Unexpected challenges bring us to new vistas of self-discovery

Last spring my wife, Aviel, was standing at the Kotel. 

Suddenly, she felt like someone turned off a switch.  The world looked oddly dark.  Was something off with her sight?  Could it be that she had been living in the Northwest for too long?   We returned home to the States, and things got worse.  She’s always had such good sight, what could it be? 

She tried glasses, eye drops, you name it. Nothing worked. Finally, an optometrist suggested that her poor vision could be the result of a stroke, a brain tumor or MS. We went to an ophthalmologist who ordered an MRI.  By this time, Aviel couldn’t read, drive safely or chop vegetables.

On August 15, the day before our wedding anniversary, we got a call from the doctor.  She got us on the phone together to share a report from the MRI.  As she did this, she asked us, “Are you sitting?”

The question took me back exactly 21 years. 

It was Friday afternoon, August 14, 1998, and Aviel and I were getting married on Sunday. Just before Shabbos, I got a call from my future brother-in-law, Bruce, with an anguished sound.  “Ken, I have some news that I need to share. Are you sitting?”

The Accident

The question frustrated me.  I’m not the type to sit. “Aviel was in an accident,” Bruce said. “She is going to be OK, but come right over.”

Driving home before Shabbos, Aviel made a left turn from a busy road onto her street.  She was hit—nearly head-on—by an off-duty police officer who did not see her turn. Had he hit her a moment earlier, the result could have been disastrous.

I came to the house, where Aviel looked dazed.  The next day, I visited her again. Lying in bed, she was in pain, unsure how she could walk down the aisle. In a strange way, as I thought about what happened, I experienced an even stronger resolve to marry her.

At that moment I reflected on the idea of G-d’s hand in my life. Underlying the entire Exodus is the idea that G-d is guiding history. Our Parsha, Mishpatim, sums up this idea in a single verse:

Behold I send an angel before you to protect you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.

(Shemot 23, 20)

HaShem dispatches a force (or “angel”) that guides us to a desired destination.  

Like many religious Jews, I consider myself to be a person of Emunah, of faith.   When challenging events occur in my life, I say something like ‘this is G-d’s Hashgacha (guidance).”  

Sometimes I think to myself, what would I do in a real calamity?  Emunah— or faith—is a necessary quality.  If we did not have some Emunah in the doctor, how could we undergo an operation?  

Aviel’s diagnosis in the “are you sitting call” was intracranial meningioma.  This was a benign tumor between her brain and her skull that was pressing on the optic nerve.  She was promptly scheduled for surgery. 

Before Aviel was wheeled off, the surgeon looked at me with a serious expression. He promised me, “We going to go very slowly and very carefully.” The hours that followed were a time of reflection.   If we need faith in humans, how much more so in G-d?

One Principle

The Torah is filled with profound ideas about how to grow closer to G-d.  The Gemara recounts efforts of various Tzaddikim to “reduce” the entire Torah to a small handful of principles we carry with us. The prophet Habakkuk managed to distill the essence of the Torah to a single idea:

But the righteous person shall live by his faith.

(Habakkuk 2, 4)

Here we have one simple sentence that can define all of life.  But what does it mean “to live by one’s faith”?

Habakkuk’s statement occurs in a discussion about one of Israel’s great enemies, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.  The prophet writes that Nebuchadnezzar’s soul was “unsettled” within him as he pursued his conquests.  In contrast with Nebuchadnezzar’s inner turmoil, the soul of the Tzaddik, the righteous person, is calm.  

How does the Tzaddik achieve this tranquility?

Where Does Calm Come From?

Rav Avraham Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, was a towering rabbinic figure.  Born in Europe before moving to Israel in 1933, the world he came from was destroyed in the Holocaust.

The Chazon Ish writes that there is a widespread misconception about the concept of “trusting” and “having faith” in G-d.  People think, he suggests, that faith means that things will turn out well, if we just believe that they will. Yet, Rav Karelitz asks, who is to say what the will of G-d is?

No, trusting in G-d is not that but rather the belief that nothing happens by chance, and that everything that occurs under the sun is the result of the decree of the Almighty.

(Emunah & Bitachon)

What is faith in G-d?  Some people may believe that faith means things will all work out.  In modern culture, people talk about faith as a connection to something intangible in yourself or in the world.

Judaism’s view of faith goes deeper.   Our Emunah is our protest against chance.   It is our inner belief that the world is imbued with meaning.  We don’t always know why things happen, but G-d has a plan for our soul. We live in that Emunah by looking for meaning in our lives, even in the unexpected turns life takes.

And though we cannot understand “why” something happens, we do know that we are not abandoned by G-d.  Each path we walk down is an opportunity in some way to grow closer to G-d. That brings an inner sense of calm.

Our Chuppah

Aviel’s accident changed everything about our wedding weekend. Our Friday dinner plans got canceled.  On Sunday morning, my sisters-in-law applied abundant globs of makeup up to cover the bruises on Aviel’s face. That afternoon, Aviel limped down the aisle to our Chuppah.

Standing there, as I beheld her bruised face, I had an overwhelming sense of how fragile our lives are.  We were so happy to be alive. And because of that, we saw a deeper meaning in our marriage.

Twenty-one years later, on our anniversary, I again lived to see her saved from a kind of “accident.” We have so many ideas about how time should go and what our lives should look like. But G-d teaches us how to spend our time.

Unexpected Places

Nothing about our summer turned out the way I anticipated.  I thought we would spend our anniversary at a motel, hiking in Oregon.  Instead, we were rushing to get Aviel admitted to the hospital.

After the surgery, Aviel was recovering in the Neurocritical Care unit. Thank G-d, her optic nerve was not damaged, and she was able to see again.  I looked at her in the bed, and out of the window at the parking lot.  As the sun set, I felt a new sense of calm.  

Honestly, it’s hard for me to say how I would respond in a “real” tragedy. But I think back to that moment, and I try to take the calm feeling with me.  

The next time that you find yourself faced with an unexpected challenge, take the time you need to reflect.

Discover yourself in the place G-d prepared for you.