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Wrestling with faith

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I am, B’H, going to be putting these stories together for a book in the coming months.  This is an excerpt from a much larger story in the book. 

This is my first post from Israel!

About a year after Rivka’s death I called her mother to see how she was doing.  We were still very close and they were always in my thoughts. We would speak every couple of months.  Her husband even came to Israel to be at my son’s brit milah. Pictures of Chaya are all over my house and the family has given me countless books on Torah, Tehillim (psalms) and Jewish thought, each one with an inscription from Chaya, Rabbi Mord or Chaya’s parents. Our conversations had a melancholic flavor since Rivka’s death.   We spoke for a while and I told her that I was having a difficult time with my new job in Israel, I asked her to pray for us.

“I don’t pray much any more”

I didn’t believe what I heard so I asked her to repeat it.

Since Rivka’s death, her mother’s relationship with God has been difficult.   She understood that it was time for Rivka to leave this earth but she couldn’t come to terms with why, or why her daughter had to suffer so much. She was still a devoted Jew but her relationship with the Almighty was troubled.   She was angry and wasn’t sure she could relate to him like she used to, or like she was supposed to, so she stopped for a while.   To me this was almost unbelievable. I thought that becoming a “religious Jew” was like turning on a switch. Once you jumped in, that was it. I wasn’t raised as an observant Jew so this was all new to me. Any doubts or pauses I had in my faith and belief I attributed to my own weakness and deficiencies. I saw it as my personal, individual difficulty or problem of faith. But that’s unrealistic. Faith, like any relationship, has periods of strengths and weaknesses, peaks and valleys. Believing in an Almighty God, a beneficent Creator who only does what is right and ultimately good is a lifetime’s work.  We can never really understand God.  If we could, He wouldn’t be much of a god. That’s where faith comes in. We have to believe that even though we don’t understand and even though all “objective” evidence points against a God who loves us and who wants what is best, faith means accepting it and understanding that it is all according to His plan.

Someone much smarter than me told me a Jew with more answers than questions is a problem. I used to think a “good” Jew was someone whose faith was constant, unwavering and never in question. Now I realize it is just the opposite. Having faith means always questioning. I heard a wonderful Shabbat drasha (sermon) from a Rabbi -in Wichita Kansas no less! – that described this relationship very accurately. Jews are also known as bnei Israel, the children of Israel. Israel was the second name given to our forefather Jacob after he spent all night wrestling with an unnamed “angel”.   In the morning, when he realized he couldn’t win, the angel dislocated Jacob’s hip. Jacob asks for a blessing and the angel tells him from now on his name will be Israel.

There are many commentaries on that particular section of the Torah.  Who exactly was this angel and where did he come from? What did he represent? One explanation is that this angel was actually Jacob’s own belief. Wrestling is, in its essence, a battle of pushing and pulling, giving and taking, of back and forth. Jacob’s fight was not really with a physical angel but with himself, fighting with his belief. Jacob wrestled back and forth trying to understand his own faith and relationship with God.  It’s an example for all of us.  By questioning our faith we define our faith. By questioning our relationship with our Creator we can define it and learn more about ourselves and our religion. The questions we seek answers to are the ones that help us come to terms with who we are and what our relationship with God is. By asking the questions, and more importantly seeking the answers, we can learn more about ourselves and our relationship with God.

Her mother’s doubts weren’t a problem for her.  She watched her child go through hell only to die a cruel death.  She was entitled to believe whatever she wanted to.  She was having a difficult time but her faith was still there, which is more than many of us could say had we been put in the same situation. She knew what happened was supposed to happen. She was just having a hard time trying to understand why.   She believed in God but she needed some time by herself.

That’s how I look at it now.  By changing my life I believed I could help not one but two children. That was my plan. Clearly that wasn’t God’s.  Now I understood, or at least I was starting to understand.   True faith doesn’t mean you change your life because God did what you wanted Him to. It means keeping your faith even when he doesn’t.

About the Author
Marc Arkovitz is a pediatric surgeon practicing in Westchester, New York and an associate professor of surgery and pediatrics with more than 20 years experience working in both Israel and the US.