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Reflections on the Toronto Tragedy: The Redeeming Power of Hope - Ben Volman
May 2, 2018
By Ben Volman, Toronto Ministry Team Leader and Messianic Rabbi of Kehillat Eytz Chaim / Tree of Life Congregation.

On Monday, April 23, 2018, a van in Toronto sped south onto the sidewalks of Yonge Street, from Finch Avenue to a point south of Sheppard Avenue, killing 10 and injuring 16 others.  The young driver was arrested at the scene.  Over the past week, the city of Toronto has been struggling to make sense of this terrible crime. On the following Shabbat, our congregation, Kehillat Eytz Chaim / Tree of Life Congregation, gathered to pray for those who are personally coping with the consequences of this tragedy and contemplated this challenge to our faith in a loving God.

In a difficult time, hope has real power. For those in every type of pain, hope can be as precious as life. A former president of Sloan Kettering Laboratories once told a medical convention: “My father was a country doctor. We now know, scientifically speaking, that he didn’t carry a thing in that black bag that would cure anybody. But people got well because he patted them on the arm and said, ‘You’re going to make it.’ The hope he inspired released an amazing power.”  Indeed, that power to heal didn’t come to us from doctors. We believe it was placed in the human mind and body by a Creator who gave us an inner capacity to heal and believe in better things to come.

But it’s inevitable that we confront the scars of evil on the face of a good creation.  What do we say when bad things happen to average people—to most of us? Will we turn against God or seek Him out?

A caring pastor once told how he had met two men in similar circumstances around the same time. Both came to see him after losing a young child. One was a leader in his church who had become angry and bitter toward God.  His suffering was compounded by the hurt feelings of others around him affected by the harshness in his heart. The other man had been a thorough atheist. After his devastating loss, this man had given his life to God and was now sharing an extraordinary peace with others. 

Hearing of these two, I was reminded of an old friend’s father—whose young daughter died in his arms. Her last words were, “Daddy, do you see the angels coming…?”  Until that moment, he had been a total cynic, unable to believe anything.  But he went to church that week and at the end of the service rushed forward to give his life to God. Later, he asked his family, “How could I doubt the last words of a dying child?”

Personally, I knew almost nothing of real hope growing up in a home where the horrors of the Holocaust still loomed large over the lives of my parents. (I was born a scant ten years after my father had survived a concentration camp north of Berlin.)  And yet, in the spiritual hollowness of that life, I might not have been surprised at the words of the great English novelist, Thomas Carlyle: “Man’s only possession is hope.” I only knew that something essential was missing.

During my studies in philosophy, I became fascinated by the possibility of a supernatural plane of existence—but I could see no way in. It was like looking at a storefront window with no apparent way to reach the store inside. When I took a few tentative first steps toward faith, I discovered that I was the one who was actually putting up the obstacles—shielding myself from a greater hope. And besides, I was definitely not saint material. So, I wondered, how could I believe that God was waiting for me on the other side? Saying “yes” to Him seemed like the biggest, most impossible step I could ever take in my life.  

We have to go a long way – a thousand miles, sometimes – to be ready for a step like that. In the end, I didn’t have the power to break through. But when I was ready to open the door to hope in God, I found out that He is the one who breaks through. My wonder was no different than most of his disciples who could barely believe the testimony of the few who had seen him after the resurrection. Their minds weren’t changed because they found Yeshua—He came into their midst through a locked door. And often, that’s how He arrives while we’re struggling to believe.

We live in a time when faith in God is often accused of causing more harm than good. But a great theologian, Hans Kung, once said that the Kingdom of God is creation healed. Almost all of us know the words of His prayer: “Thy kingdom come…”  That kingdom may be on the way, but without Yeshua’s presence, it’s dependent on the men and women who are letting his will be done on earth—and how many of us is that?  No wonder things are delayed. And you may know the story of how Yeshua arrived in His hometown of Nazareth.  The people there could only see Him as the man they remembered as a carpenter’s son (Mark 6).  Mark says that only a few were healed there.

There are always lots of reasons to resent life for not giving us what we want or expect. There are those who say, “How could God allow such a world of infuriating injustice and suffering and not break His heart?” That’s a good question. We don’t get the circumstances we want—but God does send someone who understands us. Someone who was betrayed, judged and hung on a cursed tree between two thieves and said on our behalf, “Father forgive them…” And then He died of a broken heart. But that’s not the end.

One of the most inspiring people in my life was the great British evangelist, David Watson.  At the height of his ministry, he was diagnosed with cancer and, shortly after surgery, the BBC interviewed him to discuss faith and suffering. The response to that broadcast was incredible. People were so moved by his trust in a glorious hope for the future—whether in this life or the next—that the BBC replayed the interview several times including its World Service broadcasts around the globe. People listening in their cars pulled over to hear him more clearly. One young doctor who called himself a militant atheist obtained another of Watson’s books and soon afterwards gave his life to Yeshua. His totally amazed wife did the same just a few weeks later.

Watson detailed the path of his illness in a small book, called “Fear No Evil.” It’s an amazing testimony to a rational, yet supernatural trust in God and a remarkable journey into God’s ultimate gift of grace. Reading it again recently, I understand certain aspects of his journey through my knowledge of pastoral care. He struggled with inactivity, then pushed himself to go back into ministry too soon, but there were issues in his life that were still unresolved.

In the last few months of Watson’s life, the Lord spoke powerfully to him with a message that was truly humbling. He felt the Lord saying that all his years of preaching, writing and ministry to thousands was nothing compared to the important love relationship they had shared. He was urged to do what had seemed impossible for the longest time. So Watson urgently wrote letters to people who had deeply hurt him, expressing his own apology for not forgiving them. He called it the most powerful pruning and purging of his life—but yet so fruitful, because of the freedom he experienced and the tears of receiving word back from many who also wanted reconciliation before it was too late.

In that attitude, Watson found that he was clinging to God and experiencing a love that cast out all fear. Watson liked to say, “No human frailty—no sin, no doubt, no failure—need prevent us from experiencing God’s grace.” When I read those words, I couldn’t help thinking of Rav Sha’ul hearing the voice of his Master at a point of genuine despair: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  And yes, it’s true that, at times, grace seems impossibly distant.

I read this past week of a woman, Chana, with two small children, who went through some of the harshest terrors of the Holocaust, hiding in a Polish ghetto. Nearby was another young man in hiding. He’d come from British Palestine to Poland in the last weeks before the war. Visiting his parents, he was trapped by the sudden Nazi invasion. They were all under constant surveillance, yet after a long night Chana ventured out to bring the young man soup. That morning she found him very ill. As she was caring for him, he told her:  “Every night, I dream of my beloved Tel Aviv. But I no longer see myself walking there on the wide streets by sea. But I see you with your children. Surely, you’ll survive this place and walk there as a free woman under blue skies.” By the next day, the young man was gone. And yet, perhaps that word of hope was the slender thread that Chana held onto through many bitter months. After the war, she and her children came to Israel. Hearing her story, strangers marveled at her resilience. “How did you get here? Do you know anyone in Tel Aviv?”  “Oh yes,” she would say, “A dear friend brought me here.”

As we pray for one another, consider the wise words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “There is something much greater than my desire to pray: God’s desire that I pray. Something greater than my will to believe: God’s will that we believe. Something greater than our desire to be loved and blessed: God’s will that we love Him with all our heart, mind and being, and love our neighbour as ourselves.” 

Yeshua’s arrival in our midst, His “Shalom Aleichem”—“Peace to You”—in the midst of fearful and doubting disciples, is the most convincing sign to people just like us that our faith and hope is drawing us closer to something greater than our own will—God’s will to overcome everything that binds us to this world’s toughest realities and calls us to the highest promise of heaven. Even if we’ve passed through hell.

Filed under: Devotional Study


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