Suffering is Precious

When I was preparing for a text study on the closing chapters of 2 Kings, I came across the following midrash (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a-b):

Our masters taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders–R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiva–came to visit him.

R. Akiva spoke up and said, “Suffering is precious.”

At that, R. Eliezer said to his disciples, “Prop me up, that I may hear [better] the words of Akiva, my disciple, who has said, ‘Suffering is precious.’ What proof have you, Akiva, my son, for saying it?” R. Akiva replied, “Master, I draw such inference from the verse ‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . . and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’ [2 Kings 21:1-2]. I consider this verse in the light of another: ‘These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out [for widespread instruction]’ [Prov. 25:1]. Now, is it conceivable that Hezekiah king of Judah taught Torah to the whole world, to all of it, but not to Manasseh, his own son? Of course not! Yet all the pains that Hezekiah took with him and all the labor that he lavished upon him did not bring him onto the right path. Only Manasseh’s suffering did so, as is written, ‘And the Lord spoke to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed. Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains and the host of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles. . . . And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and He answered his entreaty’ [2 Chron. 33:10-13)]. You may thus infer how precious is suffering.”

Rabbi Akiva explains that King Manasseh of Judah did not follow the correct path, not even when his father Hezekiah taught him Torah. The only thing that brought Manasseh close to God is when he was captured by the Assyrians and held captive. In his suffering, he called out to God. Thus, Akiva says, suffering is precious because it brings a person closer to God.

Sometimes we look for texts, and sometimes texts find us. This jumped out at me because not long ago like Rabbi Eliezer I was suffering on my sickbed, struck down with meningitis. I am doing well now, but I still have the mindset of recovering.

I was struck by Rabbi Akiva’s comment. At first glance I am repulsed by his suggestion. He suggests that there is value in suffering, that suffering elevates one, that suffering brings one closer to God. For those who have suffered, in whatever form, there appears to be no redeeming value to it.

Yet when I read this over again, I had a different reaction. Suffering is “precious,” perhaps, because it gives one the opportunity to have a new spiritual perspective one didn’t have before. This doesn’t mean that we should wish suffering for ourselves or another. This doesn’t mean we can grow spiritually in other ways, in the absence of suffering. But when it does happen, if it does happen, it gives us an opportunity.

I don’t wish meningitis on anyone. But I will take the fact that it happened to ask myself, is there any lesson here? Is there anything I can take away from this experience that will then make my post-meningitis life different, or better? To have the opportunity to think deeply about that question is in and of itself precious.

Awake, Calm and Stable

I’m back. Or, at least, getting there.

I thank you for your patience, readers of this column, as I took the past month off from writing as part of my unexpected medical leave. As you may have heard, in the beginning of January I came down with bacterial meningitis.

So what happened? After a difficult evening of the 30th with a bad headache and nausea, it became clear in the morning something was more seriously wrong when I became incoherent. After calling my primary care doctor who advised a trip to the ER, my wife Yohanna called the paramedics. Soon my bedroom was filled with firefighters and EMTs assessing my condition, asking me questions (testing my incoherence) and finally strapping me to a gurney to take me to the hospital.

This is where I experienced one way our bodies have a built-in coping mechanism…I don’t remember anything for the next 24 hours. I remember being strapped to the gurney and the cold air as I was carried out my front door. The next think I know it was the next day, and I was at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue in the ICU. (As it turns out there were no ICU beds in Olympia or Tacoma.)

The details were filled in by Yohanna: The initial trip to Providence St. Peter’s Hospital. CT scan and spinal tap to diagnose the meningitis. Being restrained since I kept trying to get up. My kids being brought into the ER for preventative injections. Transfer to Overlake via ambulance and being watched the entire night to make sure nothing else happened. Quite nerve-wracking, and I’m glad I don’t remember.

In total I spent about two and half days in the ICU, and two and a half days in a regular hospital room. After admission on Monday I was discharged on Friday, and was able to continue to recoup at home. Hospitals are hard places to get well-you are constantly being poked and prodded, checked and rechecked, and the number of tubes and wires can impede your rest. It was good to come home, but my treatment continued–I had a midline put in at the hospital and I had to infuse myself with antibiotics twice a day for a week and a half more (two weeks total, including the time in the hospital). And now, a month since I entered the hospital, I’m feeling better, though admittedly, not 100%.

Over the past month, mindful of my energy level, I started to come back to work and resume some of my duties. This is where I needed to learn patience. Recovery can be a long process, even when the initial illness has passed. For something that is such a shock to the system, it may take a while for the body to bounce back. I was taking some heavy duty antibiotics, and even the hospital stay can do a number on you. (My doctor at the hospital said that his rule of thumb is for each day a person spends in the hospital–for any reason–it is a week to recover.) My sister had a friend who had meningitis, and she said that it took her several weeks to get back to normal. And this is where I am now–my energy still wanes some, and I’ll still get the occasional headache, but every day I feel a bit stronger. (I feel strong enough to attend a conference back east next week which I have been looking forward to for some time.)

Events like these–illnesses that without warning suddenly appear–are causes for reflection, for opportunities to cultivate gratitude and a renewed sense of life. Yet like recovery from illness, this reflective part is also sometimes long and difficult. But I do recall one snapshot from my time in the ICU.


In each hospital room there is a board on which the nurse for that shift will write his or her name, along with the name of the patient, doctor and any other notes.  I was struck by these short notes about my condition:

  • Awake and calm
  • Vitals stable

These were the “goals,” these were the good signs. What made the sign so interesting to me is that these words describe what it is we perhaps all aspire to. Whatever we attempt, whatever course we chart in life, whatever undertaking we commit to, we ultimately want to get to a place where we are awake, calm and stable. We hope to get to a place where we are grounded, rooted and able to take in all that surrounds us.

The mussar tradition, the school of Jewish thought which stresses character traits and their development, speaks of the trait of equanimity, or in Hebrew, menuhat ha-nefesh, or “calmness of the soul.” We are taught that in developing this trait we must “rise above events that are inconsequential” (Heshbon Ha’nefesh, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov) and develop an inner resolve to face that which life presents to us. We can not always control what life throws at us, but we can control how we react to it. We must cultivate within ourselves the ability to be awake, calm and stable.

I met those goals in the hospital, and I hope to continue to meet them in life. I continue my recovery, and while I am anxious to get back, I need to be mindful of my energy level and abilities. I look forward to fully reintegrating into my rabbinic work and congregational life. Thank you again for your support, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Be a Mentsch

There is a nice confluence this year with the end of the Gregorian calendar coinciding with parashat Vayehi, the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis.

As we say goodbye to 2013, we are also turning the page on our weekly Torah reading cycle. The Jewish liturgical cycle has us read the entire Torah in its entirety from beginning to end in order. At the end of each of the five books it is an opportunity to take a breath and note where we are in this spiritual textual journey. The nice confluence is that we are doing this at the same time in our (secular) lives as we note the passage of time and make a resolution or two.

The end of Genesis marks the end of the saga of our spiritual ancestors. The familiar story of Joseph, who, despised by his brothers and sold into slavery, rises to the top of Egyptian society and is then able to save his family, comes to an end. Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of the clan are reunited with Joseph as the family settles in Egypt, setting the stage for the next part of the Torah narrative: slavery and exodus. Our story will shift from a familial narrative to a national narrative. The clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who is renamed Israel after wresting with an angel) give way to am Yisrael, the People of Israel.

The content of this parasha is the death of Jacob. However, before he dies, he blesses the sons of Joseph, and gives a charge to each of his sons. He is giving his last words of counsel, relaying his ethical will and providing closure to his life and setting the course for his descendants, the next generation. It is something that we should all be blessed to have the ability to do, to provide a summary of our thoughts and values at the end of life so that those who come after us will not only receive a bequest of items, but thoughts and values.

The haftarah–the reading from the prophetic books of the Bible which accompanies each week’s Torah reading–echoes this theme. The short passage is drawn from the First Book of Kings and describes King David’s charge to his son Solomon. David is about to die, and so calls in Solomon to both share with him a set of values and also some specific tasks he is to accomplish on David’s behalf.

[If you have spent time in Torah study with me you will know that The Godfather is one of my favorite movies. I like it because it is an epic film that echoes many biblical themes, and is therefore a contemporary reference point for the biblical narrative. If you haven’t seen it, you can skip the next paragraph. Or better yet, skip the next paragraph to go watch it, then come back!

This week’s reading from First Kings reminds me of the scene in which Vito Corleone is talking to his son Michael in the garden. Vito is about to die, though he doesn’t know it (he will die suddenly of a heart attack) but he is stepping away from his leadership of the Mafia organization he developed. This evocative scene is a charge from one generation to the next. Accepting with reluctance Michael’s succession as the head of the crime family, Vito charges Michael with what he is to do next and who he is to take care of. It is, like many scenes from the film, beautiful and poignant.]

David’s charge to Solomon is also beautiful and poignant, and while David also gives a Solomon a list of political enemies who need to be dealt with, what he has to say can be summed in the first three words he shares with Solomon-v‘chazakta v’hayita l’ish-be strong and be a man. But rather than an allusion to some sort of stereotypical masculine norm, David means for Solomon to be a full human being. And how does one do this? Solomon must, David continues, “walk in God’s ways.” A full human being is one who follows the path of the divine, who walks a path of righteousness, of justice, of love and of the good. To do so takes much inner strength.

As we turn the page in the book, as we turn the leaves of the calendar, we too can heed this charge of David. We too are called upon to be strong and to fully realize our human potential. We too are called upon to walk the path of righteousness and the good. Let’s commit ourselves once again to taking the necessary steps to walk this path as we continue our lives’ journey.

This becomes all that more important when we think of our place in our community. The ancient rabbinic commentators reframed this passage from First Kings when they wrote: “in the place where there are no human beings, try to be one.” (Pirke Avot 2:6) We have faced some difficult times in this past month with the tragedy of Newtown, and other times when it was seeming that humanity was lacking. We have the opportunity to address with renewed vigor some of these issues plaguing our society. To do so we must all heed this call from David, from the rabbis:

Be strong and walk with God, especially when the road is empty. This is what it means to become fully human. And if you start walking, others will follow.

Newtown and Our Town

We are all still reeling from the events last week in Newtown, Connecticut. The brutal killing of 27 people, including 20 young children, is heart breaking. That day I had spent the morning in my son’s kindergarten classroom as he was honored as the week’s VIP. We shared pictures, I made latkes and his teacher read a wonderful book the other kids made for him. I didn’t have time to take in the news that morning before arriving at the school other than knowing there was a shooting somewhere, and I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t know if I could have made it through that hour knowing all those details.

Returning to the Temple office afterwards I turned to the news. Every hour following the episode, as new details emerged, was gut wrenching. For days afterwards we all have walked around in a haze of disbelief, of anger, of sadness, of despair. And now we watch the first of the funerals for the adults and children the same age as my youngest son (He turns six on Sunday). Brutal.

More details will continue to emerge over time about what happened, and a more complete picture of what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary will be made. Already we have begun to engage in a collective soul searching as to what led to this tragedy. Already people are offering up and debating many different and seemingly contradictory issues that lie at the heart of this massacre: access to weaponry, mental illness, security, the place of violence in media, and on and on.

Hanukkah, which we concluded last week, has many different and seemingly contradictory interpretations and understandings about what the holiday is all about: It is about the miracle of the oil and miracles in general. It is about religious liberty. It is about overcoming oppression. It is about the victory of Torah and tradition over secularism. It is about anti-assimilation. It is about spiritual light in a time of darkness. And yet, it is not any one of those things–it is every one of those things.

The same is true with Newtown–it is not any one of those factors mentioned, it is all of those factors.

I have no doubt that gun control must be a legislative priority moving forward. Yes, a gun is a tool and it requires someone to operate it; guns themselves don’t kill people. But I also know that I would not have eaten so much chocolate gelt last week if I didn’t have a bowl of it sitting on my dining room table. There is something to be said about access and opportunity. If we limit access, then the opportunity will be that much more difficult to take up. There is simply no reason that semiautomatic assault weapons and large magazines of ammunition need to be accessible to the general public. The President’s words yesterday are encouraging, and I hope synagogues and other faith communities join together to address this issue of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.

I do worry, too, that we are being desensitized to violence. Our country has carried out two wars in the last decade without any significant impact to our daily lives and routine. The increasing sophistication in video game technology makes realistic looking violence into a game to be turned on and off, in which one has unlimited “lives” and one progresses by acquiring bigger and more powerful weapons. Many television shows feature murders and killers, and movies as well have become increasingly graphic and violent. Violence is a part of human history and human society, true, but the means to overcome it is not to sanitize it, but to confront its realities.

And, I am concerned that as we enter into a new era of health care in this country, that we make concerted efforts to address how mental health services are distributed. How mental illness played a role in this incident we don’t know for sure, and may never know. But the fact that the shooter may have struggled with some issues (though there are efforts to completely blame or absolve the role of mental illness in this shooting), does raise the issue of mental illness in our society generally. This is an issue which touches us all, either on the personal or societal level.

These are all policy discussions which I hope we have and continue to have as we move forward. Yet underlying all of these issues, the debate over gun ownership, access and rights, the debate over mental health services and health care in general, is something more systemic and difficult to overcome–the ethic of individualism which defines our American culture.

We live in a culture where issues of public concern are trumped by individual rights. Where communal structures and governments are seen as impositions not benefits. Where we do not take responsibility for one another, we only look out for ourselves. Where we take and take, but hesitate to give. Where we are concerned so long as it affects us, and when it doesn’t, it is not our problem.

One article I read in the aftermath was about many of the shooters in these mass shootings recently are young men. What is it about our society that leads these people to do horrendous acts? To devalue another human life so much so as to end it? To become disaffected? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, in light of human crimes, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” To close the book on Newtown with a few policy changes and tagging Adam Lanza as an isolated case would mean we truly have not grown beyond this incident. We must ask ourselves some hard questions. Newtown deserves a spiritual response as much as a policy response.

We have basic physical needs as people: food, shelter, medicine. But also we have spiritual needs: the need to love and be loved, to feel one’s life has purpose, meaning, value. To be supported by a caring community. To have a sense of a past and a future. This is where we start. By making sure these needs are met, and by overcoming this ethic of individualism. By making sure that we are responsible for one another.

Newtown is thousands of miles away, but we start, as we always must start, with our town. There are means to meet these spiritual needs. Connection to sacred community and sacred tradition is one way.

In lighting the last of the Hanukkah lights this past Friday and Saturday, the gloom of Newtown was palpable. And yet when we lit the lights, and especially at our Temple Beth Hatfiloh Hanukkah party, when all those in attendance were illuminated by the candles on the menorah, when especially the faces of our children were aglow in sacred light, there was a flicker of hope. Hope that we can light up the darkness, that the realities of violence and fear do not have to be our future.

So what do we do in response to the shooting at Newtown? We mourn and grieve. We enact some legislation which addresses the tangible concerns. But on a much deeper level we must reinforce our responsibility for one another’s welfare and well-being. We must talk and share and be with one another. We must see every child as our child. We must construct networks of connection so no one lives in isolation. We must have an attitude of hope and not despair. We must give and receive love, and hugs, and shoulders, and an outstretched arm.

If we are all holding another’s hand, no one will be able to pull the trigger.

Welcome to my blog

Third time is a charm, they say. This is my third attempt at a blog. It is an opportunity to share my thoughts, musings, links, etc.–but you already know what a blog is. I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and environs, hence the title of this blog. 360 is the area code for the Olympia area, but also the degrees of a full circle. I hope to engage with all that which is around me. There is no connection to Anderson Cooper, nor am I as handsome as he is.

The chickens are my pets, urban chicken farming is my main avocation. Like them I hope to do the same here: scratch and peck and hopefully come up with something useful.