Never more than we can handle

It has been two and half years since my little girl, my youngest, Meirav, was diagnosed with Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes.  In some ways, it seems like centuries ago, since that terrible day when she was rushed to the hospital, having trouble breathing, her skin, ashen.

It seems like another lifetime now, the moment the doctors told us that our beautiful, perfect little girl had an incurable disease; a disease that would re quire insulin dependence and constant monitoring to keep her alive—for the rest of her life.  I’ll never forget those images of those early moments and days in the hospital:  my little one hooked up to all those tubes and wires in intensive care; her cries of fear and pain; the doctors, nurses, technicians frantically working around her; the look in my wife’s eyes as she steeled herself to be strong for her and for us all; my wife’s hand holding Meirav’s little limp hand in her palm.  The ensuing days; trying to get my mind around this sudden new reality; the nurses teaching Batya and me how to manage this incredibly complex regimen of insulin, of blood-monitoring, of administering injections into our own child’s arm.

It was all so overwhelming—Meirav’s fears and my constant attempts to sublimate my own fears.  I remember, only in fleeting memories now, the despair, the moments of darkness, the sense of being betrayed by my hopes and prayers that God would protect my children from illness, from disease of this magnitude.  But I wasn’t spared, as so many of us, despite our prayers, are not spared such things.

 That was two and a half years ago.  Two and half years of us learning, together with Meirav, how to manage this disease.  The frightening moments when she can feel her blood glucose plummeting, or soaring dangerously high.  Learning to avoid disaster day by day—a process that is truly more of an art than an exact science. Two and half years later, Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes is the “new normal” for the Steinlauf family.

But there’s a big difference between this moment and those first overwhelming and nightmarish moments.  Today, I’m fine.  So is my wife.  And so is Meirav.  In fact we’re all fine, and happy.  And even more importantly, I no longer feel betrayed by God.  In fact, despite everything, my faith at this moment is vastly greater than it was before.  I don’t usually like to talk about life experiences as “testing” us, but if we choose to look at this experience of my child’s diabetes as a test of faith, then I would like to believe that my family and I have “passed” that test.  And on this day, I would like to talk about how I can stand here before you, with a joyful and abiding faith in life’s goodness, despite everything.

 Back in my old synagogue, I knew an amazing woman, whose two young children suffered from multiple health problems.  And she shared with me a saying that gave her lots of strength.  She often said, over and over, “God never give us more than we can handle.”  And I was so happy that this woman had that belief to hold onto, to give her strength.  But in all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed with that statement.  After all, I can think of all kinds of people who are dealt more than they can handle:  the mentally ill who are homeless, children who are abused and then die or are killed, people who die of starvation.  In my experience, I have seen just too many people who couldn’t make it. 

But today, I think I understand what that saying really means.  It’s not a simple platitude that denies the harsh realities of life.  It is, instead, a statement of faith in life itself.  It’s a statement that, in truth, is not so much about God as it is about our very selves, our very souls—even when the worst thing--the unthinkable--happens, there’s a truth to the fact that we can handle so much more than we think we can.

 I share these stories this Rosh HaShanah for several reasons.  First, among us in this synagogue right now there are so many with stories parallel to mine.  So many of us bear stories of our children, or our parents or loved ones, and our brave struggles to hold onto faith despite so many hardships.  In fact, every one of us faces in our lives the prospect of loss, of fearing for our loved one’s safety and well-being.  I tell my story, as well, because there are fears and insecurities that we all share together:  what’s going to happen to our livelihoods in this economy?  What kind of future do our children have in a world that is changing so fast—and so much of that change is not for the good?  And then there’s Israel.  What prospects are there for our people and our homeland now, with the chances of a viable peace process looking so grim as events develop in the U.N. and in the Middle East?  We’re all together in this moment, beset by so many fears, so many possible nightmares.  It would be nice, indeed, to have faith that there’s a God up there, who despite all these possibilities, is never going to give us more than we can handle…

In the Torah, there’s a poignant moment when Rivka is pregnant with her twins, soon to be born as the rival brothers, Jacob and Esau. “Vayitrotzetzu habanim b’kirbah,” “But the twins struggled in her womb.” She was plagued by a violent and difficult pregnancy. And so Rivka went before God and asked, “Im ken lamah zeh Anochi?”  “If this is so, why do I exist?”  Such a heartbreaking question!  Such words that express so much pain and grief, so much despair! And God answers her and says that two nations are in her womb, nations that will always struggle, but the older shall serve the younger.  It’s quite an answer, but I have always been struck by the fact that it doesn’t quite answer Rivka’s actual question!  I don’t hear in her words just a request for a prophecy.  I hear the plaintive tones of a woman bowled over by her life, at the end of her rope.  Lamah zeh Anochi—Why am I?!  I hear the prayer of a woman who wants assurances from God that it’s okay, that she’s okay, that God will care for her.  But God doesn’t give her an easy and straightforward answer in this story.  God doesn’t promise that her path will be an easy one.  God doesn’t give her any one thing to believe in, any one crutch to hold onto about herself, even though her request was deeply personal.  Instead, God gives her a message that she is part of something infinitely greater than she is.  God gives her not something to believe in, but sets her on a path to finding  real faith—in herself, in her life.  Ultimately, the only one who could give Rivka real faith, was Rivka herself…

You see, in our Jewish perspective, there is a difference between “belief” and “faith.”  When we ‘believe’ in something, we’re always believing in a concept, a thought, a story about our life.  In some religious traditions, there is a requirement or an expectation to ‘believe’ in a dogma, or a set of ideas or stories in order to be considered a true “believer.”  Beliefs, of course, don’t just need to be religious.  Beliefs can also be arrived at through reason and logic and deduction.  But at its core, a belief is an intellectual exercise.  It’s “up here.”  Faith, on the other hand, is of a different order.  Faith is about trusting an inner “knowing” that runs deeper than ideas or concepts.  If belief is a mental decision, faith is borne only of experience itself.  Beliefs may defy logic.  Faith transcends logic.  Beliefs live in the intellect.  Faith lives in the spirit, in our very souls.  Rivka went to God in search of words to believe in; instead, she got a life-path that gave her faith that she was part of something far greater than anything she had ever dreamed about herself before.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed this insight most eloquently.  He said, “Faith is not a feature of man’s mentality…Its essence is not disclosed in the way we utter it, but in the soul’s being in accord with what is relevant to God…[in] our being carried away by the tide of [God’s] thoughts, rising beyond the desolate ken of man’s despair.”  The writer Alan Watts said it even more succinctly:  “Belief clings; faith lets go.”

What does this mean?  It’s not only life’s blessigs, but sometimes it’s the worst of all experiences--even the experience of our own children suffering, our loved ones dying—these are sometimes the only things that can shake us to our core, that can bring us to let go of who we were, to let go of our arrogance, to let go of our expectations of ourselves, of others…of God.  Sometimes it is only when life breaks our heart that we are broken open and finally able to find a deeper Truth within us that we never could have found before.

I know that in my life, I have known moments of “lamah zeh Anochi,” moments of such despair, such darkness, that in those moments I could find no ray of hope, no light, no place to hold onto—and certainly no God rescuing me magically.  At those moments, I couldn’t possibly find a way to believe that God was giving me something that I could handle.  It was only after I clawed my way out of those moments that I discovered that I survived it, and was changed by it.  How did I survive it?  How was I changed?  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  All I can say is that something carried me through those experiences—not a belief, not a concept, nor a story, not something outside of me at all.  It was, in fact, my very brokenness that revealed a strength inside of me, a strength that could not come into existence without the brokenness itself.  It was my brokenness that forced me to find new answers, to seek and notice all the wonderful and caring people and resources around me to help me find the light again. I have found that this strength born of life’s nightmares is not just a raw life-force.  It’s a healing strength, a caring strength.  A strength that inexorably brings me from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity.  It’s a strength that’s bigger than I am.  Another name for that strength might be kindness.  It might be compassion.  It might be love itself.  Or maybe, just maybe it’s God.  But it’s not just God.  It’s me.  It’s my deepest essence, my deepest Truth.  My Highest Self.   It’s me in the image of God.

William James once said “…if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. … we … find, beyond the very extremity of … distress…sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push though the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.” He was onto this idea!

“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” doesn’t mean that God will necessarily spare us from tragedies and loss and pain.  It doesn’t mean that if people suffer, they “should” handle it better because God gave them that suffering.  God forbid!  What it really means is that if you fear that you can’t handle even the worst nightmare, even the unthinkable—you might just be wrong.  We look around at the world:  we see so much violence, war, murder, anti-Semitism, children stricken with incurable diseases, people who are homeless and dying.  And in our intellectualized realm of “belief” we conclude that we’d never handle any of that if it, God forbid, happens to us.  But perhaps the very purpose of this life is for us to get over these beliefs about ourselves.  Maybe there’s more within us than we can possibly imagine.  Maybe there’s more kindness out there in the world than we give it credit for after all.  Lamah Zeh Anochi—Why am I?  Maybe God avoids easy answers to that question until we discover for ourselves that we are, in fact, so much more than “Anochi” --than what we thought we were in the first place!  We can handle it—even if we lose our dearest treasured ones, even if our whole world comes crashing down on us, even if we must face death itself—because somehow, against our better logic, each of us is destined, sooner or later, to discover that there is a light within our souls that shines brighter than any darkness.

A few weeks ago I took my daughter for a special father-daughter outing to the Natural History Museum.  As we walked through the crowd, my daughter noticed a boy in a wheelchair being pushed by his father.  The boy was a couple of years older than my daughter.  Gaunt and pale, his legs were withered and small in his wheelchair.  Later, Meirav said to me, “I feel bad for that boy.”  I said to her, “Are you so sure that boy is really so sad?  Maybe he’s having a perfectly wonderful time.” 

I went on to explain to her that so many amazing people come up to me and say with total care and good-will, and the most serious concern, “How is your daughter?”  And I didn’t need to say anything further:  Meirav smiled when I told her this.  I smiled back.  “You know, and I know, that you’re great.  Maybe that boy was having as a good a time in the museum as you were.”

You see, during the past two and half years since those difficult first days, we have not only learned how to manage a disease.  My child has learned to appreciate the miracle of her body.  She has come to find such strength, enough to want to reach out to other children and help them find their strength.  My family and I have learned that there are so many people in this world—doctors, amazing nurses, people devoting their lives to helping, to being there, to finding a cure; there are so many miracles of medicine, of modern technology.  We have come to see how many miracles keep my daughter alive and thriving day by day, moment by moment—miracles that are so much greater than anything we could have imagined.  So indeed, we are great, and my faith is deeper now than anything I could have dreamed of before.

I share my story this Rosh HaShanah because Meirav’s and my personal journey of faith is a perfect reflection-in-miniature of the Jewish people’s journey of faith through the centuries.  Yes, our people know so many fears right now.  And yet, we know that somehow, something miraculous and beyond our ken has carried us through thousands of years of loss and difficulties, of pain and anguish—and has brought us again to reasons for joy and to the deepest of wisdom and strength to sustain us for generations. 

Yes, Israel’s predicament seems intractable right now, and yet we know that, despite everything, our homeland has risen up to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and shining success-stories of this earth in our time.  We might not know what concept to believe in right now that will give us answers to reassure us; and yet, more importantly, we can look into the soul of our people—the most miraculous surviving people of all time—and know, in a way that transcends reason, that we will overcome our difficulties in Israel and here at home.  We can know that we will yet—as parents and children, husbands and wives, as friends, as citizens of this earth— we can and will survive whatever it is that will come, we can and will thrive, and we will yet be a shining light to the nations with a light that shines forth—so powerfully, so mysteriously, and yet so surely—from each of our hearts.

Gil Steinlauf is a rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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