There’s No Hebrew Word for Tragedy

by Rachel Eden September 26, 2018


segalDouglas Segal, Hollywood writer, producer and director, used to harbor secret fantasies about becoming a widower who “met someone new, experienced the excitement of a blossoming relationship, and had a fresh start in marriage.”

In his recent memoir, “Struck,” Segal recounts that his fantasy became all too real when six years ago, he received a phone call straight out of the movies. His wife, Susan, and their daughter had been hit head-on by a bus that lost control. Susan’s car was crushed and her body was trapped beneath mounds of metal. The Segals’ daughter emerged miraculously unscathed but Susan’s injuries were extensive. She had a broken vertebra that should have rendered her dead or paralyzed, but instead Susan had internal bleeding, brain damage, and broken bones. Douglas spent the years that followed by his wife’s side, devoted to her care, and supporting her painstakingly slow and to-date incomplete recovery. He explains that his dark thoughts about starting fresh without his wife stemmed from years of taking her and their marriage for granted. He describes that the accident was less of an epiphany and more of a reminder of the deep love (albeit dormant) he had for his wife all along.

Most of us won’t experience a near-death tragedy to wake us out of our depressive states (thankfully!) Many of us, however, will spend adulthood wishing for a fresh start while living each day much like the one before it. We do exert small efforts in renewing our lives though. I remember how exciting my first day of school was – from elementary to college – opening my pristine binders, organizers and general supplies. Color coded, labelled with my name, untouched by pesky note-taking or homework or study outlines. As adults, we attempt to recapture that feeling of a blank slate by acquiring new possessions. In a culture of consumerism, acquisition is an accessible medium to feeling renewed. The more valuable and longer-lasting the acquisition, the stronger our feelings of revitalization. An internal achievement is perhaps the highest level of acquisition and a spiritual channel in feeling renewed. More mundane but satisfying moments include when we’re handed keys to our brand new home, or we sit in a car fresh from the lot, or we take pleasure in a new relationship, we come alive all over again. Without these moments of hitchadshut (renewal) our lives take on a tedious and repetitive rhythm.

Through Sharon’s tragic accident, the Segals were gifted with a renewed appreciation for their lives and blessings. But in an honest confession, when Sharon Segal contemplates the rest of her life, grateful to have one but still suffering from chronic pain and physical limitations, she feels sad at times. Her accident was indeed tragic. How does she reconcile that with living a life of appreciation and happiness?

In modern Hebrew, the word for tragedy is “tragedia” but there’s actually no Hebraic word for tragedy and that’s because there is no such concept. How is that possible given the tremendous suffering the Jewish people endured over time? Slavery, persecution, attempted genocide and none of our history can be labelled tragic? Tragedy is a Greek word that is predicated on the Greek narrative of a hero with a flaw that leads to his demise. There is no tragic narrative from a Torah perspective. Humanity, with all its flaws, is wired to navigate through obstacles and rise above them stronger, more compassionate and connected to the Almighty. All areas of our lives that we don’t control (almost our whole lives) are tailor-made for us. The family member or colleague who we have to work around, our depleting bank account, deteriorating health – the endless possibilities of challenges our lives encompass are staged to make us better, happier and more successful.

Rather than running from our pain, inner demons and enemies, what if we surrender ourselves to the discomfort of addressing them? The process is certainly painful but we will gain genuine renewal of the highest form – a renewal of self. There is no greater kind and we can skip getting hit by a bus in the process. Douglas Segal writes in his memoir two lines that capture how to feel renewed everyday: “Limit the pain and we limit the joy, compressing the lines closer and closer, flatter and flatter. Without the up-and-down spikes of life’s heartaches and elations, like an EKG in flatline, we cease to live.”


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