Thirty-six years ago, one fateful Sunday morning, my wife Rochel Leah suddenly passed away. I was 38 years old, and she was 36. We had 11 children together.
I’m a Chabad rabbi; I always had faith in God. But I couldn’t comprehend this. Why would God take away a mother, a pillar of our community, and my beloved wife? She was too young. It didn’t make any sense.
I didn’t stop believing in God. However, I was upset with Him. I gave Him the cold shoulder for some time. We were not on good terms. How could He let this happen?
A few years after Rochel Leah’s death, I was on a trip to Israel. There, away from my daily grind, I had some time and space to finally think about the events of the past few years.
And, everything hit me at once. Suddenly, I felt weak and dizzy. The color drained from my face, the events of the past few years flashed through my mind as the whole world seemed to be spinning around me.
I then realized: though I’d gone through the stages of grief, I hadn’t truly confronted my personal tragedy. Up until that moment, I didn’t really think deeply about it. And now I had to.
I went into intensive therapy while I was still in Israel to try to process everything. And when I got back home, I decided to review all the traditional Jewish teachings on this very topic to attempt to understand God’s role in what happened.
One of our universal teachings is that God is in control of the universe and that only He knows the big picture. We submit that we cannot always comprehend why God does what He does.
Rochel Leah’s death was an intentional and purposeful event coming from God. Why? I did not know then nor now why God chose me and my family for this trial, but I didn’t doubt that this was God’s plan.
When tragedy occurs, we do well when we can anchor ourselves on the bedrock of emunah, the faith that God is really the One Who runs our world and Whose intentions are only for the good, whether we understand it or not. Inculcating this belief is beyond philosophy or emotions. It goes to our very core, and it is an idea that is equally accessible and applicable to everyone, regardless of their nature or character.
When an innocent person suffers a tragic circumstance, where, we ask, is justice? Why was a righteous person “rewarded” with an early death? When facing these questions, we are often at a loss. A human being cannot know for sure why something bad happens to another person or why God allowed it. We can only speculate, but even that is like shooting darts with a blindfold on.
Consider how often we may be surprised to discover a deep truth about someone whom we have known for decades. Even that person’s longtime psychotherapist may still not know with certainty why this person may have taken a surprising action that they didn’t expect. If we can’t know why our fellow mortals do what they do, how much more so are we unable to correctly guess why God has chosen to allow an unexpected, seemingly unfair thing to happen?
We are especially bewildered and upset when a tragedy strikes a large number of people. We just cannot wrap our heads around the horror of hundreds of people dying when two jumbo jets collide, let alone hundreds of thousands of people perishing in a tsunami, or the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust. The numbers are so vast that they seem almost meaningless to us. They are not meaningless to God. We see only what happened; we don’t see God acting behind the scenes.
Rochel Leah passed away from a genetic heart condition we were unaware of. Three months later after her death, I read an article in the newspaper about what doctors had recently learned about that condition. Wow, I thought, if we had known this six months ago, my wife might still be alive. Then I responded to my own thought: If we were supposed to know about her heart condition six months ago, we would have known about it six months ago.
If I had allowed myself to become fixated on this “What if?” situation, it would not have brought my wife back. God chose what information we had and when we had it. We can drive ourselves crazy by living in the past in this way. We need to live life by driving forward, which is impossible if we are constantly staring in the rear-view mirror.
Rochel Leah lived for 36 years. She accomplished a great deal during those years, not the least of which was bringing 11 children into this world and raising them with love and dedication for as long as she did.
The soul is eternal. For me, this provides the comfort of knowing that Rochel Leah, their mother, is aware of her children to this day from her heavenly perch. She is deriving nachas, prideful joy, from each of them. The question of why she died at 36—and not at 72 or the proverbial 120 years—is not a question I can answer, nor one I can ask. Apparently, her mission was fulfilled in 36 years, and when it ended, so did her life. I have to handle that for myself.
So do my children, from the twins who were only 16 months old and don’t remember their mother, to the eldest child who was a teenager and took her death very hard. All of us, though, trust that God knew what He was doing. Tragedy opens us up in many ways, and can redirect us on a path entirely different from the path we were on previously, including that can refine us and enable us see this truth.
If we were capable of refining or purifying our souls without tragedy to guide us, we might be more like angels than human beings. However, angels are static—they never change. Human beings are dynamic—we can grow and change beyond anything we might have imagined. Think about this: It takes a lot of pressure to turn carbon into diamonds. If we can withstand the pressure, we will sparkle as never before.