Yesterday was 09-09-09. It’s one of my mentor’s birthday: Rabbi Albert Plotkin turns 89. He is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Scottsdale, AZ, formerly in Phoenix. Alluding to Talmudic traditions about the upcoming Rosh Hashana, my friend wonderfully hoped for me and my family that we might be written into the Book of Life.
Tomorrow is 9/11. My wife Beth was on a business trip in Manhattan on 09/11/01 and saw the second tower fall. She and her associate were standing on the roof of their hotel, ten blocks away. They finally rented a car the following Saturday morning and drove back to Ohio, as they failed to get any flights. That week, I tried to carry on with teaching duties and parenting (Emily was in sixth grade), but of course I was worried sick about Beth and, like the rest of the country, in shock.
Next Wednesday, the 16th, is the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. He used to pull me aside and confided that Mom’s health was failing; he wasn’t sure how much longer Mom would be with us. But that day, he was doing what he loved best, messing around in the kitchen. According to Mom, someone had rung the front door bell and then went around to the back door and knocked. In attempting to answer the knock, Dad nearly made it to the back door when he died instantly of a cardiac aneurysm. We never knew who was at the door. My mom turned 90 last month.
September 16 is also my father-in-law’s birthday. He was born in 1924, and passed away of brain cancer in 1995. His death was one of several terrible things going on in the mid-1990s, but his birthday was always memorable (and now sad to recall) because he jokingly reminded people of the upcoming date in unsubtle ways.
A while ago I read the expression “God’s wink,” some serendipitous event that signals the care of God. That’s a lovely thought, but sometimes the hard events of one’s life form a clash of anniversaries that feel like a much darker signal. I think of the last few bars of Mahler‘s sixth symphony: things are good, and then crash, a terrible chord is struck that haunts you for a long time. I know someone whose father died, when she was a teenager, on that year’s Father’s Day. Now she’s reminded of him on a day that is, cruelly, a happy day in other families. I’ve known other people who lost loved ones around Christmas time or close to significant birthdays.
I don’t want to say that God “arranges” for hard events to occur. If you’re a believer, though, these times become occasions not only to lean on friends and family, but also to turn to God, to seek God's help, and to ask the difficult “why” questions.
The Bible raises the "why" questions, too, but answers them not with theses but blessings. For instance, Psalm 22 affirms God as “holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (vs. 3), even though the psalmist is otherwise quite frank about his doubts and distress. Other psalms similarly include both sorrow and affirmation. Leafing through the psalms, even reading some of them outloud, can be a helpful thing when we feel haunted by tragedies or otherwise distressed. Joining psalms to intentional periods of reflection and reconciliation, as the upcoming Yamim Noraim serve for Jews, can also help.
Amid the events and milestones of life, we find consolation as we look humbly to God, the Holy One, who wants to write our names into his book. When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee (Ps. 56:3).