The past, and thank you Mrs. Weas.ley

I still owe two answers from Bon’s interview questions. This rambling post will be my attempt to answer one of them and summarize my mood for the past few days.

Here’s the question, a very good one, thanks.
4. you observe or acknowledge the Jewish holidays through your year of
consolation, as you make your way around the calendar.  what role does
faith play in your life and identity, and what impact has Natan’s death
had on your relationship with belief and the spiritual?

I can’t answer this very well. Every statement would require so much qualification, so much background. But I’ll try. I am very much a believing Jew. For me, mitzvahs are my obligations, not the colloquial good deed. Certainly that provides a core part of my identity. I have an excellent memory and if we were to engage in real & significant conversation, it probably wouldn’t be long before something about Judaism and text came up. That said, I am not at this point observing mitzvot as well as I’d like. I don’t believe that I’ll be punished for my recent lapses even if they are technically sins. It’s not an obvious system of reward and punishment. The word for sin in Hebrew is more correctly translated as missing the mark and I am very much missing the mark right now in my relationship with G-d. But that will not shake my belief, because my belief itself already has been shaped and shaken by prior trauma and years of introspection. Faith didn’t come easily or naturally to me in the first place.

In the weeks and months following Natan’s death, Judaism provided a great comfort for me. I was fortunate to be in a congregation and among friends and faculty who acknowledged the enormity of our loss. Josh and I said the mourner’s kaddish, a mourner’s prayer, although not technically obligated, at appropriate times because it comforted us. I adopted the custom of lighting three candles for the start of Shabbat (the Sabbath) on Fridays because I knew a woman in Israel who lit the traditional two candles plus one for each of her children.

A few weeks or months ago now, I can’t remember, I went to say prayers as I went to sleep and couldn’t do it. I felt angry. I don’t feel angry at G-d for taking Natan – I don’t believe in that engaged of a deity, at least in the present. But still I felt angry when trying to say words of praise and thankfulness. I didn’t feel much like praising the world or thanking G-d for it. The feeling passed, although it returns sometimes. It’s not going to become a dominant feeling for me. It is an extremely foreign one, however, as no previous trauma has ever produced the feeling within me that I would rather just forsake the world than be thankful for it.

I was tired. I am tired. I don’t usually take inspiration from movies, but something in a movie struck me this weekend. We watched, Driving Lessons, an English movie starring two actors from the Harry Potter films, Rupert Grint (Ron) and Julie Walters (Molly Weasley). I enjoyed the movie very much overall, but one scene from it really resonated. Grint’s character is telling Walter’s character, “G-d loves you. G-d forgives you!” Walters’ character shouts at him to shut up and says, “G-d doesn’t forgive. I forgive.” I don’t know the scriptwriter’s theology or his intent with that line. I do know Walters’ character had lost her only son when he was two years old. And I certainly felt the absurdity and insult her character would have felt at being “taught” about her relationship with G-d by a teenage boy.

I realized I am sometimes very angry still. But angry at who and what? Myself, sometimes. My old doctor’s office, sometimes. The nurse who took care of me the last night in the hospital, sometimes. But mostly it’s an undirected anger. Because all of those people I named, including myself, are imperfect. Mistakes may or may not have been made in my care, but no one did it on purpose. So then who’s left to be angry at but the designer of imperfect people and our imperfect world?

It is hard to escape the feeling that Natan’s death was a punishment. But that’s ultimately narcissistic. He was not an expendable little soul that G-d let grow inside of me and then killed to teach me some lesson or make me repent. What could I have done to deserve that? I regret well enough my mistakes but there’s nothing back there so bad it could sentence our son to death. Even still, I need to forgive myself in terms of learning to accept that I am limited. Furthermore, I need to forgive G-d for creating an imperfect world, and to learn how to live in it again without resentment.

I can enjoy a beautiful day, love and be thankful for my husband and family, and be so grateful that I am so close to bringing home a living child. Yet I still feel like there’s been a terrible injustice done, to me, my family, my son, and even my friends. It doesn’t matter that G-d didn’t specifically hand that pain down to me. If I believe G-d created everything, I believe He created the possibility of this happening to anyone. I don’t have to know why, but I have to learn to live with it. I don’t have a choice. And that requires my forgiveness.

I haven’t been entirely ready to do that. I’ve stepped away from the practices that brought me comfort in the first few weeks because they would inevitably lead up to needing to confront my anger. Slowly, but in forward and backward steps, I am moving toward them again.

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13 responses to “The past, and thank you Mrs. Weas.ley

  1. This is deep. I think I might have cheated in the way that this post lays bare. From the very beginning I said that G-d had nothing to do with this. It is not a punishment and there is no reason. Much like you saying that the world is imperfect and it can happen to anyone. I failed, though, to make the deep connection to the question of whether there is forgiveness required for the world being imperfect. I think my science background was helping me avoid that step. Simply mechanistically, there is usually an exponential price to pay for incremental improvements in system performance after some point. And the trade offs are not necessarily obvious or straight forward. For example, the same errors of DNA replication that are responsible for many cancers and some birth defects are also responsible for us being here in the first place since evolution happens by selecting among the multitude or organisms each with some errors those organisms whose errors happen to be beneficial right at the moment. But I digress. In short, I think I used science to let G-d off the hook for this imperfection. I am still not sure I am ready to engage this question, in the sense that I have long believed that many things require an opposite to put them in relief. I like both black and white, and believe we would be poorer for the absence of one of them. How would we appreciate life if there was no death? Not to mention that death and procreation are entwined tightly by Genesis 1-3, as my Bible professor put it, the story of the exchange of immortality for sex and procreation. So I don’t know where I am, but I do know you made me look deeper today.

  2. I read this post over and over, trying to find in myself even the tiniest echo of the anger you describe, but it’s just not there. I know people say that depression is anger turned inward, but it’s morphed into a form that’s so unrecognizable that it might as well not be anger at all.

    Thinking about how my own attitude towards religion has changed, I’ve come to feel that in times of crisis, that Judaism will have nothing to offer me, no comfort, no healing. At bottom, as upset as it made me at the time, I’ve come to believe that my former rabbi was right — that there is no provision for this kind of loss — and trying to believe anything else feels like cheating. Though, obviously, I’m not suggesting that someone who believes something else is wrong. In fact, I wish I believed something different myself.

  3. Cheating how, Niobe? Who or what?

    I’ve said before it makes me so sad to think of what your rabbi told you. His opinion is no longer the general rule, and the general coldness of how you’ve described his response to you makes me seriously question whether his first concern was actually Jewish law and custom in that situation. In any case, I am certain your well being wasn’t.

  4. I can’t tell you how much I wish we could sit over a cup of tea (or a Diet Coke for me), and talk and talk and talk about these things… I know I would come away so much richer having explored our thoughts together.

    Niobe’s comment is interesting to me, because I personally found so much more comfort in the teachings of Judaism after my loss, than I did in my own faith. Over time, I have been able to reclaim the richness of my own faith tradition, and see what it has to offer me too… but in the beginning, it felt hollow to me. Maybe it is easier to look outside your own faith tradition because it makes the wound less personal? A little like the angry child who goes to talk to her favorite aunt rather than her own loving mother when she is hurt.

    I digress…. there just isn’t enough room or time to write an adequate response to your thoughtful answer to such an excellent question. Maybe someday we can have that chat… 🙂

  5. Julia,
    “How would we appreciate life if there was no death?”

    Certainly that’s true. And of course in Genesis it also says that G-d said the world is good. Just good. Nothing else. So we apparently are to accept that all that looks bad is also good. I don’t take any comfort in that idea. But I see it as something I’m allowed to strive to accept, and I don’t really believe many people who say they have already achieved it.

    But I didn’t learn to appreciate life through my son’s death, even though my own survival ended up at risk. I might have appreciated it had Natan lived rather than me, but of course that choice was not available. It’s been so long since I had a sense of invincibility. It left me in little bits over the years. Maybe someone else took that lesson from Natan’s death and looked around at their own family and said a prayer of thankfulness and relief. That’s okay, but it wasn’t THE LESSON (and I know you weren’t saying it was).

    I think, as you do, that loss is just a part of the design.

  6. I knew there was a reason I waited to comment on this post. (Yes, that was me on your statcounter opening the page and then walking away to do errands while I thought on this.)

    I’m wondering about something here, in Genesis, G-d did all of those things, but he also gave us free choice. Yes, the world is good, G-d created it perfectly, with no flaws, but he also allowed humans free will, and we have chosen to screw it up royally, so why would we assume that G-d has anything to do with babies’ deaths?

    Last year the U.S. spent close to a hundred billion dollars on the military, and zero dollars on stillbirth research.

    Yes, ZERO.

    So it is no surprise to me that no one can explain Natan’s death or any of our babies deaths. We’ve made hideous choices in our society, and you and Josh and Natan and the rest of us are the collateral damage.

    G-d is weeping at the choices humans have made. But the deal was that he would not rush in and save us constantly if we wanted to direct our own lives and exercise free will.

    It is NOT a part of his plan to see this kind of suffering. The people who direct our society and make budget decisions, are sinning, horrendously, not you, not I, and not G-d and when I get angry now, I blame them.

    Can Judaism explain this, this way? I don’t know…I know this is what I’ve learned from a few decent theologians here and there. Most priests were zero comfort to me, but a few taught me this, and I read more and thought more about it, and now, I feel a much greater sense of peace.

  7. Well, I certainly agree with you Aurelia in terms of practicality. I don’t assume G-d has anything to do with the deaths of babies anymore than those of the elderly, or the fact that my cat just inexplicably got up from the chair where he was sleeping and meowed loudly as he left the room, seemingly pissed off about something.

    You’re right that there are probably solutions to be found here and that humans are making choices to put off finding them. Absolutely. And I absolutely can act on that myself.

    It’s just that as a religious person, I have to confront numerous levels of conflict within me, and this is one. And while this may not be part of the plan, well, aren’t we all responsible for unintended damages? Is G-d exempt from that? Maybe, but I’m too human to not even consider it.

  8. B, shit, that was a callous turn of phrase from me there, ha? I didn’t mean any particular death, of anyone, 0 or 100, of course. I meant death as a concept, as something that can happen at all. If no-one ever died, if we had no concept of death, than life itself would be a given. (Along with severe overpopulation, hence that interpretation of Genesis from my prof that I really really like. Can you tell?)

  9. Warning and apology: this is a long comment. But this post really made me think – think hard about the question if I recognize myself in the need to forgive the world or God for the loss of my stillborn son or so many other people’s children. Like Niobe, I think I would have to say no. I also found it difficult to praise and thank God in a time of grief, but somehow it was possible for me to continue in hope that the feeling of thankfulness would also come back at some point. I guess I find it hard to blame God for the imperfection of the world because I don’t see where God ever promises anyone that it would be perfect. It is true that Genesis said that God found the world “good”. But in thinking about what that might mean, I am reminded of something the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the difficulty of getting along with other people: thank God that God did not create my neighbor the way I would have created him.

    Bonhoeffer says that in the context of a discussion of the need to avoid mutual manipulation in a community, and so I think he means more than the didactic “God knows best what is good for us.” But rather that there is always a hint of manipulation in the search for perfection by our standards. Perhaps that holds true for judging the world as well as for other people. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make a world where less babies would have to die, but I don’t see that as a struggle against God, but against the ignorance, indifference, commercial interests etc. that stand against it.

    When I lost my son, my first thought was of my grandfather, whose eldest son fell in WWII in the German army when he was just 19 or so. When offered the chance to visit the grave after the war with money from the West German government, he refused, according to my grandmother, with the words “this sort of money should be spent on living children”. My situation was very different of course, because for one thing I didn’t know if I would ever have living children. But his memory helped me think that terrible injustices, and terrible entanglements of guilt, happen in the world and that accepting that is part of living in it.

    Having said all this, perhaps I just don’t understand the meaning of forgiveness very well: it always seems to me that it is impossible for a human being to consider forgiveness without being in some way arrogant, because forgiving implies first recognizing the faultiness of the person that needs forgiveness. Perhaps there is a more generous way of forgiving, and I haven’t matured to it yet.

  10. I know I have shared this quote before. I did after the loss of Meg’s survivorgirl. But it feels appropriate again here…

    “Nothing is an adequate substitute for presence. And death steals presence. For that alone, it is difficult for us to forgive the design of this world.” -Rabbi Wolpe

    That quote always resonates with me. I can accept that loss is an inevitable reality of this life. I can accept that it is not grounded in any human understanding of justice, or greater good. I can accept it, I just don’t like it.

  11. Excellent quote Lori! Thanks. It says basically what I was struggling to write just now.

  12. “Nothing is an adequate substitute for presence. And death steals presence. For that alone, it is difficult for us to forgive the design of this world.” -Rabbi Wolpe

    that is so beautiful…..would it be ok to use this on my Birdie Blog?

    How are things today…..I am thinking of you and wondering how you are each day that goes by.

  13. You didn’t struggle at all Beruriah, it was a very, very well put post. I’ve written a fair bit about god over the year and half since losing my daughter and it basically echos your thoughts, but not as well 🙂 Actually its inspiorsed me to write a little more, I obviously still have a lot in me on the subject. I didn’t think it’ll ever really leave us will it?

    Good luck for your future plans.


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