Hi God, it’s me – Tova
Tova Levine is Co-Director of Education for HAHET (Hale Adult Hebrew Education Trust) in the UK, and a Beren-Amiel emissary alongside her husband, Rabbi Evan Levine
In April of this year, I was eight months pregnant and in a serious car accident: my car just died in the middle of the highway. I was in the middle lane and immediately put my hazard lights on. Despite attempts to restart the car, there was no hope of getting over to the shoulder. I was sitting in my car in the middle of the road waiting for someone to hit me from behind, and sure enough (after a couple of cars managed to swerve out of the way) one van did hit my car at 75 miles per hour. The airbags didn’t deploy; the back of our seven-seater was crunched like an accordion — thank Hashem there was no one else in the car! I lost consciousness.
Ever since then I’ve been contemplating the miracle, and the meaning of life — my life. Now with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, I’m also thinking about teshuva, improvement, self-growth, and the relationship between myself and the Creator. He obviously allowed me to survive this serious crash, and I began asking: Why? Why me? Did He save me so that I can change my ways, or in order to continue on the path that I’ve chosen? What is so special about me and my mission in life?
Viktor E. Frankl writes in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about the uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence. He emphasizes that “when the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude” (Frankl, pp.86). We each are created for a reason, whether to fulfill a goal or to be part of a loving family. When we choose a religious lifestyle in accordance with Torah values then it becomes much more, as well. It becomes about believing in God, observance of the mitzvot, and being part of the Jewish community.
This is not to say that it is easy. It is not! Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel in his work, A Passion for Truth, discusses how a religious life is a perpetual struggle and tension, explaining that God initially intended to rule the world which He created with stern justice: “Realizing, however, that it would not endure, He gave precedence to divine mercy, allying it with divine justice” (Heschel, pp.133). Hashem wants us to strive for perfection, but we mere mortals need the divine attribute of mercy. Otherwise we would all cease to exist.
Yet, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks posits – life is not only about our belief in God, but also God’s belief in us. Hashem put each one of us here and knows that we can succeed in our own special way – He believes in us! We can do it! What that “it” is might remain a mystery. We might not each know our specific calling in life yet, if ever, but one fact that we do know is that God believes in us enough to keep us here on Earth for some grand reason. Now is the time of year where it all becomes real and God comes down to us, and simultaneously, we are supposed to strive upward to Him.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that on Yom Kippur, Hashem knocks on the door of every Jew. Hashem yearns to be close to His people on Yom Kippur. But in Isaiah it describes how the Jew must “search for God where He can be found,” the initiative for the search resting entirely with man. How can it be both? Rabbi Soloveitchik adds that this path to God is not a straight highway, but rather a narrow, winding, and challenging road, reflecting the nature of teshuvah (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, pp.99). Creating a bond with the Holy one is not straightforward; in fact, it’s confusing. He might be on the way down to meet us, but we might have missed each other! Hashem might be sending us messages that we don’t know how to receive or perceive. We climb up the ladder to show Hashem that we’re committed. This is the time of year when we receive the privilege and time to focus on these questions. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:
In the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, a voice inside whispers that it is time to return home. Some return, even from the most distant places. Some want to return but cannot overcome their ways. So, the voice inside whispers, “I know you want to return. I appreciate that.” Some more return. Some try but are just too tied down. So, the voice inside whispers again, “Even if you don’t return now, I want you to know that you are deeply loved.” Upon feeling such love, an unbounded love that comes from the very essence of being, who could not return? In the month before Rosh Hashanah, listen for that voice (Ma’amar Ani L’Dodi).
Improving oneself is one of the hardest things in life to do. After the accident I was in a state of spiritual shock. Every day — every moment — is a blessing, so shouldn’t I just be sitting on a hilltop somewhere in meditation thanking God for every moment and every blessing all day long? But normal life must go on and there is so much to be done: cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry, picking up the kids, working for the community, writing, sewing, fixing broken toys, learning Torah. And with this come the mistakes that I continue to make despite my best efforts: I still speak lashon hara, I still get frustrated with my children sometimes, I still have miscommunications with my husband. All I can do is show Hashem that I am trying. I am trying and striving. To better myself. To make fewer errors. To have more patience. To listen more carefully. The list goes on.
I believe this time of year is about two things: yearning to be close to and opening up oneself to having a relationship with God, as well as with others in our lives. One of the main ways we accomplish this is through gratitude. In her book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, Miriam Kosman paraphrases Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler describing the experience of the World to Come: “[It is] an ecstatic joy [that is experienced as] an infinitely deepening experience of gratitude. Each soul encounters wave after wave of how gently, compassionately, and lovingly God was directing each detail of their life all along. The soul trembles with gratitude and this is its bliss” (pp.55).
I can’t say that I know for sure why I was put here on this Earth and what my exact mission is. I can’t know with any certainty why God saved me from the car accident. I can guess at some small reasons why and I can express gratitude. Our daughter, and fourth child, was born a month and a half after the accident. We named her “Hodaya Chaya” – “Thanks to God for Life!”
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782