Honorable Mention in the Tilia Klebenov Jacobs Religious Essay Prize Category, Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition 2016
The morning congregants began singing Psalm 118 -- “Ki l’olam Hasdo” -- God’s love endures forever. Although their voices surrounded me, I heard my father’s tender baritone prayer whispering in my ear as clearly as if he were next to me. I heard his old-country pronunciation of the Hebrew words, complete with his New York accent, the way he read this same psalm at our Passover seder table. This day was the beginning of the new month on the Jewish calendar, and the day when we read additional psalms expressing gratitude for divine providence.
God’s love endures forever. Reassuring words. Reminders of something eternal. My father loved those words. He believed God’s love endures forever. God’s love had endured for him. He believed God had saved him from death multiple times during his life. As an infantry soldier marching across Germany during World War II, he was often on the receiving end of enemy gunfire. In 1944, a German shell killed everyone in the circle in which he stood, except for him. In 1990 surgical complications from an aneurism repair caused a major hemorrhage that nearly killed him on the operating table. Each time, he lived.
When it finally was his time, God took him mercifully. Dad did not have to live the compromised life he so feared and adamantly rejected. Death freed him of the agonies of a protracted life-draining battle with the terminal lymphoma that had stricken him more than seven years earlier. God’s love had enfolded my father. I was grateful.
I thought back to those nine excruciating days in the Intensive Care Unit of North Ridge Medical Center when I had prayed to God to eliminate Dad’s suffering and let him rest in peace. I didn’t want to lose my father. But seeing his arms tied to the bed, restraining him from pulling at the tube in his throat that kept him connected to a respirator, his systems failing one after another, I knew he didn’t want to live like that.
He had long ago made the family promise to let him die rather than ever keep him alive on machines. When he died, a wave of peace had washed over me. He wouldn’t suffer any more. God had answered my prayers and granted Dad his wish. God had shown kindness to a man who also was kind.
As I walked trance-like out of the hospital that day, I struggled with countless unanswered questions. “Why, since the surgery was successful, did his systems fail? Why did he die?” I hadn’t realized I was speaking aloud until my mother’s words penetrated my daze.
“If you believe in God, you have to believe that it’s God’s will,” she spoke very matter-of-factly -- more like a directive than a spiritual response.
It’s God’s will.
My father had used those same words when he told me about the day he was wounded overseas. I was an adult before he shared any of his wartime experiences, and then he did so only reluctantly.
“It was November 17th, 1944,” my father started his story. “I’ll never forget it. I was standing around with a group of eight other guys just outside Apweiler, Germany. We were waiting until dawn to attack the town. A German 88 millimeter mortar shell landed in the middle of where we stood. When I came to, the medic told me that all the others were killed – they were dead before they hit the ground. I was in the hospital for two and a half weeks. And when you’re lying in a hospital bed all alone, with nothing to do, 4,000 miles from home, you try to find an answer to the question: Why am I here and the other eight guys are buried? Why did I survive that one shell – that one round of ammunition – that killed eight men instantly and only wounded me? It’s a difficult thing for an 18 year old to cope with. My injuries from the shell didn’t bother me nearly as much as the agony over having survived when they didn’t.”
“I couldn’t accept any of the logical explanations of why they died and I lived,” my father continued. “The thought that I survived hung heavy on me for a very long time. After much soul searching and talking with chaplains of different faiths, I finally accepted my mother’s philosophy – ‘It is God’s will.’ Your grandmother used to say that all the time. And there is no other answer to the question.”
Now I was struggling, much as my father had, to make sense of something that defies reason. My father had walked into one of the leading cardiac care hospitals in south Florida for an angiogram. After discovering that he had severely blocked arteries, he was scheduled for double bypass surgery that same afternoon. The surgery was successful; my father died.
Why was this God’s will? And why had God taken my father now?
Just as my father had searched for logical explanations to understand why he survived a direct mortar shell attack, I sought explanations for why he died now. Doctors could provide none. They had repeatedly told us he would be going home soon.
Hearing the clarity of my father’s voice as I stood in synagogue that morning I thought,
I shouldn’t be here saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. My father should still be alive. He only had a double bypass. I can’t believe he’s gone.
My breath was coming in short spurts like the kind of breathing I had done to ease the pain of labor. I felt my chest heaving. Then, a moment later, I felt as though a door, which had been tightly shut, suddenly burst open spewing forth a tidal wave of anger at God.
“Why, God, did you take my father? Why didn’t you take one of the murderers on death row or someone who has been on life support for an extended period? Why did you take this man who was filled with vitality and goodness? I believe you are a just God, and that you were kind to minimize Dad’s suffering, but this overwhelming sense of unfairness makes me want to scream at you. Why aren’t you taking the ones who suffer from advanced Alzheimers and don’t even know where they are?”
I was ashamed of myself for my thoughts. My stomach was tied in a knot. Believing with all my being that God had answered my prayer, I could not reconcile that I also felt such anger at Him. I grabbed hold of the seat in front of me trying to clear my brain and steady my shaking limbs. Anger scared me – a result of my mother’s angry outbursts during my childhood which often led to severe consequences. Anger in anyone, including myself, was frightening.
I prayed, “God, I am trying to understand but sometimes I am so lost in my own grief that I can’t. Why, God, did you take him now?”
I imagined God’s response: “Because otherwise he would have suffered from his lymphoma in a way that neither he nor you would have wanted. What better time to take him than when he was most happy and at peace? Would you rather have had him suffer so you could selfishly have had more time with him? I don’t think that is who you are.”
My thoughts stopped me cold.
I no longer experienced God’s embrace the way I had when my father died. Intellectually I knew God was with me and that He was the source of my fortitude, giving me the ability to be present for my children, for my mother, for my clients. Yet my conflicted emotions kept me distanced from the most significant source of strength in my life.
In a feeble attempt to regain my composure, I ignored the cadence of the service and turned to the back of the prayer book to the supplemental prayers. There was a passage I had never seen. It was a message inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where Jews had hidden from the Nazis:
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when not feeling it.
I believe in God, even when God is silent.
My eyes stayed focused on those words. I lost all track of the service. As if from far away, I heard the leader say, “Rise for the Mourner’s Kaddish.”
As I recited the prayer, listening to the voices of the other mourners reciting it with me, my tension loosened, ever so slowly, the way an icicle melts, one drop at a time. Hearing the “Amen” of the other congregants comforted me. Perhaps the warmth I felt when my voice chanted the blessings in unison with the other mourners was God’s touch. Perhaps the whisper of my father’s voice that morning was his reminder to me that God’s love endures forever . . . even when we are angry at Him . . . even when He is silent.
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs Religious Essay Prize Category
Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs (Framingham, MA) holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a BA in Religion and English from Oberlin College. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Jewish Magazine as well as the anthologies Phoenix Rising and The Chalk Circle. Her first novel, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, was an Amazon bestseller, peaking at #46 in the Kindle store, and won the Beverly Hills Book award for Best Thriller. Her second book, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, received honorable mention in the London Book Festival. Tilia has taught middle school, high school, and college; at present she teachers writing classes for prison inmates. She is also a reviewer for IndieReader.com.