These past few months have been a struggle: not only because I’ve had to deal with this stress fracture in my foot and learning how to use a wheelchair and crutches, but also because I, like most rabbis and synagogue staff, begin focusing on the High Holy Days around June. This year’s preparations were different than previous years in that we tried to make sure that everything that Cantor Schiffer took care of these past years was taken care of after her retirement in June. We worked very hard to make sure that nothing was overlooked and I hope that we were successful.
One of the many things we rabbis especially focus on in our High Holy Days preparations, as you can imagine, is sermons. I ask myself every year: “What am I going to say to my congregational family? What would be meaningful for them to hear on these holiest of days? How can I help them to feel good about their Judaism and their synagogue?” There are so many topics that I have thought about for this morning: I’ve wanted to talk to you about loss, about support for Israel, about the special issues faced by Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, about loss, about support for our congregation, about involvement in Jewish life, about Jewish education, about loss…
I keep coming back to loss. There are all types of loss that we experience as we go through our lives: loss of jobs, broken relationships, death. Our tradition helps us to deal with loss, especially with the death of loved ones. This afternoon – as we also do on Shemini Atzeret, on the last day of Pesach, and on Shavuot – we will gather together for Yizkor, a special time of remembrance for our loved ones.
Judaism tells us that we are “official” mourners for our husband or wife, son, daughter, mother, father, sister, and brother. By “official” this means that we are responsible for taking care of funeral arrangements for these loved ones, for saying Kaddish for each of these loved ones, for reciting Yizkor on the previously-mentioned holy days, for contributing tzedakah in their memory, and so on.
But each of us also mourns for other members of our family and for our friends as well. This afternoon I will be remembering not only my brother, but also my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and also four friends. Between mid-March and the beginning of August, four of my friends died, all of whom were only in their 50s. While I no longer saw these people on a daily basis, as life’s journeys took us to different communities and different experiences, they were friends to me at various points in my life and I mourn their loss just the same. I also learned this summer that someone I have known since I was three years old and he was four years old was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Having watched my grandmother struggle with Alzheimer’s, I mourn for what I know my old friend is experiencing and will experience in the future.
In situations like these, along with the many natural disasters that our country and our world have experienced recently, the inevitable questions are asked: “How could this happen? Why did this happen? How could God let this happen? Why did God make this happen?”
A few weeks ago my colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, posted an article on our alumni listserv that he wrote seven years ago which he titled “Why the Good Die Young: A Conversation with God about 4 Funerals, Illness and an Earthquake in Haiti.” As soon as I read it, I knew that I needed to share it with you this morning. Here is just part of his “conversation” with God:
I noticed that God attended each funeral, but amidst the many tear-filled eulogies, there wasn’t time for God to speak. So God sat quietly at the side – listening, crying. God left quietly after each funeral ended, and almost no one realized that God had been there. I did take notice. Wondering what God might have said had God been invited to deliver a eulogy, I dashed out after the Holy One. Still reeling from these funerals, I wondered if God could make sense of these senseless deaths. I asked if God had time to talk, and God was willing. We strolled through the cemetery, talking quietly.
…Man: You mean you don’t agree with what the rabbis said [at the funerals]?
God: Look, one said baruch dayan ha-emet, the traditional words of “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” suggesting that what happened was all part of a plan – My plan – while another suggested I took a boy’s life because he didn’t celebrate Shabbat that week. Some people, I suppose, find comfort in the idea that I have a master plan. Others find direction through religious rituals, which perhaps they believe help them beat the odds of life. If that brings them comfort, they can cherish those beliefs. But those ideas are built upon ancient words, misinterpreted to suggest things I didn’t say and I never meant. It’s neither who I am nor how I work. I don’t pre-plan untimely deaths and I don’t punish those who don’t keep the rituals. I am not responsible for those deaths.
Man: Wait, with all due respect, You created everything – spectacular sunsets, shooting stars and beautiful California coastline – but, You also created poisonous snakes and ferocious lions, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and deadly diseases. And, forgive me, but You are the One who created the humans who created the automobiles that led to the deaths of three people. Just where do you get off abdicating responsibility for any of this?
God: There you go again! Blaming Me for what you refuse to acknowledge, what you fail to see. Yes, I created it all, each with its own purpose. Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous. So I created lions. Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures. Bother them and look out!
…God: Listen, each [of these awful things] pains Me. They weren’t in any plan. When I set out to create, I began with exactness and perfection. But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me. And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect. Your teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, articulated the story of creation well.
Man: You mean, the mystic from Tzfat, who taught the story of repairing the world, that we call tikkun olam?
God: Yes. First there was only Me. Everything was God. Ein Sof, Me without end. Then I contracted – tzimtzum – I pulled back to make space for Creation. I created the universe, as vessels, which at that moment were devoid of anything, including Me. Then I poured My light back into those vessels. But My light was too pure and too potent for the creation-that-was-not-Me. So it blew up – sh’virat ha-keilim – the vessel broke apart, sending shards of creation and sparks of My light all over the universe.
Broken world; bad things happen. The earthquakes and tsunamis. Cancer and heart attacks. Automobile accidents and incomprehensible tragedies on the slopes. All the result of a broken world, an imperfect world.
…[And] it pains Me to watch you abdicate your responsibility, as you fail to live up to your end of our human-Divine partnership. I cry for each life lost. I cry that you humans are suffering, and will suffer. I cry for the pain that I let into your life the day I decided to pull back and give you free will.
Man: Truthfully God, when I hurt, I don’t always feel that you are close. Where do you go when I’m in real pain?
God: That’s just it. I am still here. By your side. I’m holding you up and making sure you get through the day. Do you ever wonder how you find the strength to get out of bed the next morning? That’s Me. Do you see all those people who came over to your house, to hug and hold your loved ones, to take care of the arrangements so you could fall apart. That’s Me too. I’m making sure you keep getting phone calls and e-mails and all those beautiful memories posted to Facebook. My friends are your Facebook friends doing My sacred work. And when you rage at Me in anger, or withdraw from Me in pain, I’m still here, waiting patiently. Still loving. Still helping. It’s the holy work I do.
…Man: Is there anything…we can do?
God: You can try to make quiet time to meditate and pray. Daily. I do. I pray that the memory of your loved ones…bring you blessing and joy. And that those who are ill have hope. May you comfort each other, and feel My love, too, and may you find fortitude and courage so that you may endure the inevitable dark times. Remember, there also will be plenty of joy. I love you. I wish for you wholeness and shalom.
To me, the idea of God being here in the form of friends and family is a potent one. I’ve spoken about this before; I’ve taught this before, but I believe it bears repeating. As I noted on Rosh HaShanah morning, we are here so that God can be here on earth. The prophets remind us that, as God’s partners, we are to take care of everyone in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. God commands us to give tzedakah (righteous giving), to pursue acts of g’milut chasadim (lovingkindness). We are also here to welcome the stranger, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved and to take care of those who need companionship.
I offer this prayer: Dear God, for making my life richer by allowing me the privilege of having good, caring people in my life, I thank You. For allowing me to realize and to appreciate the gifts of these special people, I praise You. Help me to be that person in their lives and in other people’s lives. Help me to use each day of this new year with greater wisdom and with compassion for others. For the blessings you bestow upon me every day, may I always be grateful.