I was a pretty good teenager, if I do say so myself. My biggest rebellion was becoming an Orthodox Jew. Then again, there was that pesky nihilistic phase I went through in high school.
I had been searching for the meaning of life since the age of eight when I asked my parents one day why we’re alive only to discover they had no idea. (Incidentally, no one else I asked seemed to know either.)
Such a realization was extremely devastating. I had been born into a pretty cushy life: close family, good friends, health, affluence. The sum total of my world equaled happiness.
But it occurred to me that none of it was guaranteed to last. In a split second my picture-perfect existence could flip flop, and I could become a homeless, disease-ridden orphan.
If life had no meaning or direction, then events were random and based only on luck. Who knew what the future would bring? The idea of losing my good fortune prevented me from enjoying it even while I had it.
Though I stayed as normal as I could with such thoughts floating through my head, by the time I got to high school, I began to cope with my angst by telling anyone who complained about anything, “It doesn’t matter, you’re gonna die anyway.”
Then, thankfully, after eight years of insomnia, panic attacks, and overall pessimism, my life took a spiritual turn for the better. To make a very long story short, I discovered that there is a Unity to all things one day while hiking through a tropical rain forest in Hawaii while on a family vacation.
I had grown up hearing about God, but the concept never seemed too compelling to me – especially in a world with so much sorrow. In this rain forest, though, I came across a tree that looked like it had been painted by someone. When I looked to the top and saw that the colors (swirls of pink, green, and purple) continued all the way up, I was hit by a moment of clarity where I detected a Unity that ran through everything.
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened in that moment, but I suddenly sensed that every piece of the universe had its own time and place and was working together in a perfect harmony. And despite being raised to think of God as an old man with a white beard, the Unity that I stumbled upon was actually the correct Jewish definition of God.
A couple years later, while studying in Israel, I learned that this Unity I had discovered is actually described in one of the most well-known verses of our heritage – the shema. I had always thought that the shema “Hear O, Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One,” was nothing more than a declaration of how many Gods we Jews have. The idolaters had many – we have only one.
In this class, though, I learned that the Hebrew root of the word “one,” “echad” is actually connected to the word “achdus” which means unity. I also learned that Jacob (our forefather) upon being reunited with his long lost son, Joseph, recited the shema through his tears on Joseph’s shoulder.
It’s in Jacob’s recitation of the shema that we find the key to hope and optimism within Judaism. Sometimes God relates to us as a judge and we see harsh results in our lives. Other times, God relates to us as a parent, and we’re given more compassion than we actually deserve. Both of these attributes of God, which are respectively described in God’s names “Elokeinu” and “Adonai,” are one. Both come from the same source.
What that means is that the good and the bad are both ultimately good. We can’t always understand God’s ways, and there surely is pain and suffering in our world, but living my life knowing that everything that happens has a reason, a purpose, and ultimately comes from the Source of All Goodness turned a once despairing teenager into an optimistic adult.
This article was originally published on www.jwrp.org.