The Theological Question is Not “Why” but “What”

This past week we marked the turn of the new Gregorian year. For me, December 31 marks a more auspicious and serious anniversary.

On December 31, 2012  I woke up quite ill. I had a bad headache and had nausea, what appeared to be a bad flu. I slept in, but then needed to communicate with my wife Yohanna about a work commitment I had that day, and the need to make alternative arrangements. While I was clear in my mind what I was saying, I apparently was not making sense. After a call to my primary doctor to check in, she called the paramedics who came and carried me out of my house.

Twenty-four hours later I was in the ICU with a diagnosis of bacterial meningitis. After five days in the hospital followed by two weeks of antibiotic infusions at home, I had survived this rare disease that is often fatal. Indeed, if I had waited longer to go to the emergency room, I might not have made it.

And not only did I survive, but I survived without any long term complications, which is also quite rare.

I am very grateful for my survival, for the medical care I received (and the health insurance I carry), and for Yohanna’s ability to manage the situation and get me to where I needed to be. And, I’m very humbled by the fact of how lucky I was that the timing worked in my favor, that Yohanna was around to realize something was wrong, that I had access to care.

Since that time, though, I have tried to make sense of what it all means, and this has been my primary spiritual challenge for the past six years. For while I can access gratitude and humility–and with it the compassion for others who ail and need care–I am still troubled by the sheer randomness of it all, the knowledge that life turns on a dime, and the fact that our mighty bodies can be easily felled by a microscopic entity.

Part of this challenge comes from the fact that we are embodied creatures, while we are comprised of emotion, personality, and conscious thought, we are still held in a fragile physical form. I recognize the godly power we have to heal from our brokenness. And yet I waver between recognizing the fact that our bodies are a gift, so we are obligated to take care of them the best that we can, and the fact that our bodies are temporary and fragile, so we might as well enjoy them while we have them. The distance between broccoli and M&Ms is a theological one that I am continually navigating.

And part of this challenge comes from the perennial question of “why?”  We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, we need answers both physical and spiritual. When I asked the doctor why I got meningitis and was it related to a neurosurgery I had a few years before, he said it was possible, but ultimately they don’t know why anyone gets meningitis.

And the spiritual question is “why me?” We tend to ask this question when things happen to us (though usually during times of pain rather than success). Even when the physical path is clear, we are still riddled with doubt over why things happen to us. Why did I get meningitis? I don’t know. While I have my share of sins–yelling at my kids, not calling my parents enough, enjoying lashon hara too much–I don’t believe I have done anything major that rises to the level of a fatal illness.

I can not see physical reactions as responses to spiritual deficiencies. If we believe in a God that is good, and just, and powerful, then either I or God is deficient. I tend to think that neither is the truth. I fall short and have the power to change. God too, as the Torah teaches, is also trying to figure it out. God does not have a plan that is a mystery to us, God is a mystery who does not have a plan.

The problem is not with the answer, but with the question. To ask “why” is the wrong theological question. It is a question with no answer and thus an exercise in speculation and rationalization. The correct question is “what.” In other words, the theological response to difficult situations is not “why did this happen?” but “now that this happened, what do I do?”

God, here, has answers for us. God serves as that model for both expressing anger and pain, and contemplation and growth. We emulate the values of compassion and justice and love and mercy that God also demonstrates in our sacred texts.

An example is found in last week’s Torah portion of Shemot, which begins the Book of Exodus. In it God reveals Godself to Moses at the burning bush, telling him that he will be the one to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. Moses resists, first by saying he is not the right person, then asking for God’s name, then asking how the people will believe him.

After each response is answered, Moses says that he is not the right person for the job because he is “heavy of mouth and tongue”–he does not speak well or easily. God replies,

Who gives a person speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, God? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.

Moses then pushes back again, and God, angry at this point, says,

There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do—and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him, and take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs.

In response to his first questions of “why me?” God responds that it was God’s decision and that is final. In a strict traditional reading this could be understood that God sets an agenda that humans must follow. But in another way of understanding the text, God is telling Moses that the “why” is beyond him, and he should not be concerned with it. “Why” is not the right question.

And so the response is something practical; his brother Aaron will help him. The “why” of his selection is a fact. The next step, the correct response, is “what.” What do I do now, in this new reality, to bring godliness in the world, to live a life of love and justice, to bring expansiveness to those confined? These are the right theological questions.

Evidence is seen earlier as well with Abraham in Genesis. God tells Abraham to lech lecha “go forth” to a new land and form a new covenant. Why is Abraham chosen? We do not know. What is he called upon to do? To set a new direction to bring holiness into the world.

The “what” of our lives can sometimes seem elusive, but mostly if we think of it as needing to be a major endeavor of the scale of Moses and Abraham. I wrestle with this too, wondering if there is something big, special, or unique that I should be doing because of my survival. In the meantime, I try to embody the “what” in the life I was given.

Six years ago this week I was struck down, and I was spared. When things like this happen, it is only natural that we continue to wrestle with their meaning. I will continue to ask “what?” and continue to seek answers.

And, for now at least, I’ll eat both broccoli AND M&Ms.


4 responses to “The Theological Question is Not “Why” but “What””

  1. Doreen Garcia Avatar
    Doreen Garcia

    Bravo Seth. I’d love to chat with you about this sometime soon given our similar experiences.


    Doreen Garcia


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rabbi360 Avatar

      Thanks Doreen! Would love to chat!


  2. Sue Prince Avatar
    Sue Prince

    As I enter my 80th year, the questions of ‘why’ and ‘what’ occur more than once daily as I navigate with a steadying cane. The physical body demands not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’. The ‘why’ is obvious.


    1. Rabbi360 Avatar

      Thanks for sharing Sue!


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