07/02/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013


We've all heard the adage, "Time passes quickly when you're having fun." I offer a corrolary: As we get older, time passes even faster, whether we're having fun or not. Despite advancing age and diminishing powers of recollection, I have distinct memories from our sons' early childhood, of our eagerness for them to reach each developmental milestone. But sooner or later, those advances get more complicated and harder to celebrate, like when our children discover words like "No!" or "Mine!" and "Why?"

Most kids grow out of "no" and "mine" eventually, though it can be a painful and protracted process, but "why?" falls in a different category. Questioning is a sign of an active, curious mind, a yearning for reason and order, a desire to understand a confusing and complicated universe. What changes over time is the object of inquiry. The earliest why's often relate to natural phenomena. Why is the sky blue? Why do hair and fingernails grow? Why are tears salty? Such questions can be tough. Those that follow are even tougher because instead of seeking information, they challenge parental authority and values. Why can't I stay up later? Why do I have to go to Sunday School? Why did you have him?! Why wasn't I enough?

The mind-boggling, heartbreaking "why?" questions come in the wake of life's traumas and tragedies. Why do people I love have to die? Why do I? Why do some good people suffer more than some rotten ones? If there's a just and loving God, why is there so much pain and unfairness in the world? Questions like these are not childish ones, though children may pose them. They are perplexing, life-long conundrums.

Afflicted by physical or mental illness, the sudden blow of a life-threatening disease or the tortuous course of disability, we may ask, Why? Burdened by loneliness, unfulfilled in the basic human need for love and companionship, we may ask, Why? Bereaved by the loss of a loved one, the fragile bonds of tenderness and devotion severed too soon, we may ask, Why? Crushed by disappointment, our dreams of high achievement dashed, or even more modest hopes frustrated, we may ask, Why? Troubled by protracted family conflict, alienated from those with whom we share the closest ties of kinship and heritage, we may ask, Why? Victimized by the evil or carelessness of others, abused by those we trust or to whom we've done no harm, we may ask, Why? Whenever life is cruel and the pain seems unbearable, we may ask, Why? Why me? And sometimes we may ask, "Why did God allow this to happen?"

Often, these questions are asked of clergy. It makes sense, since we share our congregants' painful times and people reason that we ought to know something about God. If answers exist, perhaps their rabbi, minister or priest has them. Confronted by the agony that unleashes such questions, a clergyperson can feel inadequate because sadly, most of the time, the honest answer to "Why?" is "I don't know."

I freely confess that I don't know and can't explain why some people suffer and others do not. I don't know why some fall ill and others enjoy good health. Or why some people find love and friendship easily and others are lonely. Or why some parents lose their children or children lose their siblings or parents in the prime of life. I don't know why some of us live long, tranquil lives and others endure sorrow and torment. I don't know the reason or even if there is a reason. And if there is, I don't know if we'll ever find it out.

And yet, why should I presume to understand what no one else has understood, from the author of Job, to the rabbis of the Talmud, to the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People In that highly regarded book, Rabbi Harold Kushner argued that in an imperfect world, accidents and random events are bound to happen. God, Kushner argues, doesn't cause and can't prevent them. They simply come to be.

As Rabbi Kushner interpreted Job, God admits that Job is speaking the truth, that he hadn't done anything wrong and thus, his suffering is unjust. As I read Job, God says, in effect, "Look, I'm doing the best I can at running the universe. If you think you can do better, be my guest." In the final analysis, Job does not tell us "why," but it asserts something of surpassing significance: that we and our lives matter; that human suffering is real and can be really unjust; that so long as injustice exists, neither God nor people can rest easy; and that, even when faced with suffering we cannot prevent or control, we are not helpless, for we can respond with truth, justice and dignity.

Job is telling us that "Why?" is a legitimate question, just not a productive one. It is a way of expressing how much we hurt, but not a way out of our pain. For me, this was a hard-won lesson. Twenty-nine years ago, my younger brother, Steven, my only sibling, 33 years old, a brilliant, gifted and courageous person, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, was diagnosed with AIDS. No effective treatments had yet been developed and Steve died two weeks later. When he fell ill, my parents and I hurried to Minneapolis, hoping against hope. One afternoon, my parents turned to me, their own son, a rabbi, and asked, "Why?" And I replied, "I don't know." In that moment, I felt myself to be an utter failure, yet I knew that I was not. For their question was not really a question. It was a heartstricken cry of anguish. They were saying, "We just don't understand." And my answer wasn't really an answer. It was my own bewilderment and grief merging with theirs: Neither do I.

Some things are beyond our understanding. But what I do understand, and what I believe with every fiber of my being, is that faced with the unpredictability and occasional cruelty of life, with suffering we cannot alleviate and losses we cannot forestall, we have but one choice. We can let our fear and pain embitter us and rob our lives of pleasure and meaning or we can summon our strength and make the most of what we have left. We can be crushed by our burdens or attempt to transcend them.

How? Perhaps we can be guided by one of Judaism's signature prayers, U'netaneh Tokef, which proclaims, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not..." Thusly do we verbalize the fear that something horrible and unpreventable may lie in store. But just as we have thought the unthinkable and spoken the unspeakable, the text suddenly shifts course and tells us, "repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment's severe decree." Perhaps all is not lost or determined or beyond our control.

On a literal level, u'netaneh tokef suggests that God decrees each person's fate, but that the decree is conditional, and repentance, prayer and charity may cause the sentence to be suspended or withdrawn. I understand the prayer differently, in an existential way. I do not believe that God singles people out for death or other calamities. Many terrible, unjust things happen and they could befall us or someone we love. There is little or nothing we can do to prevent it, and that is frightening. But while we cannot escape death, we can choose how we will live.

Repentance, prayer and charity.

Narrowly defined, repentance, or teshuvah, means facing up to our mistakes, making amends to those we've hurt, vowing to do better and fulfilling that vow. But it also requires doing the right thing, being grateful for our blessings and embracing them, despite problems and disappointments. I recall my grandmother, Julia, of blessed memory, with whom I shared a love of reading and used to correspond about books. When Julia went blind, she lost interest in life. How much pleasure she could have gained if only she had been willing to listen to books on tape instead of being defeated by her blindness!Teshuvah involves savoring every drop of life's pleasure and meaning and doing all we can to enhance them for others. It means concentrating on what's right instead of what's wrong and, even when we feel stunted and helpless and exhausted, striving to grow.

Prayer, in its simplest sense, is addressing our thoughts and feelings to God. One kind of prayer (help!) asks God to make things better or keep them from getting worse. There is nothing wrong with such prayers, but there is no guarantee they'll work. A surer thing is to pray for the strength to bear what must be borne, for God to help us do the best we can, whatever our circumstances. When we grieve or are afraid, the ultimate Jewish prayer is somehow, despite everything, to keep hope alive.

"Charity" is a poor translation of the Hebrew tsedakah, which derives from the root word "justice." Tsedakah involves reach out to others, even when we have problems of our own. One afternoon some years ago, I sat with a dear friend in the waiting area of an intensive care unit. His desperately ill wife was the center of our concern. Another man, a total stranger, entered the room and said, "My son just died. He was seventeen years old." Despite his burdens, my friend stood and put his arms around the man and they embraced, companions in sorrow. Tsedakah recognizes that we do not have the answers to life's hardest questions, but we do have each other. And whatever befalls us, we possess deep reservoirs of love, caring and comfort to help us see each other through. Tsedakah implies being a healer, helping to bind the wounds of others even when we, ourselves, are broken.

Life, in all its beauty and fragility, presents us with triumphs and defeats, unanswerable questions and impenetrable mysteries. Whatever lies before us, we can aspire to be worthy of those who went before us and to offer an inspiring example to those who will follow. We can pray that God will help us as we strive to grow in goodness, hopefulness and generosity, as we care for each other on the perilous, marvelous journey, in the words of Rabbi Alvin Fine, "from birth to death to life everlasting."