There’s a Door Through Which We All Must Go: A Eulogy

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 28, 2023 / 7 Iyar 5783

Summary: An important Jewish author and rabbi died today. This is my tribute to him.

Reading Time: Three minutes

I am feeling some tenderness and a sense of profound loss, for today, one of our great leaders, Harold Kushner left us, while yesterday another one, Jonathan Omer-Man entered hospice. This Shabbat, we read a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. When taken together, the names of these two parshiot can be read as after death, there is holiness. It feels appropriate to honor these two great leaders by reflecting on what holiness is, and the nature of holiness that they each embodied through their contributions to the Jewish world. This week, I will focus on Rabbi Kushner, an important Conservative Movement figure.

Just before noon, a post came from one of my rabbinic Facebook groups that Harold Kushner died. Rabbi Kushner had an outsized impact on American culture because of his best-selling book, published in 1981, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This was a book of theodicy, written in an easily accessible style. Theodicy is that area of thought which wrestles with how we can reconcile a loving God with the presence of evil and tragedy.

For Rabbi Kushner, this was hardly an academic subject; this book was the fruit of a terrible depression he fell into after his oldest son, Aaron, died from an uncommon illness, progeria. The way he resolved this personal tragedy was by concluding that it is not God who brings such suffering on to people, but fate, a fate over which God can watch but not act. In a sense, his answer is not so very different from what Maimonides wrote long ago in Guide for the Perplexed, when he noted that all material objects break down and fall apart. Kushner’s common-sense approach to this resonated with Americans of diverse backgrounds and religions. When we began developing our in-house conversion curriculum for Neveh Shalom, this book, of course, found a place on our suggested reading list. After nearly half a century, it continues to speak to many people during periods of personal travail and heartache.

Landing one book on best seller lists is a coup; having multiple works garner this sort of praise is rarer still. One of those was When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough; in it, he addressed why in a land of plenty, so many people still suffer from spiritual malaise. While the conditions he wrote about in 1986 may not be exactly the same as the challenges we are facing, his answer of staying focused on three main areas of meaning remains pertinent. He reminds us that it is important to “belong” to people, accept pain as part of our lives, and know that we have made a difference. Our contemporary society struggles with those three simple messages. We are more isolated than ever, and vibrant communities such as Neveh Shalom are the exception rather than the norm. Our politics and sociology, meanwhile, mistakenly suggest that we can eliminate all pain through social engineering or drug use. As a result, people lack the necessary resilience to endure an imperfect world. Finally, our social media constantly exposes us to “high impact” people who make exceptional contributions to the world, so in comparison, our own efforts can seem insignificant.

Judaism, and this week’s parsha of Kedoshim, address these important areas of meaning by providing an image of holiness in which we love our neighbors as ourselves, respect our parents, avoid gossip, and provide for the poor and needy. These mitzvot allow us to belong to others—both friends and strangers; they expose us to the pain of existence and teach us that we don’t need to be sheltered from hardship; and they direct us in our actions so that we can indeed feel that we have made a difference, not in some grand, theoretical scale, but in a highly tangible manner in which we come to see that our life matters because we help others.

We each know that death is a door through which we all must go, yet how we confront our mortality determines how we will live. For some, the short nature of our existence is an excuse to turn toward hedonism, seeking one pleasure after another. On its own, pleasure can’t guide us. What Rabbi Kushner and the Torah’s holiness code remind us is that when we link our lives to others, life becomes much more meaningful. Yehi Zikhrono l’varuch. May Rabbi Kushner’s life and memory be a perpetual blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. To whom do you “belong?”
  2. What lessons has pain taught you?
  3. What are you proud of?

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