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This is the introduction to a nine-part series of personal vignettes that explore the challenges of the human journey from cradle to grave. Each piece revolves around a single "big" biblical question that forms the theme of the spiritual explorations, and they cover such important existential experiences and topics as mortality, responsibility, forbidden knowledge, sin, and the afterlife (see outline). These questions have been asked by prophets and kings, mystics and sinners, and seekers of all types throughout the ages, and they continue to be asked by every one of us today. This series is written for believers and nonbelievers alike, and it is aimed at anyone who has ever faced a challenge or wondered what life is all about.
Midway through my life, three pressing questions weighed down my soul.
First, there was the question of my marriage. I just didn't think I could do it any more, it felt too dishonest. While I loved my wife, my heart told me that we weren't working as a couple, that our relationship needed to come to an end. Despite the truth I felt in my heart and my unwillingness or incapacity to fully commit to something I felt was wrong, my brain was torn by the issue: "Why should I leave a situation that had become so. . .familiar?" I drank alone at night in my basement cave to try to numb my uncertainty and doubts. If my situation didn't change, and soon, I would continue to damage my body and hide from the difficult reality that I was depressed.
Then there was the synagogue. Although I had been the spiritual leader of my Greenwich Village congregation since its founding, and while we'd weathered the horrors of 9/11, personal tragedies, and a catastrophic recession together — as well as celebrated births, marriages, and other joyous events — if I had to sit through another irritating board meeting or officiate at another idolatrous bar or bat mitzvah, I'd blow my brains out. After a decade of service, it was time for me to move on, and time for them find a new rabbi who wasn't disenchanted and burned out. But what should I do next?
Finally, after nearly twenty years of living and working there, I felt that I had reached the end of my relationship with New York City. The same frenetic energy that had fed me in my twenties and thirties was now devouring my soul. I'd come to loathe the city's unapologetic relentlessness, its rat race sensibility, and its noise. By then, the noise enraged me most of all. Whether it was due to construction, a siren, or an incoming subway car, New York's oppressive din made it almost impossible for me to find peace. How could I remain in a city that was driving me to the end of my rope?
That summer, I left my wife, the synagogue, and New York, and I spent time by myself in a cabin near Hood River, Oregon.
Oregon wasn't an escape, it was a mirror — still, silent, and far removed from the frenzy of New York. I landed in Portland in early July, picked up my rental car, and drove east for an hour or so through the Columbia River Gorge until I emerged in the town of Hood River. Then, after stopping for supplies, I turned south toward Mount Hood and my isolated cabin that was tucked away in its foothills.
In my seclusion, I forced myself to face the life-altering choices that loomed before me. Within two months, I'd be unemployed for the first time in my life. I asked myself, What am I going to do next, a rabbi who has no desire to serve another congregation? And then I turned to the more emotional and frightening question: Should I get a divorce from a woman I still care about? These two questions reverberated inside my soul day and night, whether I was on a hike, river rafting, going for a drive, or watching the sunset. I couldn't shake them, and I wouldn't let myself. Was I about to enter a brave new world and free myself from the burdens of boredom and despair, or was I, like Ahab, a wounded man in midlife pursuing a "phantom" that would either elude me or drive me to the ends of the earth — and, perhaps, to self-destruction?
All I had were questions.
I found solace at a brew pub in nearby Parkdale. On many evenings, I would sit on the back deck, drink beer, pet the dogs that roamed the grounds, and watch the sun gradually sink behind Mount Hood. Those were the only moments when I had contact with other human beings, and I became friendly with a local woman who had grown up in the area. She was newly divorced herself, and we spoke about her own doubts and fears prior to making the decision to end her marriage, about the challenges of throwing in the towel and starting again from scratch.