We come to the moment when we must say goodbye to the Avos and plunge ahead into the rest of the Chumash. I do not want to say goodbye to Yaakov Avinu! I didn’t want to say goodbye to Yitzchak Avinu or Avraham Avinu! I miss them. I feel like an orphan! The world is empty.
I felt the same way when Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l was niftar. I felt alone … and events proved me right, because – since he left us – we are alone in a “new world” in which we must face our vicious enemies without our father at our side. It’s one thing to say “grow up,” but it’s not a question of growing up. Without your father beside you, it’s just not the same.
That’s why we have to become very serious about our relationship with Avinu Shebasho-mayim, our Father in Heaven. Every time I say “Avinu Malkeinu” I try to remember the “Avinu” part. Hashem is not only our King, but He is also our Father. That is what makes us unique. If we remember that, we can hope somehow to make it through this world.
Speaking of our relationship with the Ruler of the Universe, I am going to write about something else you may have heard before. My apologies, but it is too important to ignore. As our son once said to me, if something is so important, you are going to hear about it again and again. It is eternal.
This Shabbos is the 18th day of the month of Teves. On that day, fifty-eight years ago, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and my wife and I had been married for about two and a half years. On that day, the most important and remarkable thing occurred, and I am going to quote now my own words, written twenty-four years ago and recorded in my first book, From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul. I had never heard about the Month of Teves or even the “Torah” for that matter. But it happened anyway.
Because Hashem loves us! Whether or not we realize it, He is holding our hand.
At 2:00 a.m. on Monday, January 10, 1966, I awoke with a start.
Things had not been going well lately. Our marriage seemed to be falling apart, and I began to think I myself was coming unraveled.
I had always done well academically, but lately I couldn’t concentrate. There was one course, Old English, that I just couldn’t deal with. I kept getting bad marks, and I began to think I was cracking from the strain. Old English finals were Friday at 9:30 a.m. I had stayed up very late Thursday night studying. Friday morning, from some distant place, I heard the sound of an alarm clock. I must have gone back to sleep. Sometime later, I groggily opened my eyes.
“NO! It couldn’t be… 9:20!”
I grabbed clothes and ran out of the house. I jumped on my bike. As I weaved through the traffic, tears streamed down my face. I’m cracking, I thought. My life is coming to an end.
Sunday night I was lying on that old green couch with the stuffing coming out. I can see it now, decades later. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know where to turn. I couldn’t discuss the prob-lems because I felt selfish just talking about myself. But the problems wouldn’t go away, and I didn’t know how to make them go away.
Now I was desperate. I saw a chasm opening in front of me, a pit from which there was no escape. I looked back on my life. I was twenty-three years old and we had been married just over two and half years. Linda and I loved each other, but there was something between us; tensions were at the snapping point.
I felt as if my life were a long corridor, with many doors on each side. I had opened each door. There was a door for “hiking in the wilderness.” A door for “singing folk music.” Doors for “toughness” and “coolness.” There was a door for “political activism.” A door to the psychiatrist’s office. A door for “writing poetry.” A door for “comparative religion” and a door for “The Ethical Culture Society.” Each door had led nowhere, into a blank wall.
Was there no door that led to truth, to freedom, no door to sunshine and happiness?
I began to cry. I was through. There was no future. I was dying. There was no place I hadn’t tried, no door I hadn’t opened. I was drowning. My life was ending. Can you imagine this feeling? There was nothing to live for. No hope.
I was sliding down, down, down . . . falling through space. And then, as I fell, a thought brushed by me. A little thought, a little voice, like a feather floating by in the midst of the void, a crazy little idea.
No, it couldn’t be true.
But then …
What else was there besides death?
All my life I had been raised as a good American boy. I went to the finest schools and met the most sophisticated people. Nobody normal believed in G-d. I mean, where is G-d? Maybe thirteenth-century monks believed in G-d, but that was the Dark Ages. What else did they have in life? But we live in reality. This is the twentieth century, the enlightened blossoming of world culture, the age of science and technology. We are liberated. I mean, just where is G-d? I don’t see Him. I can’t touch Him.
I’m supposed to believe in something I can’t see?
There was one big problem.
If all that stuff were true, how come I—the sophisticated product of the culmination of all civilization—was a total failure who couldn’t succeed at even the simplest things in life? I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t prevent myself from getting angry and alienating those I cared about. I was a slave.
I “knew” that G-d didn’t exist.
The problem was that I felt I also didn’t exist.
Something was terribly wrong.
Suddenly, I began to turn the whole question around. I saw something I had never seen before. There was one unopened door in that long corridor. Why had I never noticed that door before? It was the door to G-d. I had been sure that G-d did not exist. But now that my own life seemed to be falling apart, I began to wonder.
Maybe I had to turn the whole thing upside down. When I examined it, it was very logical. When I was honest about my life, I saw that I did not exist—my life was empty—and at that time I was sure that G-d did not exist. But what if G-d did exist? Maybe then I could also exist. Maybe my existence depends on G-d.
Maybe there was a life I hadn’t even dreamed about. Maybe if G-d were really alive I could be alive. Maybe I had been looking at things “upside down” or “backwards” or “inside out.”
Why did my intelligence have to be the measuring rod of reality? Maybe I did not understand and G-d did understand. Did I have to comprehend something for it to be real? Was I the center of the universe?
Maybe there was a reality beyond my understanding.
I began to have this crazy thought. Could G-d exist? No, it’s crazy. CRAZY! All my life I had been raised on “reality.” No normal person believed in G-d.
And then I began to wonder if I had ever met any normal people.
They say there are no atheists in the foxhole. I was in a spiritual foxhole. I was fighting for my life in a “war to end all wars.” My entire civilization was falling apart. I felt the coldness of death and black nothingness where chaos reigns.
When you are drowning, you grab the life preserver. You don’t ask questions. I was drowning, and all of a sudden out of the sky came this life preserver. I grabbed it.
What choice did I have? I wanted to live!
G-d, do You exist? Could You exist?
Dawn was beginning to break in Ann Arbor as a new light began to glow inside me. All of a sudden, I started to have this incredible feeling of hope, a new idea that would enable me to live. (“From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul,” published October 2000 by Jonathan David Books)
Hashem saved us on that day. Everything changed. It took eight more years until I was honest enough to admit that I am a Jew, but – when that happened – the door to Torah also opened and our new life began.
May we all soon see the day when the Light of Torah illuminates the entire world. “Ki mi Tzion taitzai Torah … From Tzion Torah will shine forth and the Word of Hashem from Yerushalayim!”
Avinu: Our Father
Avos: The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
Chumash: Five Books of Moses
Malkeinu: Our King
Niftar: A person who died
Zt”l: May he be remembered for a blessing