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Making Meaning in Spite of Tragedy

Rabbi Rami Shapiro counsels us to love neighbors and strangers as ourselves.



Our first reaction to the devastation of the recent tornado is shock. Then horror. As these pass we are stung by fear for those trapped in the debris, possibly injured, perhaps dead. And then comes a wave of sadness and compassion for the survivors whose lives will never be the same. The greater the horror, the wider our hearts crack and the greater our desire to help. 

Beware the cheap fix. To flood the town of Moore with teddy bears or old clothes may allow us the conceit of concern, but it doesn’t help and may actually harm relief efforts. What is needed is cash. Contact disaster-relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, or United Way if you can afford to help. 

And then what? 

Some of us will be moved to pray. Make your prayers count. If your God is a loving God you need not urge him to comfort the surviving and embrace the dead, for this is what a loving God does. Use your prayer to challenge God: “Should the Judge of all the earth not do right?” (Genesis 18:25)? Where is the “right” in the lives just ended and the hundreds more now shattered? Don’t let God off the hook. Don’t let him silence you with, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” (Job 38:4) The question is irrelevant. The real question is, “Where were You, God, when the winds ripped these people’s lives to shreds?”

Some of us, like myself, believe that God cannot change nature, and who are disciples of Ecclesiastes and Buddha, who see life as contingent, impermanent, and fragile, and all the more precious because of it. What meaning can we find in this tragedy?

None. We don’t make meaning out of tragedy; we make meaning in spite of tragedy.

Knowing that life is contingent, impermanent, and fragile, we have no excuse but to live it fully and well. Knowing that life is contingent, impermanent, and fragile, we have no reason not to love while we can. Knowing that life is contingent, impermanent, and fragile, we can only set aside the faux dramas created by media, and step over the faux battle lines created by clergy and politicians, and get about the deeper business of being human: loving neighbors and strangers as ourselves, for, as the winds of Moore have once again shown us, they are and can be nothing other. 

Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes the column Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler in Spirituality & Health. 

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

Register now for Rabbi Rami's new online course, The Sacred Art of Forgiveness

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