This is why I believe in God

Rabbi Jacki Ninio





As we come to the end of 2011 we all begin the process of looking back over the year that has passed. For some of us the year was one filled with moments of joy, happiness and blessing but for many of us, the year was one which saw us faced with struggles, pain, suffering. It seems to me, that for so many, 2011 was an incredibly challenging year, a time of hurt, difficulties and sorrows. And in our increasingly isolated and isolating world, it can feel as if we are the only ones, that we are alone with our struggles and burdens.

There is a story from Jewish tradition about a woman named Rebecca.

Rebecca  went to see her Rabbi’s wife, the Rebbetzin. ”Rebbetzin,” she said, “I don’t know what to do. I have so many troubles. My children do not listen to me, they take me for granted and they don’t appreciate what they have in their lives. I struggle to make a living with my husband, we can put food on the table but not much else and I am always so tired, I feel the problems of my life are too much for me to bear. What can I do?”

The Rebbitzin was the wisest woman in town, many believed her even more wise than her husband, Rebecca felt certain that she could help her. The Rebbetzin sat very still. She looked to the ceiling, she looked down again. She looked to the ceiling, she looked down again, then she suddenly leapt from her chair, “I know what you must do,” she said, “go home and place all your troubles in a bag and bring them here this afternoon at 3. Now go and don’t be late.”


Rebecca raced home and began collecting all her troubles, she placed them in her bag and headed back to the Rebbetzin’s house, dragging her bag behind her.

When she arrived she heard the buzz of women chatting and when she walked inside she saw every woman from the village there, each with her own bag. Some big, some small, some heavy, some light. The Rebbetzin called for silence. “Now Rebecca,” she said, “I want you to go around the room, look at everyone else’s bag and you may swap yours for any one of them.” Well Rebecca was thrilled! Nobody’s troubles could be as bad as hers. She spotted the smallest bag and made her way directly there. When she went to lift it, the bag was incredibly heavy, she looked inside. There was only one trouble there, the death of a child. Rebecca quickly closed the bag and moved on, that was too great a tragedy. She moved around the room lifting bags until she found one that was large but incredibly light, she looked inside and saw the vast emptiness of loneliness. She felt a wave of sadness and despair wash over her as she closed that bag and searched for another. The next bag was so beautiful on the outside that Rebecca felt sure that it was the bag for her, it seemed so perfect, but as she looked inside she saw the darkness, the self doubt, the insecurity, the pain of abandonment, quickly she closed it. Further along she lifted another bag, it moved and jumped, inside was violence and anger.


One after the other she opened the bags and found so much hurt, anguish and suffering that when she looked over at her own she found that it was much smaller than when she entered the room. She thanked the Rebbitzen, collected her bag and headed home. [1]

Each of us has our own bag filled with troubles. We carry our burdens, pain and sufferings. We look around and on the surface we all seem fine, but each of us has our own bag of struggles and difficulties. Parents have lost children, we have lost partners, friends. Relationships and people have been torn apart by hurt, anger and pain. Some of us are struggling with loss, disappointment and failures. There are people fighting to survive financially, fighting to survive emotionally. People are trapped in relationships which bring sorrow and struggle, people in jobs with lives which feel unfulfilling and meaningless. People wrestling with their shadows, with darkness, with illness and pain.

We bring all of that suffering with us as we try to understand, to find courage, strength and hope. And we ask the inevitable questions: Why is this happening? Why is life such a struggle, such a battle? Why is there pain and suffering?  And we hurl our questions at God, at the universe, we want to find a reason, to somehow gain control, to eradicate the source of our pain, to make the world a place filled with sunshine, where the good do not suffer, where the wicked do not triumph, where justice is done and reward is brought to those who do good. But that is not our world. We live in a place with light and shadows, where every one of us has more than enough troubles to fill a bag, it is an imperfect place and we are imperfect people.


Each of us travels through life with our cracks and our flaws, with our pain and our brokenness and we seek healing, we want to reach out and find hope in the midst of our suffering, a place where we can be heard, can be understood and we can find wholeness again. And we know instinctively that this powerful healing can come when we are together, not alone in our suffering but standing side by side with others, understanding and knowing that each of us has struggles, each of us has places of brokenness, each of us is in need of healing and together we can find courage, strength and hope to go on.

People come to me and ask, “Rabbi, how can you believe in God when the world is full of such pain?” “How can you have faith when we live in a world where millions of children are dying in Africa, a world where people are victims of violent acts of rape, torture and human depravity, a world where some of the most heinous crimes are committed in the name of God? How can you believe when we live in a world with disease and illness? A world where children die and old men live with their minds lost, their bodies withered and their dignity taken from them? Where is this God of yours? What is God doing while all of us struggle with our pain, our loss?” And I admit that I do not have the answers, I struggle with you.

When I stand beside parents who are burying their child, when I clutch the hand of someone who has survived horrors that I cannot even fathom, when I cry with someone who is struggling with demons of abuses inflicted upon them, when I sit at the bedside of someone in pain I have the same questions, the same anger, the same struggles.


But I cannot stop there, for me, the existence of God, of a force in the world, an energy beyond my comprehension, an ultimate being is not in doubt. So it is for me to struggle, to search, to question and to find the place that I can be and exist with that God despite the suffering I see, despite the brokenness of the world. And I do that by finding in God, not the source of pain, not the distant, ruler on a throne, who is dispensing random unfathomable rulings, but rather as an infinite source of strength and love. A well from which we can draw in our darkest moments, in our times of greatest fear and aloneness, when we are questioning, struggling with our own failures and shortcomings. There is a presence which sees all that we are, sees who we are and loves us anyway. And from that energy can come courage, strength, resilience and a drive to bring that energy into the world through us.

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney.She was Emanuel synagogue’s first female rabbi and was the third Australian born woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She has a passion for storytelling and an interest in liturgy and prayer.

Do you believe in God? How do you come to terms with difficult times in your life?

Jacki joined the panel for Mamamia on Sky News in September and spoke eloquently about her beliefs during the panel discussion on religion and God. That conversation starts at 14:52.

[1] A Year of Jewish Stories “a bag of trouble” and  Chosen Tales, “The Bag Story” pg 222