In my work as a chaplain and as a person out in the world, I sometimes encounter vulnerable people who are survivors of abuse, abandonment and human cruelty. Their inevitable questions rise up: “Why did this happen to me? Why did this person do that to me?” The only answer I am able to give is “You don’t deserve this. No one deserves this.” Beyond that, I do not know.
When working with clergy of other faiths, I notice that their theology on suffering has somewhat coherent responses. My Buddhist mentor offers dharma on suffering as a universal experience that is caused by attachment. My Christian peers offer theological explanations that have to do with sin and redemption. We sometimes chuckle that Jews don’t try to explain suffering; we just accept it as part of life and deal with it.
I wrestle with “Why?” and “How?” as part of my work because what people really want to know is why G-d let them suffer. I carry a small card in my notebook with the Hebrew word aicha (How?) on one side and ayecha (Where are you?) on the other. It is the same word with different vowel placements, expressing different sides of the same essential question. How did G-d let this happen? And where in the world was G-d?
In the past few years I have made more of an effort to put myself in the same room with Holocaust survivors because I know our time with firsthand witnesses is becoming more precious. It is up to our generation to hear their testimony, as we will be partially responsible for how history remembers them and those whose voices were silenced. I always try to ask, as gently as possible, how they managed to live after the nightmare of war and degradation because I want to understand their resilience.
Recently, I had the privilege of reading the narrative of a Holocaust survivor who transcends the grip of fear and turns toward the world with clarity and wisdom as a daily choice. Dr. Edith Eva Eger’s newly published book, “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” is one of the most powerful accounts by a person who has struggled her whole life with the questions “Why?” and “How?” and has responded by showing up in a healing profession as a clinical psychologist.
Eger likens her book to the challah her mother used to make for Friday night, braided with three strands: her story of survival, her story of healing and the stories of the people she has helped. She integrates her whole life into her work with patients as she helps them shift from a place of victimhood to a place of freedom. She does this by tending to the pain of her patients’ trauma and reframing their questions to “What now?”
From Eger’s perspective, suffering is universal, and her most common diagnosis of people she treats is not PTSD or depression, but hunger: “Hunger for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.” Her work is focused on helping people walk out of the prison of the mind, from trauma to triumph, from the mindset of survivor to “thriver.”
When I finished reading Eger’s book, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I thought of her again as I read a line from the parshah for Feb. 17, in which G-d says, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). What does it mean for G-d to live in our midst? Perhaps the answer is not about building physical structures, but about the sanctuaries we construct within ourselves.
I do not know why human cruelty exists and why terrible things happen to undeserving people. I do know that every day I encounter people with wise hearts whose offering to the world comes from a place of trust and love. People who embrace life in the aftermath of trauma, wobbly as their inner sanctuaries might feel at times. People who give, who show up, who take responsibility for themselves and others, and who search for meaning.
May we know the strength and power of the sacred dwelling spaces within. May we keep answering ayecha (Where are you?) with hineni(Here I am). May we learn from the wise hearts in our midst how to choose to be free.
Originally Published in Atlanta Jewish Times: Wise Hearts and Sanctuaries