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Segal: Responding to loss

David Segal
Commentary

Our community suffered two tragic losses on Monday, two young mothers taken before their time. We mourn Gunilla Asher and Lani Shaw, and we struggle to ask why and how this can happen.

Decades ago, theologians developed the discipline of post-holocaust theology as the world tried to come to terms with the enormity of that evil and to reckon with God’s existence — and apparent absence — in light of it. But it doesn’t take a tragedy of that magnitude (nor a theologian) to question and even accuse God. What kind of God allows two mothers to pass away so young, with so much mothering left to do and love yet to give, with so much still to contribute to their families and community?

In the wake of tragedy, the philosopher asks, “If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then how can evil and suffering exist?” Responses to this “Problem of Evil” run the gamut. The traditional religious view says that God is benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, but what we define as evil only looks that way from our finite human perspective. That view has a certain logical coherence and may work for some believers, but I find it impossible to tell a grieving parent, spouse or child that their untimely loss is part of some grand plan. I don’t believe it, myself.

Alternatively, as Rabbi Terry Bookman, of Miami, has been known to say, “God as all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful — pick any two.” This view sidesteps the theological puzzle by challenging the traditional image of God as a Santa Claus type who catalogs our deeds and metes out reward and punishment accordingly. Perhaps God is a loving presence who doesn’t­ or can’t always act in the world as we would wish.

Of course, in the face of actual grief, raising theological questions can be tone-deaf and out of touch. It’s natural to seek answers in suffering, but no one can adequately explain why bad things happen to good people.

In these moments, I turn to the Book of Job — not because it offers logical answers but because it tells a story of human experience that we can relate to. Job, a righteous and prosperous man, is put to the test after God and the adversary argue about whether his piety will survive extreme suffering and loss. God allows Job’s property to be stolen or destroyed, his body to be afflicted and his children to be killed. Job’s response is to accuse and call God to account for what befell him: “Indeed, I would speak to the Almighty. I insist on arguing with God” (Job 13:3).

Job’s friends come calling to lecture him on the nature of suffering. Their words are not comforting, to say the least. They utter such gems as, “Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed?” (Job 4:7) — as if it weren’t self-evident that good people suffer every day.

When God finally enters the story, it’s to chastise everyone for presuming to explain divine motives: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding!” (Job 38:4). And there’s no love lost for Job’s friends and their shoddy theology. As God says to one of them, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me as did my servant Job” (Job 42:7).

Where his friends are arrogant, Job is humble. At the same time, he doesn’t simply roll over and take life’s beating without objection. It’s this two-part approach that God approves and rewards: a fist shaken at the heavens to demand an explanation, along with the head hung low to acknowledge that we humans simply can’t make sense of the universe.

In the end, perhaps “Why?” isn’t the right question. Let’s ask instead, “What now?” That’s not so easy, either, but it starts with being a loving presence to those who grieve by meeting them in their anger, sorrow and questioning without trying to fix them. After all of Job’s tragedies, his friends and family finally get it right: “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and had a meal with him in his house. They consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).

Maybe all we can do is be there for one another to break bread, share stories and cry together. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or rabbi@aspenjewish.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.


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