Life blooms in an unending eruption of breath and color. At the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, there are little bacteria that cling to the vents in the earth’s crust. Scraping the edge of space in the stratosphere there are tiny little fungi that float around. There is a pulse for life in every place where it can exist – it emerges into existence. Life is eruption. Life erupts.
Many of us are uncomfortable with eruption. We create superstructures of societies that are meant to scaffold over throbbing at the heart of nature. Work. School. Religion. Politics. All structures meant to push eruption to the background, making us forget what is really there. Life, however, won’t let us forget. It erupts into our everyday (usually when we are our busiest), breaking apart the well-worn road of society. What is real is what erupts.
I remember sitting in the screened-in porch, the weather hot and thick with humidity and my seventy-something grandfather staring at me through his aviator sunglasses and licking his jowls. He was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was dying. He asked me a simply impossible question, “Why am I suffering?” Life is eruption.
I was a rabbinical student with a graduate degree in philosophy and I was sure I could answer his question. I gave him a whole discourse on God’s justification in the face of suffering. I tried to go through the various answers from a thousand years of philosophical thought quoting left and right from famous philosophers….
He kicked me in the shin and said, “Bullsh*t, what the heck are you talking about?”
He didn’t care about philosophy or Jewish thought. As cancer was erupting inside of him, he wanted to know if he deserved this painful disease and death sentence.
Here he was dying from the inside out, and I’m trying to throw philosophy at him? He didn’t want to justify God’s life. He wanted to justify his own.
That’s when I knew I needed to throw the books (not really, I’m am a rabbi after all) and start over.
We are afraid of eruption; the Torah is never afraid of eruption. In this week’s Torah portion Tazria the subject matter is all about the suffering community member and what the priest’s responsibility is to that person. “When a person has a swelling, rash or discoloration their skin, and it develops into a scaly infection on their body, it shall be reported to Aaron or one of the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2) Here, religion meets doctoring. The priest examines the wound or infection and quarantines the victim. After a time if the infection clears itself up, the priest brings them back into the community using a ritual sacrifice. (Lev. 14:1) When life erupts God is there to respond in kindness and love.
For a very long time religion has covered over life’s eruption by focusing too much on the question of “why are you sick?” and not on the question of “what can I do for you now that you are sick?”. For the longest time, religion influenced by Greek thought, would not let life erupt. It had to conquer life and subdue it into categories like sin, reward and punishment. That thinking says that it is your sin that causes their suffering – even sins you didn’t know you did. You suffer because you are sinful. It’s not God’s fault, it’s your fault.
The truth is it’s nobody’s fault. Not God’s and not yours. Life simply erupts. If religion cannot respond to the eruptions of life, then what point is there, really?
We have to find another way.
Back when God first showed up to Moses and spoke from the burning thornbush, the rabbis show us this other path. God says, “Do you not sense that I dwell in sorrow just as My people dwell in sorrow? Know that in speaking to you here in the midst of thorns, I participate in their suffering for it says,’May the LORD answer you in times of trouble.’ (Psalm 20:2) That in times of trouble for both heaven and earth, for Me and for you.” (Exodus Rabbah 2:5)
God does not punish you with pain and suffering. Your pain is God’s pain. God suffers when you suffer. All of life is an eruption and God with you through it all.
Instead of asking why you are sick, religion needs to go back to its roots. The priest of Leviticus wants you to know that he is there for you in your sickness, without judgment. It’s the priest who goes out and sits with you when you are sick. It is the priest who is the one that brings you back in after you are healed. Don’t look for God in the cause of suffering, look for God in in the response to suffering.
This is the offerings all of us can give to each other. When life erupts, be like God. Go to those who suffer and be with them. Bring them into our community, make them visible and cherish their souls. For as the rabbis teach it is there, in the sick house, at the very foot of the bed, where God’s Presence resides (Shulchan Aruch, Toreh De’ah 335).
I so enjoyed reading your post and I am so very sorry to read about your grandfather. Thank you for writing about reaching out to those who are ill……..it is something that is desperately needed everywhere on this Earth. Bless You.
Thanks so much! It mean a great deal!
my pleasure. 🙂
I remember puzzling when I first read Susan Sontag’s illness as metaphor. I thought the thinking was brilliant, but the idea solipse and artifice. Even if it were true, then what meaningful action does it lead to? In the decades since I’ve reconsidered. To the extent that there is one, your essay is an eloquent answer to the question.