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A Meeting Place of MeaningA Meeting Place of Meaning

A Meeting Place of Meaning

Rabbi Reuven Bulka reminds us that the very search for meaning in crises such as the current pandemic gives expression to our shared humanity.

Rabbi Reuven Bulka
3 minute read

A short while ago, as I was exiting from a funeral sparsely attended due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place, one of the attendees blurted out a remark that is surely on the minds of many: “Where is God now?” or words to that effect. It could have been sparked by the relatively young age of the person just interred, but more likely it was a spontaneous reaction to the pandemic enveloping the world.

The question itself has many variations, such as, “Why is God doing this to us?” or the more theologically complicated question-challenge, “How could a caring God do this?” – the implication clearly being that there is no God.

There are those who have been presumptuous enough to suggest exactly why God is doing this, why God is bringing this pandemic onto the world, as if they really know. In truth, it is as impossible to know the answer to this “why” question as it is to know why a two-year-old is dying from brain cancer. Faith imbued people will strongly believe that there is an answer to the “why” question, but in genuine humility will admit that they do not know what the answer is.

At the risk of overgeneralization, one could suggest that that for the believer, there is an answer, and for the non-believer, there is no question. For the believer, only God knows. For the non-believer, there is no God, therefore no issue.

The believer and the non-believer are worlds apart, yet there may be a meeting place where both worlds can share common ground. That meeting place is in the world of meaning. We all want to know the meaning of what we are enduring. We want to know the meaning of the suffering that plagues us.

That meaning, like the meaning of all suffering, is beyond us. What is not beyond us is the unique human ability to give meaning to the suffering, to invest the suffering with meaning, a perspective forcefully articulated by Viktor Frankl. 

This does not mean that we have answered the “why” question. It means that we have responded to a different question: What should we do in the face of adversity? By imbuing the suffering with meaning, we have somehow transmuted the negative into a positive, a measured and thoughtful positive. We have turned “suffering from” to “suffering towards.”

Take, for example, being in mandated isolation. Is there meaning with which we can infuse isolation? On an elementary level, the more we isolate, the better and quicker we flatten the curve. Instantly we have given meaning to the isolation: It is an act of life saving.

But there is more. Suppose that, in isolation, we gain a more profound understanding of what it means to be alone. And further suppose that this understanding gives us a better insight into what others are going through in their isolation. And then, because of that insight, we resolve to reach out, in permissible ways, to those who are totally alone.

In so doing, as so many have done, we will have given meaning to the isolation. Is this the meaning of the enforced isolation? No one can know, but we can give meaning to the isolation.

In this attribution of meaning, we are all together, believers and non-believers. Wherever we may be on the faith spectrum, we can all make this crisis into a meaning expression.

At this moment when we all share a common responsibility, when Canadians have risen remarkably to the challenge, how appropriate that no different-ness, including of the faith variety, prevents us from embracing our commonality.

Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, C.M., is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and President/CEO of Kind Canada Genereux.

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