Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen, DD

Submitted to the Reform Jewish Quarterly, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis


The Tragedy Test: Making Sense of Life-Changing Loss – A Rabbi’s Journey

By Richard Agler, Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018

Talia Agler was a brilliant, beautiful, charismatic young woman. She had already accomplished a lot in her twenty-six years, especially with her involvement in an outreach program for at-risk girls in Africa. Her life promised much more in service to others and in self-fulfillment. Tragically, inexplicably, Talia was struck by a car while jogging in Washington D.C. and she died. She is survived by two siblings and a mother and a father, who is none other than our rabbinic colleague Richard Agler.

When Mark Twain received news of the death of a beloved daughter he remarked that it is a true measure of human endurance that one can continue to inhale and exhale after receiving such a report. It is so difficult to live on with such emotional pain. Mark Twain, being a humorist, endured by being funny. Richard Agler, being a rabbi, has endured by writing for us a precious book in which he explores the theology of the pain of loss.

Hasn’t enough already been said on this subject? No, and we will never be done. If there were a final word then the Book of Job would have been sufficient. And, of course, we have Harold Kushner’s magnificent work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. What has Rabbi Agler added to the discourse? To my mind, a great deal.

I learned a lot reading Rabbi Agler’s book. I learned a lot about how to think about God, but just as significantly, I learned a lot about how to deal with my own pain and loss while living on as a faithful Jew. Confession time – when I suffered a tragic loss in my own life with the death of my grandson, I called Richard Agler during the shiva for help with living on. There are others I could have called, but I trusted Rich to share with me a wise understanding that would help me in my hour of need. How good for all of us that he has put his comprehensive thoughts into a book so that we may all be consoled.

Rabbi Agler is a rationalist and a child of the Enlightenment. He knows that there is no justice in life as we experience it. He does not make excuses for God nor does he blame humankind for the accidents that may befall us. He would never say that God decides our mortal fate with a justice that is simply beyond our understanding. Rejecting all simple Fundamentalist responses, Rabbi Agler seeks to understand how he can remain true to God and Jewish tradition while finding what solace is available in our so obviously imperfect world. 

Agler’s way is to conduct a series of thought experiments. He starts with some premises that we can understand and agree with and leads to us down the path towards the sensible conclusions that derive from our premises. Each time Agler starts us on a new path, he leads us as far as we can go, stopping where human knowledge knows its limits. Each path prepares us for the next path until Rabbi Agler leaves us with his conclusions. His conclusions do honor to the memory of Talia, acknowledge our pain and confusion, and enable us to live a life of goodness and faithfulness.

While Rabbi Agler’s approach is highly amenable to me, I did not agree with all of his premises nor all of his arguments. This made the book not less valuable but more valuable in my eyes. It gave me an approach to suffering in loss that expands the horizons of my own thinking. This gives me more power to live on despite all.

Every rabbi should have five copies of The Tragedy Test. One for the rabbi’s own library and personal use, and four to give or lend to others who cross our path who must themselves endure the Test.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once said: God, I do not ask why I suffer, I ask only to know that I suffer for Your sake. In writing this book, Rabbi Agler has turned his own suffering to the service of God. The benefit is unto us.