Explaining Life to the Suffering

Recently, when visiting my ailing father the following happened:

It was 3:30 a.m.  My father was sitting in his wheelchair.  He was helped into his wheelchair by the 24 hour nurse.  He was just too weak to lift himself.  “I don’t have any strength” he said.   

So it has been for a year that he goes to sleep and after an hour or two wakes up and stays awake.    He has a drink of tea and then is helped back to bed.  He sleeps another hour or two and then gets up and asks to be put back into the wheelchair and have tea and biscuits.  He stays up as long as he can and then falls asleep in the chair.

This is his nightly routine.  It’s every night, week after week, month after month.  Nothing changes.  Somehow his nights are extensions of daytime.  He just can’t sleep a regular night.  Days have become nights and everything is topsy turvy.

Well, that night I could not sleep so I joined my dear father at 3:30 a.m. for tea and a philosophy talk. 

Why live when enduring so much pain and suffering?  Why have his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren live with the agony of seeing him in pain?  Why go on trying to live, he hinted.  It was a sad night indeed.  Both of us were coming to terms and were having a father son moment. 

I thought for that moment and said that from my education I have made this observation.  “It’s not up to us to deal with finding a reason to live or to die.  It’s up to G‑d Almighty.”

Let me qualify with a teaching of Judaism.

In the Talmud the Rabbis taught:  For two and a half years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel differed:  The former said:  “It would have been better for man not to have been born at all than to have been born.”  The latter said:  “It would have been better for man to have been born than not to have been born.”  Their votes were finally taken, and it was decided:  It would have been better for man not to have been born at all than to have been born.  But since he has been born, let him investigate his past doings.  And others say:  Let him examine what he is doing (Erubin 13b).


A Midrash says that when Moshe, the first Jewish prophet, petitioned G‑d, “Please reveal to me Your ways of in treating the world,” G‑d replied, “No man can see Me and live!”  Before his death G‑d wanted to demonstrate Moshe’s greatness to the Heavenly hosts.  He therefore called the angel Gavriel and ordered him, “Go and bring to Me Moshe’s soul!”

“Master of the Universe, how can I cause the death of a human being who is equal to the Jewish nation?”

Then G‑d commanded angel Michael to carry out the mission.

“I cannot bear to see him die,” replied Michael.  “I used to be his rebbe - teacher.” 

The Almighty then turned to the Angel of Death, “Go and bring to Me Moshe’s soul!”

The Angel of Death took hold of his sword ready to carry out his mission.  When he found Moshe he was writing in a sefer Torah.

“I came to take your soul” said the Angel of Death.

“And who sent you?” Moshe asked.

“G‑d Who created all,” replied the Angel of Death.

 “I take the souls of all human beings, such is the natural law of the universe.”

“But I am not subject to the laws of nature,” insisted Moshe.  “I am the son of Amram, the past leader of the Jews in Egypt.  I am holy from birth.  I was able to walk and talk on the day of my birth like Adam.  When I was eighty years old, G‑d had me perform many miracles in Egypt.  I led the exodus of 600,000 Jews in broad daylight out of Egypt.  I split the Sea into twelve parts.  I turned waters bitter, sweet.  I sojourned in heaven and conversed with the Almighty face-to-face.  I brought the Torah and the secrets of angels down to mankind.  I fought against the mighty giants Sichon and Og.  I made the sun and moon stand still during battles.

“Who else, among mankind, can do all this?  Natural laws that allows you to take man’s soul does not apply to me.”

The Angel of Death, confounded, conceded defeat.

Then a Heavenly Voice proclaimed, “Moshe, the time of your death is at hand!”

“Please do not deliver me to the Angel of Death,” Moshe begged G‑d. 

“Do not be afraid,” the Heavenly Voice declared.  “I Myself will take care of you.”

Moshe arose and prepared himself for death, sanctifying himself like one of the angels.

G‑d descended together with the angels and summoned his soul.  “Holy soul,” He addressed the soul, “I planned for you to remain in Moshe’s body for 120 years.  Now you must leave’ do not delay.”

The soul replied, “Master of the Universe, there is no purer body than Moshe’s, I do not want to leave him.” 

“I will store you under My Heavenly Throne of Glory, with the angels,” G‑d promised.  And so Moshe was taken from his earthly body.

So it seems that even Moshe, the greatest prophet that ever lived, did everything possible to stay alive but was told by G‑d he could not live in his body but would live in another world and see his work continue!  Moshe would now meet all his family that preceded him – Amram, his father and even the sons of Yaakov and the Matriarchs and Patriarchs.  He would see all the future generations grow.

In a Chossid’s case when he outlives his body he meets his Rebbe-teacher.  So what a sweet “out of body experience” it would be to see your loved ones once again, the previous teachers all the way back to the Baal Shem Tov, master of a good name, founder of the Chassidic movement (early 1700’s).  As Jews we believe in a heaven where souls meet and bask in the glory of G‑d.

I said “The main thing is not to leave earlier than you are meant to!  Let G‑d make the choice and then there is nothing to worry about.  When leaving the body by the express command of G‑d and not by choice of man, you truly live forever.  We need to surrender to destiny then all is well.”

So with that my father said, “Eli, I think you made your case.  Enough said.   I’ll be around as long as I can.  Good night and sweet dreams!”

It has been taught three things, the Lord has kept from His people:  the hour of death, the Day of Judgment and the reward of good deeds (Midrash Hagadol). 

In the meantime we all pray for his health