YK Sermon 5773 Kol Nidre
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
One of the highlights of the High Holiday liturgy is the “U’nateneh Tokef” prayer. For many, perhaps the musical setting, one of the classics of traditional cantorial art, is more important than the words. Because the words, if read excessively literally, can be troubling. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die. Who by fire and who by flood . . . and who by earthquake. How are we to understand these words after watching natural disasters such as the earthquake which befell Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, a couple of years ago? Two years later, hundreds of thousands are still homeless. A few years before that we watched so many die by flood in Southeast Asia. More recently, the Fukushima earthquake in Japan created real fears of nuclear devastation. And what about Hurricane Katrina? Was it God’s will that all these people died? Were the tsunami, the hurricanes, and the earthquakes God’s doing?
Certainly there are those who think so. Pat Robertson can always be counted on for an enlightening explanation of any natural disaster, and he explained that the two centuries of Haitian suffering culminating in the earthquake were due to a pact with the devil the Haitian slaves had made in order to gain their freedom. Back a few years ago some right wing Israeli rabbis explained that the tsunami was God’s warning that Israel should not withdraw from Gaza, and that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment after the fact for American support for that withdrawal. In our own country, some televangelists explained that the tsunami was God’s punishment of the population of Southeast Asiafor being predominantly Buddhist and Muslim, while Katrina was sent to New Orleans because of its hedonistic lifestyle. Al-Qaeda agrees with the Christian televangelists that Katrina was a punishment from God, but they of course believe that the sin which was being punished, was our country’s support of Israel and our invasion of Iraq.
In an era of so much disharmony between religions, it is refreshing that Jewish, Christian and Muslim extremists can all agree that the reason natural disasters occur is that God causes them as punishment for sin. Of course, exactly which sin is being punished remains a subject of disagreement, but that is a minor matter.
But I suspect that for most of us, this type of explanation rings hollow. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that all those who hold to traditional beliefs would subscribe to them. While certainly more traditionalist versions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would tend to agree that everything that happens in the world is in some way God’s will, it does not necessarily follow that we are able to know precisely why God caused something to happen. Indeed, within both Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, many would consider an attempt to explain precisely why God causes something to happen to be bad theology and the height of arrogance.
It is also interesting to me that those who claim to know why God caused some particular calamity to happen always believe it is because of someone else’s doing. And so the televangelist will point to gambling, drinking, prostitution and homosexuality, and not, for example, bigotry, homophobia, racism, and a lack of concern for the poor. An Islamic fundamentalist will point to American support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq and not, for example, to the lack of democracy, the oppression of women, the xenophobia and illiteracy of their own societies. But it seems to me that anyone who knows the Biblical tradition and seriously believes that natural disasters are wake-up calls from God, ought to cease finger-pointing at others and look deep inside. The Book of Jonah, which we will read tomorrow afternoon, features the people of Nineveh, at that time the leading enemy of the Jews, but it is not about them. It is about us; it is not a catalog of the sins and misdeeds of the people of Nineveh . We know they are sinful before we even start reading the book, but that is not the point. The point is that “they turn from their evil ways and do good”, and for this they are forgiven; and we are supposed to learn from their example and do the same. This is why we read Jonah on Yom Kippur. This is the prophetic message – to look at your own misdeeds and those of your society, not to look around and point fingers at everyone else.
Traditional religious belief does not, however, require us to believe that when bad things happen God causes them. Within the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, there are other perspectives to be found.
In the parasha we read every year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah, God tells Moses that after our ancestors enter the Land of Israel , they will turn away from God and worship alien deities. God, in return, will take away His protection from the people of Israel and calamities will befall them. Note that God does not say he will bring calamities on the people. The calamities happen in the natural course of events; it is just that God, because of the sins of the people, will not protect them as he once did.
The book of Job offers another perspective. Bad things happen because they just do. Job’s friends try and comfort him, but their comfort is of little help because for the most part it consists of trying to convince him that he has done something to deserve what happened to him. But Job knows otherwise, and he protests against the injustice. Finally, God appears out of a whirlwind and challenges Job’s perceptions. Where were you when I created the world? Job takes back his complaints and repents of them, being but dust and ashes. However, many literary scholars believe that a different author added the final chapter of Job later, in an attempt to make the book less radical and more acceptable for inclusion in the biblical canon. Even so, the inclusion of Job in the Bible was a drastic step, because it validated the idea that it was legitimate for us to question received texts because they did not reflect our lived experience. So we are back at square one in our search for an acceptable theological explanation of suffering.
The rabbis of the Talmud were quite aware of this dilemma, what they called “tzaddik v’rah lo, rasha v’tov lo” – the suffering of the righteous while the wicked prosper. They realized that there was no visible connection between a person’s moral characteristics and whether or not he prospers. Some simply said that whatever God does is good and righteous, though it may be difficult or even impossible for us to understand. Others believed that reward and punishment were certain to occur, but in the next world rather than this one.
But the idea that we simply cannot understand why certain things happen is hard for us to accept. Almost thirty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner had a surprise runaway bestseller dealing precisely with these questions. I find it interesting that so many people, who may even own it, do not know the name of the book. So many people call it “Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” but the book is actually called “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” What we really want to know is why, and it is difficult to accept that we may simply never know – at least not in this lifetime.
We want to know because we have an intuitive feeling that life should make sense. We have a biblical tradition, which holds God to be both all-powerful and totally just, yet our observation of the world indicates that something is awry. It just doesn’t seem to work that way. How do we resolve this dilemma?
Our relationship with God is like that of a parent to a child. The ultimate goal of a good parent is to equip their child with the tools he or she needs to function in this world as a fine and decent person. At the beginning, a child is pretty much helpless and a parent must do everything for him or her. But as the child matures, she is able to do more and more for herself and the parent must step back a bit. It is often painful to do so, especially as we see our children about to make the same mistakes we made at their age. But learning and growth come through failure as well as success, and a wise parent learns to let go.
Rabbi Kushner and Rabbi Irving Greenberg have helped us to understand that this is the way humanity’s relationship with God works as well. Our tradition teaches us that God created us to be free. But beyond that, God created us with an impulse to seek perfection. Adam and Eve were placed in a perfect world, but ultimately this proved unsatisfactory. We human beings thrive on challenges. If the world was perfect, and we had no challenges, there would soon be no reason for most of us to want to go on living. And God seeks relationship with us as well. Just as there is no point to our existing in a world without challenges, there is no point for God to create beings without the ability to grow and learn.
And so our relationship with God is now on a different plane than it once was. Centuries ago, as at Sinai, God communicated directly with our people in a very public way. Today, God no longer speaks with us in discrete words. Rather, we encounter God through our study of sacred texts, our observance of sacred rituals, our participation in a sacred community, and in acts of lovingkindness. Centuries ago, as at the Red Sea , God was involved directly in our deliverance. Today, God’s deliverance needs to come in a different manner – through our works of charity, our support of social justice, and in our professional lives as doctors, teachers, and caregivers.
Why do earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes happen? Because they do. God created a world that is in some ways still imperfect, and gave us both the duty and the ability to improve it. That is what divine – human partnership is all about. The symbols of this partnership are central to many of our most sacred rituals.
On Shabbat and most holidays -- but not Yom Kippur -- we thank God for creating bread and wine. We say “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz”, thank you God “who bringest forth bread from the earth.” But God does not, in fact, bring forth bread from the earth. God brings forth wheat from the earth, and it is through human action that God’s wheat becomes the bread that we eat. Similarly, God does not create wine but grapes, and it is through our action that these grapes become the wine over which we say Kiddush. We do not say “ha motzi” over wheat or “borei p’ri hagafen” over grapes – we reserve these blessings precisely for items which represent our partnership with God.
Our partnership with God needs to extend beyond the food we eat and the wine we drink to the world we inhabit. Earthquakes happen because they do, and human beings do not cause them. The earthquake in Haiti killed a quarter of a million people, injured 300,000 more, and left a million people homeless. A similar magnitude earthquake a couple of weeks later in New Zealand made barely a blip in the world news. No one was killed and only two people were seriously injured. Why? Because New Zealand is a prosperous country with tough building codes and a well-developed emergency response system.
The inescapable conclusion is that while natural disasters strike the rich and the poor alike, the impact on the rich is generally less severe than the impact on the poor. In relatively wealthy New Zealand, they can afford to insist that buildings are built to withstand earthquakes. In Haiti, where people struggle for adequate shelter, insistence on a building code would mean most people would go without housing at all. And so, people die.
We may never have the ability to prevent natural disasters. We may never have the ability to completely prevent or completely cure disease. But God has given us the ability to blunt the impact of these ills, if we would create a society which is fairer, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are not so great, where we devoted more of our governmental budgets to research and education and less to war and destruction.
Perhaps this is the real meaning of the U’nateneh Tokef prayer I mentioned towards the beginning of my talk. For after saying that “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water” the prayer goes on to say that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-ah ha g’zeira” – as our Mahzor translates it, “can remove the severity of the decree.” The new Rabbinical Assembly machzor, which we do not yet use, translates it entirely differently. Teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah -- which it leaves untranslated -- have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Teshuvah. When Mark Borovitz was fourteen his father died and his world changed. From a nice Jewish middle class boy he became a drunkard, a con man, a thief. He spent twenty years as a petty criminal. The mob put a contract out on him. He went to jail.
Even after his release, he continued in this lifestyle until one day he realized that this is not the way God wanted him to live. He helped to found Beit Teshuvah, the House of Teshuvah, a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles for addicts of all kinds. He went back to school and became a Conservative rabbi, and is now the rabbi at Beit Teshuvah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Tefillah. Mordechai Liebling and Dvora Bartnoff were both rabbis -- coincidentally they were friends of mine. Their third child, a son, was named Lior, which means “my light.” Lior had Down syndrome.
When Lior was six, Dvora died of cancer. Mordechai raised Lior and his older brother and sister as a single parent, but his community was an important part of their lives as well. Eventually Mordechai remarried and the family dynamics became even more complicated. Lior may have Down syndrome but he loves to pray and he prays with abandon, to the point that he became known in Philadelphia as the “little rebbe.”
The preparations around Lior’s Bar Mitzvah became the award-winning documentary “Praying with Lior.” The film seems to demonstrate that Lior’s love of prayer and tradition is his way of bonding with his late mother. He cannot of course bring her back, but even with Down syndrome he can perpetuate her legacy. And through the film, he may well have reached more people with his message of God’s love than she did in her too-brief rabbinic career. Praying with Lior -- tefilla. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Tzedakah. From Lior to Liora. In the spring of 1996, the life of my friend and student Liora Natelson was cut tragically short. She was working for the Jewish National Fund as its West Coast director of young leadership. She had lead a trip to Israel for JNF and stopped in New York on the way home. She went rollerblading with some friends in Central Park and for whatever reason she did not wear a helmet. A bicycle rider and she collided, she hit her head on a curb, and instantly she was brain dead. She was removed from life support a couple of days later, and I officiated at her funeral.
Her parents decided that the best way to memorialize Liora was a living memorial. She loved Israel, she loved nature, and she loved Tzfat, where she first became interested in a more serious encounter with Jewish life and practice. So they decided to create, through the JNF where she had worked, a Memorial Forest in her honor just outside Tzfat. Today it is known by Tzfat residents simply as “Liora” as in, let’s go have a picnic at Liora. Her parents Jay and Miriam turned Liora’s death into the gift of nature and recreation for the people of Northern Israel. Tzedakah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Our moral sense that something is askew when bad things happen to good people is, I believe, the surest proof of God’s existence. Our ability to do something positive in response is what brings God into the world. God has given us the task of being co-creators with him. As a loving parent, God gives us a good teaching – the Torah – and the ability to make the world better or to make it worse. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny. Ultimately, we may never know the reason for tragedy. But we can be the hands of God in helping those who suffer. Ken Y’hi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.