By Rabbi Gershon Schusterman
I was visiting one of my sons, Eliyahu, who was working as a rabbi in Atlanta. We were walking together one evening when he started venting to me about what was happening to his cousin — my nephew, also a rabbi — who had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was losing the battle. My son spoke to me about how good a human being my nephew was, that he had a young and growing family, and how difficult and unfair the situation was for everyone. I listened patiently as he poured his heart out.
As he was speaking, I began formulating my rabbinic response; after all, I had done this countless times before. Then I realized that he is a rabbi, too. He’s been confronted with these very same issues, and has the wisdom of life and the wisdom of the sages to offer just as I do. What purpose is there in telling him that which he already knows?
When I had an opportunity to respond, I looked into his eyes and said: “Eliyahu, do you want an answer, or do you want a hug?” I caught him off-guard, and he took a few moments to respond. His eyes filled with tears, and finally, he said: “I want a hug.” I gave him a long hug. We didn’t need to exchange any words at that moment. I could feel his pain.
A person in pain is a person who really wants the pain to go away. Sometimes, a hug serves that need much better than any verbal answer could. Most adults don’t know how to ask for a hug, so they camouflage their needs under the guise of wanting an answer. But there’s a time to philosophize and a time to embrace, and the trick is knowing which one you need at any given time. The wrong response, whether it’s from the head or the heart, can often make things worse. I should know, because I had faced my own tragedy in life.
One sunny Sunday morning 36 years ago, my wife, Rochel Leah, suddenly passed away. She was at home, taking care of our 11 children, and called me while I was driving back home from work to tell me she wasn’t feeling well. I could tell from the tone of her voice that this was serious.
We rushed to the hospital and she was admitted into the ER immediately. Within one hour, the doctor came out to tell me the horrible news.
“She didn’t make it,” he said. “We tried everything we could.”
Suddenly, my world was turned upside down. My wife, whom I loved so much, was gone. She was a wonderful mother, as well as a cherished teacher and mentor in our community.
One of the practical fundamental things which helped me get through the hardest time in my life was the support from my family, my friends, and my community. The meals people brought to me and my children. Those who offered to babysit or run errands for us. There was a woman who I barely knew who came in every morning at 6 a.m. for a few weeks running and took care of my 16-month-old twins. These people gave me a hug literally and figuratively.
As a rabbi, my immediate impulse after Rochel Leah’s death was to try to understand on an intellectual level what had happened. And some people around me did too, saying things like “It’s all for the good” or “It’s part of God’s plan.” These statements are true, but they were not what I needed to hear at that point in time. I just needed people to support me.
I once received a phone call at 5 a.m. from a rabbi I knew. He was frantic.
“Rabbi Schusterman,” he said, breathless, “a man in my community just committed suicide. His wife and children are devastated. How do I explain this to them?”
I paused for a second and collected my thoughts.
“You don’t,” I said. “There is nothing to explain right now. Maybe one day, when they’re ready to hear it, you can tell them Jewish teachings on death. But right now, just be there for them. Be there for them for the next several months. Whatever they need, make sure they have it. Give them support. That’s it.”
As human beings, we don’t have all the answers. But what we do have is the ability to empathize, to make a heart-to-heart connection and help one another in the darkest days of our lives.
In those moments, a hug is the only answer we need.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman is the author of “Why God Why? How to Believe in Heaven When it Hurts Like Hell.” For 18 years, he led the Hebrew Academy in Orange County, Calif.