me?” A speaker who can answer that question will pull record crowds.
Unfortunately, there is no answer.
Even Moses petitioned G-d to explain the mystery of misery. No response. Our sages echo his frustration in Pirkei Avot with: “We have no understanding of the suffering of the righteous”. It is a question that continues to niggle.
Jews keep asking questions until we get satisfactory answers. Have you studied the Talmud? There, you’ll see our sages fire questions about every topic on file. Questioning is in our DNA. You can ask your rabbi anything because no subject is taboo.
Except for “Why me?”.
Nobody can answer that. Who would want a rational explanation for their suffering anyway? The only answer we would accept would be no more suffering.
Yet, we should never stop asking. The trick is to learn to ask the right questions. Hebrew has two question words that sound alike- “lamah” (why) and “mah” (what). They may sound similar, but these words convey very different messages.
“Lamah” is open-ended. “Why?” “Why did this happen?” “Why does life have to be so tough?” “Why the Jews?” “Why me?” We frustrate ourselves with the whys because they have no answer.
Jews prefer “mah” questions. “What should we do in challenging circumstances?” “What opportunities might our difficulty bring?” “What am I meant to learn from this situation?” “Mah” questions open our world.
When our youngest daughter was diagnosed with an ultra-rare neurodegenerative condition in late 2019, we went into a tailspin. Our dreams for our daughter disintegrated as we unpacked each unique symptom that she would face. I needed spiritual wisdom to navigate our newfound reality, so I consulted with a wise teacher and mentor.
During one of our conversations, my mentor proposed that he believed I would one day be grateful for the challenge of our daughter’s condition.
Grateful? How? All I could think of was the geneticist telling us our daughter’s condition was “bad luck”. We had wondered why we had been chosen as the “lucky” ones. My wife’s grandmother summed it up when she said, “Of almost eight billion people on Earth, He had to pick you?”
I didn’t see my way clear to gratitude at that stage.
It took about a year for my wife and me to realise that we’d only get through our daughter’s journey by asking the “mah” questions. “What could we do to remain positive?” “What would make our life with our daughter’s medical condition meaningful?” “What message could our daughter bring to the world?” “What do people see when they meet her?”
When we started asking the “what” questions, we began to find answers. We noticed that our daughter is hyper-attuned to other people’s emotions. We saw that she exudes empathy without saying a word. We learned that she chooses to smile, laugh and dance even on the hardest days.
Our daughter is now seven. She has a wide range of medical challenges and limitations. Despite her daily struggles, she is consistently happy. She attends a regular school in an inclusion programme and she has taught the staff and kids the value of spontaneous dancing at all the wrong times. We are building a kindness campaign around her and hope to include other children with challenges. Every day, we are overawed at how she inspires her friends, their parents, her medical team and strangers to share kindness.
Ironically, when you focus on the “What” questions, you gain insight into that burning “Why” question.