The Tragedy Test
When faith is shaken
By Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler October 2, 2019
Just beyond the High Holy Days and Sukkot looms the first anniversary of the Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha synagogue building attack. Every member of our community surely will recall where we were when we first learned of the unfolding tragedy.
I was at Rodef Shalom. During the break between Torah study and the Shabbat morning service, I learned of the attack from a first-responder family member. I notified Rabbi Bisno. He and Executive Director Barry Weisband immediately put the building on lockdown, just as Pittsburgh policemen were taking up stations around the building.
Events at Tree of Life cast an ominous shadow over the Rodef Shalom morning service. Physically, we were safe, but spiritually, I felt that faith in God was under attack. I measured the mayhem a mile away where innocents had gathered to praise God and celebrate Shabbat against the self-same prayers that we were offering from the very first: Mah Tovu, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel … Adonai, I love Your house, the dwelling place of Your glory … O God, in Your abundant faithfulness answer me with Your sure deliverance.”
So it continued throughout the service, prayer upon prayer pierced by the specter of bullets flying a mile away in a synagogue turned battleground. Then we learned of the death toll and wounded, then their names, and then their loved ones’ loss and pain.
Whose faith in God could not be shaken that Shabbat?
The Chofetz Chaim once famously said, “For those with faith there are no questions, and for those without faith no answers.” I respectfully disagree. Last year’s tragedy poses vexing questions especially to those with faith in God. The deeper the faith, the more vexing the questions. Still more, the greater and closer the tragedy.
Such questions are raised in a new book by Richard Agler, The Tragedy Test, subtitled Making Sense of Life-Changing Loss: A Rabbi’s Journey. Rich and I became fast friends our first year of rabbinic seminary in Jerusalem in 1973, and so we have remained over the decades and the distances since. Many Pittsburgh snow bunnies may know him as the founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton. Shortly after Rich retired, he contacted me to scratch his lifelong itch of attending Groundhog Day in nearby Punxsutawney and then spend the following Shabbat with us in our home and at Temple Emanuel. His wife, Mindy, even planned to join us for Shabbat. A few days before Rich’s planned arrival, I received the following email from Rich.
“With inexpressible sorrow and loss, we inform you of the sudden passing of our daughter and sister Talia, on Friday, Jan. 27, in Washington, D.C. Tali was jogging along the National Mall when she was struck by an automobile and fatally injured on Thursday evening. … Tali sought to better the world and she succeeded in doing so — through her work, through her wit and through her love. Her memory is more of a blessing than we can say.”
As I absorbed this email, I could not breathe. Of course, Alice and I traveled to D.C. for the funeral service and shiva, where Rich introduced me as “his best friend in the rabbinate,” touching me beyond words.
Like Jacob’s wrestling match at P’nuel, “the Face of God,” The Tragedy Test is Rich’s wrestling match with a God worthy of belief in the face of young, talented and beautiful Tali’s tragic death. The book is divided into three parts: “Challenge”, “Response” and “Acceptance.” Where Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People dealt with the quandary of believing that God is either all-powerful or all-loving, ultimately opting for all-loving, The Tragedy Test delves more deeply not only into the complexities of such quandaries but also into pastoral platitudes that people are often spoon-fed following tragedy, e.g., “everything happens for a reason,” “she is now in a better place,” “he completed what he needed to do in this life” or my least favorite, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” or mystic rationales founded in reincarnation or the resurrection of the dead. One by one, Rich dismisses them as inadequate and unacceptable. “Response” and “Acceptance” then offer answers that satisfy mind and soul, while acknowledging that no answer will ever fully satisfy the heart. As God passes the Tragedy Test, God helps us surpass ours.
Read it and take it to heart, especially if you are a Pittsburgher, especially if you are Jewish, but no matter who you are. Who has ever lived a life unalloyed by trial and tragedy? pjc
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.