Anderson Cooper recently interviewed Stephen Colbert for CNN. The two men had a tearful discussion of life’s challenges and the precariousness of human existence. Cooper seemed to still be suffering the loss of his mother and brother. Colbert had his own intensely sad story to tell.
Colbert suffered a great tragedy when his father and two teenage brothers died in a plane crash. In what seemed an odd turn of phrase, Colbert said that “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” Colbert understood his loss through the lens of Catholicism. That religion teaches that God would sacrifice his son for the sake of a better world. With that faith, Colbert was able to feel gratitude even after heartbreak. Colbert developed an appreciation for the person he became because of the suffering he endured. Had he not suffered, he believes that he would not have grown into a compassionate person who empathizes with the suffering of others.
While Colbert’s approach idolizes the tragedy, Judaism teaches us a slightly different lesson. We are taught to learn from tragedy without idealizing the events. Our response to suffering might allow us to soften the heart and ultimately let the experience strengthen our resolve. Perhaps this approach has become part of our DNA, as Jews we have endured personal and communal tragedies enough to teach us how to persist if not thrive beyond life’s messiness. We learned to respond to but not valorize the suffering.
We rely on the biblical teaching, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been slaves in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). As Rabbi Shira Milgrom wrote: “we remember our suffering—so that we will feel with those who suffer. We remember our suffering—so that we will nurture the courage to speak out against injustice. We use our experiences to become the agents of change for a better world.”
I agree with Colbert that tragedy, if understood in a spiritual context, can foster gratitude and compel us to be more empathetic. Gratitude for the gift of life and even for the lessons learned serve as a tool for personal growth. Torah, serving as the Jewish spiritual guidebook, teaches us to remember that life is challenging. However, we don’t idealize the tragedy. Rather we use the experience of tragedy to expand our hearts and dedicate ourselves to the creation of a better world.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame