The Rabbi’s Lesson

Why does God allow suffering?  Twenty five years ago I often asked that question.  I was a new mother but my baby daughter was seriously ill.  Not only did she have Downs syndrome but the doctors had discovered a life-threatening heart defect. Just months after Sarah’s birth, she had surgery and for days, our family kept vigil by her bedside in intensive care.

Behind swinging steel doors marked: “Sterilized Area,”  our child lay in a corner crib.  Huddling over her bed, we held her tiny ashen hands.  We listened to the beat of her heart as thin lines on a nearby monitor etched her progress.  Nurses adjusted her breathing tubes and changed her bandages.  Meanwhile,  doctors murmured softly and wrote notes on clipboards.  “Her prognosis is grim”  they said.

Sometimes it was all too much and I needed to get away from the sterile syringes and the pulsing of electrocardiographs.   Each day, I slipped down the hall to a lobby lined with chairs.  There, I turned the pages of outdated magazines or watched talk shows.  I chewed on leathery apples from the vending machine.

Other parents sat there too,  parents like us,  parents whose children suffered from heart disease or cancer or ailments so rare I had never heard of them.  As I listened to their stories,  I wondered how God could allow such disappointment and pain.

Then, one day a new face arrived, a tall bearded man holding the hand of his five year old son. He wore the distinctive dark clothing of an Orthodox Jew; a tall dark hat with a brim, a long coal-colored coat with tails, and black tapered trousers.  Curious, I watched as he placed a shawl and a small black prayer book on his son’s lap.  Then he looked up an gave me a quick nod in greeting.

His name was Shimon.  A rabbi,  he had flown in from Boston that morning and was staying with a local Jewish community.  “My son needs a new kidney”   he told me.

As the days passed,  Shimon turned that lobby into a sort of living room.  He set a gold-framed picture of his family on a table next to the vending machine.  Each day he offered me kosher food from a brown paper bag; fresh-baked bread, red grapes, seasoned fish.  And every morning,  he put on the shawl and his yarmulke.  Then, with his prayer book opened he recited several Hebrew prayers in a soft voice.

Whenever he prayed,  I watched something amazing happen in the lobby.  One by one, each parent turned away from their magazines and talk shows.  Together, we bowed our heads.  I don’t think any of us knew or fully understood his prayers.  Most of us had come from Christian traditions, yet each of us felt a certain strength, a quiet comfort as he prayed.

In between those prayers and the breaking of bread,  Shimon and I conversed.  We talked of the cold Minnesota winters, the ocean breezes in Boston, our families and God.

Shimon spoke of the great I AM,  an inextinguishable fire that lead his people out of darkness.  “God is a brilliant flame that burns in times of uncertainty”  he said.  He was at peace with his God.  I,  on the other hand, found myself wondering if God even existed.  “God seems so far away.”  I told him.

Then, early one Sunday morning, Sarah took a turn for the worse.  The doctors discovered a staph infection in her blood. “It could take her life”  they said.

Our family surrounded her crib.  She lay almost lifeless,  her small body bruised from weeks of incisions, needles and stitches.  Like the other children in that ward,  she had battled more disease in a few short weeks than most people do in a lifetime. As I held her tiny hand,  I retreated to a dark, despairing place where the light of faith is snuffed out and God’s absence seems real.  Then, I made my way to the lobby and buried my head in my hands.

“Can I help you?” I heard the rabbi ask.

After a long silence,  I finally looked up.  “Shimon,” I asked,  “Why does God allow suffering?”

Shimon bowed his head.   For a few moments, he remained silent.  Then,  he turned to me and said something I will never forget: “I do not know much about the God you hold in your heart, ” he began, “except that he suffered and died on a cross.   Perhaps it is your suffering God who draws near to you now.”

His words lingered.  Images of Calvary began to fill my mind; the somber sky,  the nails of iron,  a cross on a hill.   In my minds eye,  I drew near to that cross.  I imagined a wounded Christ wrapping his arms around me, my sick baby, my husband, Shimon and every parent in that lobby.  An anguished God aching with the anguish of his children.

A warmth began to fill me.  It started out as an ember of hope but then quickly became a blaze of faith.  God was present.  I knew it.  I felt it.

Three days later,  Sarah recovered from the infection that had threatened her life.  With suitcases packed to leave the hospital,  I passed through the lobby one last time.  Cradling my baby,  I searched for Shimon to say good-bye.  He wasn’t there.  Some of the other parents in the lobby happily reported that a kidney had been found for Shimons son.  “He’s in surgery right now”  the parents said.

I scrawled a quick thank-you note on the back of a candy box and tucked it underneath his family picture.

It’s hard to believe that more than two decades have passed.

God gave Sarah twenty three beautiful years on earth, most of those years free from the physical challenges that defined her first weeks of life. Though she passed away just two years ago,  I am grateful for the time that God allowed her to grace our lives.  What a blessing she was and always will be.

I am also grateful for the wisdom Shimon imparted so many years ago.  The blazing flame of the great “I AM” always shines brighter than our darkest sorrows. And we are never, ever,  alone.

[Reprinted with permission from Guideposts. Copyright ©1997 by Guideposts.  All rights reserved.]

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