I collect stories. My kids know that anything they say or do can be used against them in a dvar Torah. In fact after something cute or funny happens my kids will call it out, “oh, that’s a story!” I’ve met students years after being in class that will remember Stories from Soskiland and the adorable things my kids did that week. Now my kids are older and decidedly less adorable but I still collect stories. (Just today I was fretting the direction my hairline seems to be moving in and I asked my wife if she would still love me if I was bald. She said, “You have so many other problems, it really wouldn’t be about your hair.” See, that’s funny.) And while all of our lives are essentially a collection of the stories we tell about ourselves and our families, not all stories are equally weighted.
Stories have authors and truth be told, until a few years ago I thought, I really and sincerely believed, that I was the author of my story. I thought that the decisions I made would shape my biography and I sort of saw all the people I came across as supporting characters to my story. A few years ago, for reasons some will already know but I choose not to discuss here yet, I was fully disabused of that view as one of the most significant events of my adult life had nothing to do with a choice I made but a circumstance I was given. A month ago, I was once again given the opportunity to realize that the most significant events that shape my story can come from the outside. With my son’s injury (you can see more about that here) and subsequent surgeries and transport home and recovery, we have become fully involved in learning how to take support from our friends and community graciously, and how to balance his particular needs with those of the rest of our family. But after a few weeks we adjusted to a new normal. I was sure then that I knew the script for how this chapter of the story would play out. And then . . .
In the middle of the night, in truth, early Wednesday morning we learned that my wife’s best friend, a woman who is as close as a sister to her, or closer, was in a horrific traffic accident. She is in critical condition but her 13 year old son, the holy and lovely Moshe, didn’t make it. Everything was a nightmare. My son is in the same grade at their school. I had to tell him that his classmate died. I had to tell my princess that Morah Tami, a woman she thinks of as another mother, was in the hospital and we don’t know when she’ll wake up. She was devastated and when the crying stopped she crawled into bed with her (injured) brother to snuggle and watch Netflix, making it real clear that school was off the table for the day. (A decision we supported.)
Just so you understand what type of woman we’re talking about, on Shabbos I was joking with my kids and I said, “Maybe when Morah Tami wakes up she’ll have a superpower! What type of superpower do you think she would like?” My princess said, the power that little kids just love her. We said, she already had that. Well then, the power to never get upset about anything. She has that also, we’ve never really seen her upset. Then she really doesn’t need a superpower. (I suggested the power to understand what animals are thinking and saying or like, the power to talk to fish. And that’s when people stare at me like I’m an idiot, so whatever.)
I’m a man of faith, honestly. I love praying, I love Torah, I love the Jewish people, I love Israel, I love Shabbos; I feel genuinely cared for by Hashem. And still it makes you want to say, “What the hell?!” My son fell off a mountain and, eventually, he’ll be fine, but a mother and son can’t come home from the airport? What the hell is that about?
I’m fully aware that our tradition encourages us to look at tragedy and declare our faith that all that happens is the will of Hashem, and it is good. I am also aware that our tradition allows us to question, to wonder, to be angry. I know enough to know that in this world we can’t understand. We can speculate and we can philosophize, but we can’t really know why tragedy happens. Maybe it doesn’t matter. In a sense, it really doesn’t matter why it happened. It only matters how I respond to it. I went to shiva with a hug and tears and dvar Torah. I’m not exactly the right person to help the family, but I’ve been able to help some of the helpers. Most importantly, I’ve tried to make sure that things are calm on the home front so my wife can spend the time she needs with her friend. I had a chance to go over to another friend who has been deeply involved with the family on Friday night with a hug and a bottle of whiskey.
I scoured the Torah reading on Shabbos trying to find some words of comfort. If not for my friends than for me. I have only this to offer – in parshas Vayishlach the Torah tells us of a confrontation between Yaakov and an unnamed assailant. Our tradition teaches that the attacker was the archangel of the nation destined to come from Yaakov’s twin Eisav. The struggled all night, but as the night ebbs, neither of them had an advantage over the other. The angel injures Yaakov, but still can’t win. The dawn is ready to break and the angel asks to be sent away. Before being released Yaakov demands a blessing from the angel and receives one. So my question is, who won?
The text makes it clear, neither won. Neither was able to overcome the other. And yet, when all is said and done, Yaakov has a blessing. This year, what I hear in this is the thought that sometimes to win, you just have to hold on. These problems have time limits. It will pass. Just hang on. You don’t have to win to end up with blessing, you just have to not give up.
Hashem, we love you. We know you love the Jewish people and we know you run the world. You have given us a mitzvah to pray to You at times of trouble and you have allowed us and required us to ask for what we need. And so we ask, we beg, that You grant a speedy and complete recovery to Tamar Adina bas Kayna Shulamis. We trust in your love and guidance but we beg for your help. Please send relief to the family and comfort and joy to the community with news that she is recovering. Please help these children to enjoy their mother’s hugs again. Please allow this husband the luxury of mourning his child together with his wife. Please Hashem, make it enough already. We’re holding on. We’re trying hard, but we’re waiting, longing for daybreak.