This article was originally written about one year ago, when a new virus from Wuhan was just starting to make the news, and whose destructive power wasn’t felt yet in the United States. At the time Rabbi Glickman’s second yahrzeit was approaching, and even with the world-changing events of 2020 still to come, as with every life event, challenging or celebratory, the inability to share it with and learn from Rabbi Glickman, z”l brought its own sense of renewed loss.
As my hospital was swiftly overrun by COVID, leaving little time for anything other than trying to stem the crashing wave of death, I was never able to share what his loss meant to me and the lesson his legacy taught me for these trying times. My hope then, as it is now, is that others who knew him might find kinship in the feeling of loss but inspiration from the teachings he left us.
In the third year since his passing, I’ve never missed him more or felt his loss as deeply. With each of the year’s seismic global and national events, I find myself longing for words of comfort or insight from Rabbi Glickman. The sweeping death and suffering of the pandemic, racial unrest, assault on the capital, and loss of Torah leaders are each events that Rabbi Glickman would have brought his unique perspective to. As each passed and there were no eloquent Facebook posts, inspiring conversations, or poignant email exchanges, the hole that Rabbi Glickman’s passing created grew deeper. Yet, the one degree of comfort I get, that others who were fortunate to learn from him might share, is that I am still able to grow from the lessons he taught.
As Purim approached this year, I faced the same challenges as last year: how to approach a celebratory holiday in the midst of a global epidemic. I asked myself, as I often do, what would Rabbi Glickman have answered my question of being “מרבה בשמחה” and increasing joy as Adar arrives, while surrounded by death and increasing suffering on a daily basis in the hospital.
Last year I thought of a new lesson he may have taught, which applies more this year: Haman wasn’t wrong.
Amalek was right. Life is, by objective measures, meaningless. We’re just random assortments of atoms hurtling through space on an infinitesimally small planet that isn’t more than a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe. We lead lives ruled by the cruel lottery of the cosmos, without any control over what diseases we may contract, or knowing why we and not others may have been spared.
Except for the meaning we give to it.
In his Essay “Purim and the Randomness of Life,” Rabbi Glickman confronted the questions raised by the New Atheists, and how their approach is not that different from Haman or his ancestors. Indeed, the world as we know it seems to be the result of a fortunate set of circumstances and continues to operate as such.
In the beginning of his essay Rabbi Glickman examines the classic sources that show this attitude of happenstance attributed to Amalek and their descendants throughout the generations. As he traces the history in that essay it is a theme that did not begin with the New Atheists. It started millennia prior, with the first post-Egyptian challenge to the Bnei Yisrael, when Amalek attacked the newly founded people in the wilderness, they merely “happened” to cross paths in attack—“אשר קרחך בדרך,” “who happened (karcha) across your way.” The attitude continued generations later, when Haman the Amalekite recounts to his wife and family “את כל אשר קרהו—“all the happenings (karahu),” all the coincidences he saw that led to his confrontation with Mordechai.
At first the conclusion I drew seems completely incorrect: How could Haman, the arch villain of the Purim story, be right?
The strange thing about the Megillah is that aside from Haman there is only one other character who also uses that same word “מקרה” (“mikreh”), mere happenstance, to describe events: Mordechai.
When telling Esther about the decree, he uses the same language associated with Amalek, and that Haman himself uses to describe the unfolding reality, “את כל אשר קרהו,” “all the happenings (karahu).” Moreover, while the specifics and complexity are beyond this article, Rabbi Glickman would also agree in pointing out that many of the Rishnomim indeed understood that the world follows a strict and unyielding natural order (see Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:17 and Ramban in Shaar Hagmul Chapter 51).
On the one hand, the grim reality of the natural world is true. The world can be a terrible place with a deathly lottery of who will contract a disease, or another tragedy that will forever change our lives.
But what makes all the difference is how we understand and react to that reality.
Rabbi Glickman taught me the power of looking at the same natural event but seeing something completely different. In one of my most cherished emails, he told me of how at times he would be sitting in a corporate boardroom, discussing mathematical and economic principles with Ivy League PHDs, and then there would be thunder and lightning outside the windows. The other people in the room would pause, look outside, and then continue with their day. But Rabbi Glickman perceived that reality differently. When one Purim, stuck in a hospital, I reached out to Rabbi Glickman about that challenge, his response to me was this issue of perceiving things differently. He told me that when attending the same meeting he heard the thunder, to him it carried the sound of a halachic imperative. While everyone in the room saw and heard the same thunder and lightning, to some it was just a chance interruption to their day. To Rabbi Glickman it was a reminder that his innate conscious was always attuned to something higher, and that same thunder called on him to pause and reflect on the might of He who set into motion the order of nature and remind himself שכוחו וגברתו מלא עולם.
Rabbi Glickman taught me that Haman could be correct. The world might indeed appear to be a random and even cruel place, with no apparent system of fairness to the loss and pain we see. But we can look deeper. While we may never make sense of the pain or suffering that at times seems meted out at random, but we can be deliberate and mindful in our response. Rabbi Glickman was always able to see deeper and, no matter what happened in the world, be able to understand how that event could and should deepen our relationship with the Almighty. He always had unique, piercing insight to give a perspective on events and see beneath the surface of the world of happenstance to see the Architect behind them, calling on us to act and challenging us to change and deepen personal and interpersonal spiritual connections.
The specific lesson and meaning to take from the year’s cataclysmic events is the question I so deeply miss being able to ask Rabbi Glickman. Yet I still treasure the conversations had and writings he left, which at least gives me a place to start thinking. The one thing I do think he would say is that the world will always carry the meaning we give to it, and in a true Rabbi Glickman approach, he would help each person find their own unique lens to seek and find that meaning.
As different as the views on what meaning to give to the events of the world are, Rabbi Glickman taught us one thing in common. That while on a superficial level Haman might be right, and the world is full of “מקרה” (“mikreh”) and happenstance, we could always look deeper. We can see past the randomness to the meaning present when we see natural events as Mordechai and Esther did, echoed in the words of Rabbah Bar Rav Huna (Taanit 7b).
אין מקרה אלא הקב»ה שנאמר (תהלים קד, ג) המקרה במים עליותיו
The word “mikreh” only refers to God.
Ari Friedman is an Internal Medicine resident and a Talmid of Rabbi Glickman from Yeshiva University/RIETS.