A while ago in the ICU at Kaiser we cared for a patient whose stroke had rendered him brain dead. He had a large loving family, lots of friends, and had been a pillar of his fundamentalist Christian community. The staff was struggling because the family kept telling them that they were praying, praying for a miracle, and they knew God would grant it. One early morning, I sat with one of his sons and asked him, “What if this IS what God is giving you? What if this IS the answer to your prayers? Just not the answer you were hoping for?”
The son replied that they were not stupid, and they were feeling like the medical staff were treating them this way. If the medical staff would just be straight with them…
As soon as the son and I were finished with our meeting, I sought the doctor to share this information. Within two days, after the family received the information as straightforwardly as the doctor could give it (as she had been trying to give it for days), they disconnected all the equipment and the patient died, surrounded by his loved ones.
This story has stuck with me a long time, as I have struggled with the issues of life and death, hope and prayer and acceptance.
Months later, I was asked by the Mussar Institute to teach a webinar on Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avot, that section of the Mishnah that is a collection of teachings by our sages, teachings that form an important, even essential component of our wisdom literature. They teach that the root of our ethical principles is to live out what Rabbi Rami Shapiro calls the “core challenge of God to the Jewish people, and through [us] to all humanity: “Be holy as I, YHVH your God, am holy.”
Mishnah 2:4 tells us:
“Align your will with God’s will and God’s will becomes your will. Surrender your will to God’s will and God will surrender others’ will to your will. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)
I have to say, I was kind of stuck there. What does it mean to accept God’s will? Do we surrender our own free will? Do I have to believe that God manages the details of our lives? (I don’t.) How does that fit into what I know about how the world works? What is this will I’m supposed to accept? And how does aligning my will with that lead to the surrendering of other people’s will to mine? Then I read Rami Shapiro’s take on this:
God’s will is reality, the way things are at this very moment. Aligning with God’s will means working with what is rather than what you wish things to be. Surrendering your will to God’s will means acting in accord with reality. If you do, others will follow suit, and you will be of one Mind… When you surrender to reality, you engage each moment and all that it brings with grace, humor, and thanksgiving. (R’ Rami Shapiro, Pirkei Avot)
I felt something akin to a lightbulb going off, or maybe even fireworks.
Rosh Hashanah is traditionally the holy day when we celebrate God’s sovereignty in our lives, so it seemed like this was the perfect time to delve a bit more deeply into this concept.
In my work at Kaiser, I often pray the Lord’s Prayer with the Christian patients. For me it’s an authentic Jewish prayer refashioned for them. Its words are clearly selected from Jewish teachings… Avinu sheh bashamayim—our father who art in heaven, baruch hashem, hallowed be thy name. So when we get to “Thy will be done,” I’m again aligning myself to God’s will…
But first a brief detour about this language at all. I know that many of us have issues with the word or concept of God. You probably know the joke, “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in” if you don’t believe in the old guy with a beard sitting on a throne in heaven…
The late poet and philosopher John O’Donahue had this to say in an interview:
I think that one of the reasons that so many people turn away from religion in our times is that the God question has died for them, because the question has been framed in such repetitive, dead language. And I think it’s the exciting question, once you awaken to the presence of God.
I sometimes believe in a personal God, I usually believe in an energy for good that flows through the universe, like the Zohar’s river of light, and occasionally as the dark matter. I firmly believe in Martin Buber’s I-Thou theology: that God is present in those moments of deep connection with others. Sometimes when I am overwhelmed by something beautiful—in nature, on a stage, on a wall or on a page, I can feel the divine. Sometimes I believe that things happen for a reason, but more generally, I believe I need to figure out what I have to learn from what happened.
But I strongly believe that I am not the center of the universe, and most of what happens is beyond my control. I’m not even the star of my own life. The most control I have in life is to imagine how things can be and to manage my own reactions and responses to the slings and arrows that come my way. Acceptance is essential for me.
The Talmud teaches that there are 70 faces of God—in those days, 70 meant a really large number. These sages of ours were telling us that each of us experiences the mystery, the holy, the sacred in a different way. Just as we experience love in different ways. And beauty. Concepts that are hard to put into words that are universally understood.
This is the day we are asked to accept God’s sovereignty which seems to be wrapped up in this acceptance of God’s will.
Because my own faces of God are not of a sovereign who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and benevolent, accepting God’s will is challenging until I translate it into Rami Shapiro’s definition of reality.
Similar to Rami Shapiro’s description of acceptance, Frank Ostaseski, one of the founders of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco, writes in his brilliant, beautiful book, The Five Invitations,
“Acceptance is not resignation. It is an opening to possibility. And openness is the basis for a skillful response to life…We can see the way things actually are and act accordingly, with wise discernment and love.”
Not so different from Rami Shapiro’s definition….
Accepting God’s will does not mean we are resigning ourselves, we are opening our hearts. Here’s what’s real, here’s what I have on my plate. Now what am I going to do with it? For the family in the ICU, until they could accept that nothing was going to restore brain activity after the stroke, they could not begin to say good-bye and let him go.
What is your reality? What are you not accepting that in your heart you know is true?
This acceptance requires us to know what reality is. Do we depend on fact-based sources of information or ones that only support our opinions? Do we get the lab tests we need, and get second opinions, if we need them? And do we understand the options ahead of us? Do we listen with an open heart to what our loved ones are trying to tell us, or do we shut ourselves off when we are angry or hurt or believe we know what’s best, we know the one and only truth in a situation?
How much of our response to our lives is based in fear? The Ramchal, writing in the 18th century, told us that we have to “distinguish between different kinds of fear: between fear that is appropriate and fear that is irrational. There is “trusting in the Eternal” and there is recklessness.” We have to recognize that we could be overly cautious or overly reckless and figure out in each instance which it is, and then act.
We have to be mindful.
And once we do that, we still should be open to the possibilities that fear can mask.
And we have to be willing to act. As another Mishnah in the same chapter says, we are not required to finish the work, but neither are we free to abandon it.
Accepting reality is hard—I remember my disbelief on November 9, the day after the election, and how many people wanted recounts, tried to get electors to change their votes, anything for that reality to go away. To imagine that THIS is God’s will is unfathomable, if I were to believe in THAT face of God. Believing that God CAUSED the man in the ICU to suffer a stroke leading to death—or the woman to fall in her private garden… I think that’s what makes this whole discussion challenging. And so I circle back—Who or what is God to you? The old man with a beard on a throne? The one who helps us resist dangerous policies against the most vulnerable? The one who inspires first responders and heroes? The love when people meet soul to soul?
God’s will and God’s sovereignty are—I hope beyond hope—about living a life of meaning, of love, truth, beauty and justice. If God’s will is about kindness, compassion, concern for our neighbors—loving our neighbors as ourselves, then surrendering to God’s will is recognizing the reality in a situation, and then doing something about it. What steps are we going to take to protect health insurance coverage for millions of Americans? How are we going to protect the Dreamers, now that the administration is ending DACA, the program for people who came to this country as children? Are we going to march, call our legislators, write letters to the editor? Are we going to be trained to offer support when ICE appears? Are we going to take in these DACA folks into our homes, help them out, one by one, consider adopting them as adults? Whether it’s welcoming the stranger, protecting rights of the vulnerable, protecting the world we have been lent, when we see a wrong, we are not supposed to stand idly by.
Surrendering to God’s will means recognizing that we are connected to each other—Adonai Echad—God is one, we are one. When we recognize that, then we can work in concert to make reality better than it currently is.
Frank Ostaseski tells us,
“Accepting life as is means that we make peace with things as they are rather than trying to force them to be the way we want them to be (and getting frustrated that we can’t). Instead of spinning a story that we then try to live into, we open to the way things are and accept that we are completely human.”
I met a woman in the hospital one day who was eager to talk. She was 80 years old, and she told me that she was there because she broke her hip. She had broken it while out in her garden with her dog, and she didn’t have her phone with her. She lived in an isolated place, so no neighbors pass by. She lay there for 30 hours, overnight.
She was found because she has end stage renal disease, and she missed her dialysis appointment, so the center called her emergency contact, who called 911, and her local sheriff appeared in her yard. Her end stage renal disease saved her. Think about that for a moment.
She is also being treated for a serious cancer.
Her attitude was that she had to put one foot in front of the other, and move forward. She was remarkably cheerful. And resourceful: she had kept drinking from the garden hose, so as not to get dehydrated, and she had shifted her weight periodically to avoid the problems that come from staying in the same position on the cold ground too long. Even with a broken hip.
She clearly accepted God’s will, accepted what was happening and figured out how to move forward. While in the hospital, she signed up for a life alert service, so if she falls again, someone will come much more quickly. Acceptance didn’t mean just a pleasant resilient outlook, but taking steps to adapt to it.
I can’t stress enough how “accepting God’s will” is not a passive act: it is an act that is totally in keeping with the message of Rosh Hashanah and its self-reflection. If we don’t control our lives, then what we do control is our response to it. Once we know what reality is—how do we respond to it? Once we know what it is, we can work WITHIN it to make changes, to learn to live with it, to let it go. The Mishnah teaches that the happy person is the one who is satisfied with their lot. Doesn’t need more, okay with what is.
Accepting God’s will, accepting reality, is similar to a main task of Rosh Hashanah, accepting God’s sovereignty. Here, we are accepting the idea that we are obligated to behave in certain ways—to act Godly—be kind, be patient, stand up for the vulnerable, welcome the stranger, and work for truth and justice. And to do it with a certain joy—because we recognize that be able to do these things means we have choice and because when we do good, we feel better ourselves—we have reason to feel good about ourselves.
And so let it be with accepting reality. Even when it’s painful—that’s how it feels a lot these days to me. But if we accept what is true, then we can move forward to deal with it—whether it’s letting go of a loved one, or getting a life alert system, or standing up for DACA recipients, for refugees, for the stranger, for truth and justice. Let’s open ourselves to the possibilities within what is and feel the connection with people near and far, with everything that breathes.
 Ostaseski, Frank. The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully (p. 83). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
 Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, translated by Rabbi Moshe Liebler, Messilat Yesharim, The Path of the Just. New York: Feldheim Publishers. 2009, p. 50.
 Ostaseski, Frank (2017-03-14). Op.cit. (p. 85). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Sharon Schwartz says
Thanks for this, Meredith. It speaks to exactly where I am and what I need today as I try to renew my focus for the new year.
Meredith Cahn says
Fran Danoff says
I agree with Sharon. This spoke to me exactly where I am with these profound questions.
Thank you so much,
Meredith Cahn says