January 27, 2005
What Lies Beneath
"When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough" by Rabbi Harold Kushner (Pocket, 1987).
"A man sat opposite me in my study one evening: 'Two weeks ago, for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age.... He died suddenly over the weekend.... That was two weeks ago. They have already replaced him at the office.... Two weeks ago he was working 50 feet away from me, and now it's as if he never existed. It's like a rock falling into a pool of water. For a few seconds, it makes ripples in the water, and then the water is the same as it was before, but the rock isn't there anymore. Rabbi, I've hardly slept at all since then. I can't stop thinking that it could happen to me, that one day it will happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn't a man's life be more than that?'"
So begins Rabbi Harold Kushner's book, "When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough." Kushner is most famous for his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," in which he confronts why a benevolent God permits evil in His world. But while I have known suffering in my life, I also know that, like many people, I have been spared the kind of searing pain that provoked Kushner's most famous book.
"This book is written to help people cope with another, more subtle kind of tragedy," Kushner writes, "the disease of boredom, meaninglessness, a sense of the futility and purposelessness of our lives."
I first read "When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough" during my freshman year in college when my mom hid it away in one of the bags I took to school. University reading of a different sort. My mom read it over the summer, probably because I was the last child to leave home and she was becoming an "empty nester," about to experience the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of freedom to be "not just a mom" after so many years of hard work raising my siblings and me. The quiet. The serenity. The emptiness.
Reading Kushner's book as a freshman did not provoke in me a radical change in lifestyle; I stayed in school, went to parties, continued my swimming career. But as graduation grew closer, I got scared. Scared of taking a job. Scared of getting an apartment and being a commuter. Scared of getting married and getting a house and having kids and buying a mini-van and getting promoted and waking up 15 years later in Kushner's office wondering "Shouldn't my life be more than this?"
"I am convinced that it is not the fear of death, of our lives ending, that haunts our sleep," Kushner writes, "so much as the fear that our lives will not have mattered, that as far as the world is concerned, we might as well never have lived. What we miss in our lives, no matter how much we have, is that sense of meaning."
It was because of Kushner's book that I turned down a job offer after college and went to Israel to explore Judaism. Religions speak the language of ultimacy. They answer not how the world came into being, but why. They answer not how to get rich or what profession to choose, but why should I have wealth and what should I do with it. The Jewish God is not the stale Prime Mover of Aristotle; Adonai is God's name. He cares for us and cares what we do.
When we lie awake at night, alone with our thoughts in a city of 16 million Angelenos, in a country of 260 million Americans, on a planet with 5 billion people, God whispers in our ear, "do not believe that you are small, that your life has no meaning."
Judaism brings to every Jew the astonishing possibility that the Master of the Universe needs you.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "In this world there are only two tragedies: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Kushner's book is an indispensable guide for Jews in America, who have so much and yet feel so empty. If we have not felt the emptiness of satiation afforded by our homes and cars and restaurants, could it be that Kushner's question -- what more? -- lies buried because we fear to ask it. His book can teach us to see what we have wanted is not enough, to unearth the question beneath the surface of our souls, "shouldn't my life be more than this?"
Early in my own life, Kushner's book taught me not to settle for what my money could buy. His book can teach all of us to ask again what more there is, and to believe our answers matter to the One who created it all.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California.