A little while back, I picked up a book by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, called ‘Finding Light in the Darkness.’ Shaul was in the same school as my husband, albeit a couple of years’ above him; and when he started Aish HaTorah in the UK, he gave a few shiurim in our home.
But Shaul stopped giving shiurim after a month or two, and a couple of his colleagues from Aish took over. At the time, we didn’t know why. Today, we know that his wife, Elana, had been diagnosed with the cancer that was going to claim her life at a very young age.
Rabbi Rosenblatt is a Baal Teshuva. In his book, he’s very open and honest about how he came to be frum; how he came to be married to Elana, and how he struggled to cope with the terrible blow that was his wife’s death.
Why am I telling you all this? Because one of the themes that comes through again and again on Beyond BT (although I think it’s probably applicable to every single Jew on the planet) is that most of us can only accept G-d’s domination over our lives – to a point.
And usually, that point is well within our comfort zones. For some people, it stops well short of considering or attempting aliya. For others, it comes when they think about how their professional careers or businesses would suffer too much if they didn’t keep things ticking over by working on Shabbat or bending a few laws on monetary matters. For others, it takes the form of being unable to accept that as a woman, they won’t be treated exactly the same as a man in shul.
These are just a few examples of how belief in G-d can stretch us out of comfort zones; I’m sure that everyone can add their own.
Then there are the people who can’t accept that G-d is running the show because they have experienced some terrible heartbreak, upset or tragedy. Many of these people can’ t understand how a kind, loving G-d could send them so much apparent suffering, in whatever form it comes. They can’t accept that this is how G-d runs his world – and so, they reject Him.
If Hashem hadn’t tested them so much, they would probably still believe in him. Or at least, that’s what they say. But it begs the question: what sort of belief is it in the first place, if it’s conditional on everything always going their way? That sounds more like an insurance policy for ‘the good life’ than genuine faith; or perhaps even like a clumsy sort of spiritual blackmail – “treat me nice, Hashem, or I’m not going to do what you want / keep your commandments”.
(By the way, let me just make clear here that this post is NOT about judging other people. It’s about taking an honest look in the mirror.)
As Rabbi Rosenblatt makes clear in his book, any test we are sent, we can ultimately pass. And every test we are sent is ultimately for our good.
And his life experiences have given him the authority to say these things. He went through all of the ups and down any BT goes through when they become religious; he devoted himself to helping more jews get closer to Hashem; he married a woman who by all accounts was one of the nicest, kindest, most sincere and genuinely pious people you could wish to meet.
(I have a friend who was very close to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s wife, Elana, and even before her illness, I used to hear glowing reports of her kindness, and all the effort she used to put into becoming a better jew and helping other people.)
And how was he rewarded for all his devotion and hard work? He lost his wife to cancer at the age or 32, when the youngest of their four children was still a baby.
If he wanted to, Rabbi Rosenblatt has every ‘justification’ for going off the derech. Instead, he wrote a book about finding light in the darkness. About using suffering as a mechanism for coming closer to Hashem. About understanding that even if you are doing your best to follow his laws, to live according to his Torah and to pray for your wife to recover from a terminal illness, G-d is not a vending machine.
You don’t put prayer in, and get a solution to all your problems out. You do sometimes; often, even. But not always. Because G-d knows what we need better than we ourselves do. We are often too clouded by ego, appetites, or emotions to have an accurate picture of what we really need in this life – and it gets even more complicated when the needs of the afterlife are also factored in to the equation.
This is something that I’ve certainly struggled with, at times, over the past couple of years. But reading Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book helped me to understand that there is so much about G-d that we, as limited humans, simply can’t understand. And that everything he does, is ultimately for the good.
‘Submission’ is not a popular word in the West; it has connotations of being forced to do something against our will, of being humbled, or negating ourselves, and our sense of self-importance.
That’s why we don’t like it – it grates harshly on a Western mentality that is taught to believe in the supremacy of the individual from a very young age. We all like to think that we are important, that our opinions count (as I’m sure will be borne out by the comments on this post….)
Yet in some very important ways, Hashem wants us to submit. He wants us to get to a point where we can accept that we simply don’t understand, and that we don’t need to. G-d is running the show. We can rant or rail at him all we want – what does it change? Or we can try our best to accept that G-d knows what we need better than we do, and to do our best to be happy about it – even when it hurts.
It’s probably the single hardest thing for any or us to do – I’m certainly still struggling with it.
I can’t do justice to Rabbi Rosenblatt’s book – or the very profound ideas he writes very cogently about – in a short post. If anything in this post strikes a wrong chord, it’s probably my (mis)interpretation – please don’t have a go at him in the comments! Instead, go and read his book and get it from the horse’s mouth.
I want to leave you with a direct quote from the book:
“I ask you to ask yourself – and be brutally honest – what are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To avoid pain? To live out seventy or eighty years of life with the least challenge possible? If this is your aim, then many ‘bad’ things will happen along the way – because this is a world of pain, and pain is antithetical to all that you are living for.
“If however, you believe, as I do, that we are to lift ourselves into Godliness, to grow and to ultimately attain self-perfection, than all that happens to us is a golden opportunity – and the more challenging it is, the greater that opportunity.”