Saving Mother Teresa

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Time Magazine’s cover story this week provides an opportunity for what Einstein (and others) called a “thought experiment.”

Time examines a different side of Mother Teresa. A veritable icon of spiritual strength and confidence in the eyes of the public, she spoke privately of a spiritual angst over the last fifty years of her life, in which she could not feel the presence of G-d. Remarkably, this dry period began just as she had extracted permission from her superiors to begin her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the basis of the direct communications she claimed receiving from G-d. Till the end of her days, she wrote to a string of confessors and confidantes about her unrequited love and her inability to pray. She questioned her very belief at times, but her faith trumped her doubts. During the entire period, she knew only one period of spiritual peace – five weeks in 1959.

Response to these revelations is predictably varied. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens believe that she secretly had discovered the “truth” (c”v); believers see her story as the triumph of faith over inner darkness.

Here’s the experiment. What if a Jewish Teresa had reported the same feelings? What would we have told her? What concepts and images would we have invoked for her, to help her through her crisis? I ask the question not because it is our place to comment on the inner workings of a faith system that is not ours, but because answering it may help us better understand the tools we have available to us as Jews, and to help those in similar straits.

When I framed the question in my own mind, three ideas instantly came to mind: the Maharal on Hallel; Shabbos; and the Nesivos Shalom on Gershon, Kehas and Merari. I present them in the hope that readers will come up with more – and better – ideas.

In Chapter 61 of Gevuros Hashem, Maharal considers the Gemara’s (Shabbos 118B) frowing upon the individual who wishes to recite Hallel each and every day. Such a person (apparently intoxicated with the beauty of life, and the display of G-d’s closeness within it) does not really bring glory to G-d, insists the Gemara.. To the contrary, he is מחרף ומגדף, he blasphemes G-d. Hallel, Maharal explains, is recited upon recognition of the miraculous Hand of G-d doing His bidding. If one recites Hallel every day, he sees this intervention in everything. But surely not everything we observe is consistent with the characteristics of G-d we know to be true: His goodness, justice, fairness, etc! Terrible things happen in this world. If they happen within the context of a natural order of existence – a natural order valuable enough to Hashem for other reasons so that He is loathe to disturb it, except at very special times – this detected evil is at least dimly comprehensible. But if we argue that the Hand of G-d (not just the remote Will that keeps everything going) actively coordinates all the phenomena we see (which is what that daily Hallel presumes), then we are attributing to Him some pretty nasty stuff, inconsistent with His real nature. Better to come to grips with cruelty and deprivation as a consequence of Hashem showing too little of Himself, than from displaying too much.

Mother Teresa chose to frequent the places that Hashem, k’vayachol, makes Himself the most scarce. She spent her waking hours, 365 days a year, in places where human beings were designed to least recognize Him, where He was the most hidden. (The Sfas Emes explains מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה (with increased possessions comes increased worry –Avos 2:7) in a similar manner. Hashem is by and large hidden from immediate perception in the pedestrian objects of the physical world. Our encounters with these objects leave us unconnected from Divinity. The more such objects we possess, the more periods of spiritual disconnect we experience.) Teresa, while hanging out in the right neighborhood to do much good, was in the wrong part of town to sense the immediacy of G-d. If explanations can offer some relief from spiritual malaise, then I imagine people would show the Jewish Teresa just why her sense of separation from G-d is understandable.

For the Jew, there is a traditional antidote to spiritual depression, one that offers far more than understanding and recognition. Shabbos was the antidote for centuries for all that could deflate and crush the average little guy. On Shabbos, if a person was not a melech, a king in his own house, he was certainly a ben melech, a prince sitting at the well-set table of the Monarch. Life could be oppressive for six days; looking towards a day of uplift and reconnection with G-d made the other days of the week livable. A Jewish Teresa, I would think, would be counseled to carefully upgrade the quality of her Shabbos experience.

This will not work for everyone. Alas, some people, try as they may, never experience the sense of connection they so desperately seek. They don’t feel the closeness over a blatt Gemara, they don’t sense it during davening, they don’t even bask in the afterglow of an uplifting Shabbos. After a while, many such people simply give up on the idea of spiritual growth – or even on Yiddishkeit itself.

One master recognized just how common this syndrome is today, and had both the foresight to address it, and the depth to put it in a theological context. The Slonimer Rebbe zt”l visits and revisits this phenomenon in his writings. My favorite locus for discussion is his discussion of the three sub-groups within Levi, found in his first piece on Naso.

Kehas gets top billing, deservedly so. He carries the holiest appliances of the Mishkan – the shulchan, the menorah, the mizbachos. He can count on constant connection with ruchniyus of the highest order.

Gershon occupies one notch lower. His name comes from the root גרש, and indeed he feels that he is sometimes pushed out from the presence of G-d. He has his good days and his bad days. The challenge is to keep equilibrium on the seesaw.

Then there is Merari. His very name implies bitterness. In the Rebbe’s words:

He finds himself perpetually in darkness. He feels nothing savory in his Torah and his service of Hashem. He lives like the ox in its yoke, and the donkey under its burden, with a labor that breaks him. All his days are impoverished – even Shabbos and Yom Tov. [Unlike his two brothers,] the Torah does not use the term נשא את ראש regarding Merari, because for him there is no ראש, (no transcendent vision) to speak of.

These three archetypes are widespread, certainly not limited to the sons of Levi. We can easily identify all three types in the people we know. Moreover, most people will go through each of these phases. Merari’s task, says the Rebbe, is exactly what the Torah specifies for the original group: carrying the burden. Merari had the least exalted job. They were shleppers. They shlepped the least exalted part of the Mishkan – the disassembled timbers that formed the walls. The Merari personality is charged to do his job faithfully, loyally, and responsibly. Any spiritual high – or lack thereof – does not enter the equation. If the job is boring or uninspiring, Merari shows up for work regardless.

The Jewish Teresa, then, might benefit from a crash course in the dignity of labor – of uninspired but faithful labor for the sake of Heaven, without any strokes from the Boss.

The Rebbe’s best line, though, is yet to come.

At the end of the parshah, the Torah combines all three sons…על פי ד’ פקד אתם ביד משה איש איש על עבודתו The amount of pleasure that each Jew brings to his Creator is a result of his doing what is within his ability to do….

No role in life is a priori more cherished than another. The Jewish Teresa can be assured that there is nothing theologically jolting about finding oneself in a Divine shadow, rather than a Divine light. Sometimes, Hashem asks that we continue to plug away, without the payback that we have come to expect should follow.

Seen through Jewish eyes, Christianity invests an inordinate amount of theological energy on the idea of Love. Jews, to be sure (and to the surprise of many Christians) have at least the same expectation of finding love (or Chesed, from where it comes) as the most important element of the inner essence of G-d. Jews, however, are aware of other midos, other facets within Hashem, at least insofar as we puny mortals can see. Mother Teresa may have had a particularly difficult time in reaching out with love, and not sensing it returned to her. A Jewish Teresa would likely not be as devastated, knowing that Hashem has many other ways of relating to humans.

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14 Responses

  1. lawrence kaplan says:

    Thak you for calling my attention to the Nesivos Shalom of the Slonimer Rebbe. I was struck and very moved by his comment on Merari. Et hatai ani mazkir ha-yom. I confess I had never heard of the Sefer before. I just went out and bought the first volume on Bereishit.

  2. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein, for this thought-provoking piece. I was particularly impressed with the ingenious manner in which you framed a disussion that really is relevant to all of us. I don’t know how many people experience the extreme type of spiritual crisis you describe, but we all have our spiritual ebbs and flows. It’s part of being human. Please allow me to share some thoughts.

    I firmly believe that embedded in the subconscious of every frum Jew is a deep-seated “emunah”. [I am not referring to the proverbial “pintele Yid”, which non-frum Jews also posses as a legacy, but to an “emunah” that is a product of the chinuch of a frum Jew, beginning from when he is first taught “Bereishis bara Elokim” as a child.] The problem is that this subconscious “emunah” doesn’t always translate into a conscious awareness, because we live in a world of “hester panim” where we don’t perceive Hashem in our daily lives; and as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”. What we need to do is BRING Hashem into our consciousness; then, our inherent “emunah” takes over and our entire spiritual outlook changes. We have numerous opportunities over the course of every day to do this. Every “tefillah” we daven, every mitzvah we perform, presents us with an opportunity to raise our conscious awareness of Hashem. But if we daven and perform mitzos out of habit, we do not reap this benefit. Ideally, of course, the solution is to daven and perform mitzvos with conviction; however that is much easier said than done. I have a suggestion that I think is not too difficult to implement: Every time we make a “berachah”, we should stop for a moment beforehand and think about Who we are addressing and what we are saying to Him. A “berachah” is a direct communication with Hashem, and contemplating the significance of what we are communicating cannot help but raise our awareness of Him. Some might find this impractical to do before every “berachah”; after all, we are supposed to make 100 “berachos” a day! It might be easier at first to focus on the “berachos” we make before eating. It really takes only a few seconds of contemplation, so assuming one makes ten such “berachos” a day, the investment of time adds up to less than a minute. I have found that it’s well worth it.

    “Kesivah v’chasimah tovah” to all my cross-currents friends. May we all merit a meaningful and uplifting “Yomim Noraim”.

  3. One Christian's perspective says:

    “Why would you think that Christians do not know the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

    Because if they knew, Europe’s history would have played out very differently.

    Comment by dovid — September 5, 2007 @ 6:08 pm

    I would like to say that Christians did save Jewish people during WWII but I know that not all who did so were Christians. From studies done about the rescue, it was discerned that some were Christian, some had high morals, some saw Jews as friends and neighbors and some were just plain greedy. Not everyone who confesses to love G-d, does in fact do so. Faith and deeds must go together for the glory of G-d. Murder, hatred, greed, envy, covetousness, stealing, slander, chaos and discord are deeds of the flesh that man decides to do from a heart of stone not a heart that yearns for the touch of the hand of G-d. Fear and faith cannot dwell together. Weak people dominated by evil people often live in fear and turn to the ways of an animal to survive. Humanity has never known a period of time when there was no war, no hatred, no sin. Everyone who was ever born and lived has carried the burden of pain and hurt done by others , and most of us, if we are honest, recognize that we too have caused pain and hurt in the lives of others.

    I truly believe that the evil deeds done by some during this period are mourned by some of their children, some of their nation and some of the gentiles even today. But where the love of G-d neither grows nor thrives, evil dwells in comfort and abundance. We have only to look at the secular world values that abound in every nation and people group of the world today.

    Dovid, I am truly sorry for what was done to your relatives, tribe and nation but I can not heal your hurt and pain…..this is G-d’s work, if you let Him. Neither can I take credit for Danish ancestors who saved the Jewish people of Denmark or for German/Swiss ancestors who fought against those evil nations. All either one of us can do is to daily live our lives in a way that brings G-d glory and peace and love to our neighbors. I consider you my neighbor – internet neighbor – can you take my hand in friendship – no strings attached ?

  4. dovid says:

    “Why would you think that Christians do not know the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

    Because if they knew, Europe’s history would have played out very differently.

  5. One Christian's perspective says:

    What exactly is that feeling of דביקות that Christians feel? – Avi

    None other than the same that David felt when he wrote Psalm 139.

    Why would you think that Christians do not know the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ?

  6. Micha Berger says:

    Someone who is depressed because they think they lost their faith is obviously wrong. Such depression can only come from a thirst which the truly faithless lack. By feeling alone, she showed she wasn’t apathetic — and it’s apathy which is the antonym, not loneliness.

    Of course, from her own perspective, given that she believed in a very human sort of god, her perceptions may have been different. But in terms of us Jews trying to learn lessons from what we read…

    -mi

  7. Avi S. says:

    This does not answer Rabbi A’s question, However, I have always wondered what out our השקפה has to say about religious feeling in non Jewish worlds.

    If Mother Teresa was feeling cut off from JC, perhaps HKBH was doing her a favor?

    What exactly is that feeling of דביקות that Christians feel?

    And finally, why is it that their prayers are answered when they pray to JC?

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein you are a breath of fresh air in your gentleness and boldness to tackle an article that leaves many Christians puzzled and saying “What ?” .

    When I read the Time piece on Mother Teresa….. again, I must admit that my thoughts were not very spiritual or godly…. but something like “was she a non-recovering co-dependent” ? I don’t say this in jest because that is where I was but ,by G-d’s grace, I am in a place where I can truly laugh at myself and turn back to G-d when I see those old patterns emerging. In looking back at your statement “the amount of pleasure that each Jew brings to His Creator is a result of his doing what is within his ability to do……………”, I would add that each image bearer of G-d has a moral responsibility to love their self and to take care of their self in order to do the job G-d has assigned…… in joy. The Sabbath is a picture of the rest and care we all have been designed to need for refreshment. Sabbaticals/retreats are an even longer Sabbath; if you need a retreat, take one. G-d is big enough to find a good (or maybe better) replacement for your job.

    Co-dependents are kind, caring, loving individuals who run on empty taking care of others and ignoring their own needs. We don’t know how to care for our selves. I did this for many years. However, I have seen that embedded in the love commands is also the command to love yourself….as G-d loves you.

    Love is the gasoline that powers the engine but even cars need a trip to the garage for maintenance when they break. G-d is the only One who can fix what is broken without an invoice being issued but we need to be able to recognize when we are broke. Crying out to G-d “Help” is often the response that gets us into the garage , but, sometimes in His Grace, he brings us to the garage Himself when He says ‘enough, you are going home with me’.

    May the thanks of those Mother Teresa helped reach the throne of Grace within ear shot of her ears.

  9. Mark says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein – Yeyasher Kochachah!

  10. Gershon Josephs says:

    You seem to be assuming that she lost her faith due to being depressed at the scenes she witnessed on a daily basis. However it seems to me that it was the other way round, she was depressed because she lost her faith. How do you stop someone from losing their faith? The best way would be to prove to them that their faith is true. However if you could do that, it probably wouldn’t be called faith.

  11. lawrence kaplan says:

    A very thoughtful article. I particularly appreciated Rabbi Adlerstein’s respectfully critical attitude to Christanity.

  12. yy says:

    whewww. The honorable author of this piece, I must say, has stepped into a venerable vacuum of shichus elyon by articulating so well the power of the Nesivos Shalom to address subtle but very real life issues in Avoidas H'(Divine Service)for our generation.

    Yes, the Nesivos is that master, demonstrating over and over again throughout his phenomenal sfarim kdoishim “the foresight and depth to put into theological context” the paradoxical truth of that shadow-light tension for every genuine Eved H’. Aye, these sfarim have been weilding an increasing influence over the entire Torah world ever since they came out, some 20 years ago, which offers much promise on the horizon. Nearly every shade of Orthodoxy has become passionately familiar with it, concommitantly redefining a faithful Torah Jew as one who passionately and humbly “does what is within his ability to do.” As the Rebbe, zts”l, often compares it to the laws of checking for Chometz, a Jew must search his heart for arousing love of G-d only as far as the hand may reach. After that, his job is to intend that all is hefker (no longer in his possession).

    That said, let us never make the mistake that the Rebbe considered love for H’ as only one of many ways to serve Him. As you briefly noted, it is “the most important element of the inner essence of G-d.” So much so, that whenever we’re stuck significantly below that point, the Nesivos’s mantra is “lo l’hashlim,” *NEVER* to come to terms with it!

    THAT’s why Merari is called Merari, which means the bitter one. Bitter, but not sour. He keeps showing up for work… and dreaming about catching some of the light filtering down through his brother’s holy labor.

  13. Dovid says:

    When I’m feeling distant from Hashem I usually recall the Midrash on the Parsha of the Akeida that understands “Vayar et haMakom Merachoke” as meaning that Avraham felt distant from Hashem. If haGoan Avraham Aveinu Ztsl could feel distant from Hashem and still be Avraham Aveinu, I certainly have nothing to be ashamed of!

  14. YoelB says:

    Was it the Kedushas Levi who said something like “I don’t wonder why I suffer, I wonder if it is for Your sake that I suffer”?