I’m part of a monthly “Scholar’s Colloquy” at Marygrove College, a faith-based discussion group of clergy and religion professors. We often choose a theme that will frame our September to May presentations, most of which are given by those of us in the group. This past summer several of us gathered on Zoom in preparation for our ‘21-‘22 season, and after an hour or so the discussion seemed to agree that this year’s focus would be “Justice”. Now though this is a very diverse religious group, ranging from fundamental right to very progressive left--we are all very much on the liberal left politically. So when our small leadership group was moving toward “Justice” as the year’s theme, the intention seemed to be that we would hear presentations on the politics, import and imperative of Economic Justice, Ecological Justice, Social Justice, Racial Justice, as expressed within our respective religious teachings, and then what role our faith communities might play in effecting those imperatives within society-at-large and our local community. When it seemed clear to me that this was the direction the group was heading, I decided to keep my opinion to myself. I had already said, at the beginning of the afternoon, that what I was interested in were topics that challenged our thinking, that tested what we respectively and respectfully believed. I was interested in how our diverse faith communities dealt with, for instance, challenges to the Biblical narrative, or how our theologies could still explain and affirm an omnipotent and omniscient God amidst the covid and chaos we’re living with. It seemed to me that our in-house presentations would be what we would already expect each other to say and would have little to no actual impact on our community-at-large. Hearing each of us offering insights on how our respective religions call upon us to promote economic, ecological, racial, and social justice— would not be of great interest to me because our Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish responses are all going to be pretty much the same! So I was quietly and politely attentive, until our convener, near the end, asked me for my opinion. So I said that though we often talk about how our religious imperatives might improve the greater world out there, I was much more interested in what our different religious perspectives might challenge and teach us as individuals. Instead of affirming what we all already believe would improve the world beyond us, I’d like to hear how we respond to the great religious imponderables that challenge us personally, and as pastors, professionally.
And into the silence that followed, I said that in my university class on Judaism, I tell my students that there are three great questions that only religions can answer, and it is how they answer them that will either keep folks in the faith or send them away. And what are those three questions? Why am I here? What comes after “here”? Why do bad things happen to good people?
And I continued: If I were to wrap these three great questions around the concept of “justice”, the theme we were moving toward, I would re-phrase them thus: Why am I here?Do we want justice or only ‘just us’? What comes after “here”?Will I be getting my just reward? Why do bad things happen to good people?So where is divine justice?
I really would have liked to hear how my colleagues would answer those questions; how (and if) they then affirm those responses in their congregations and the classes they teach. I suspect, however, that our monthly gatherings will be something else altogether, most likely “preaching to the choir”. But here, I can not only ask the questions, but answer them from what I believe is within authentic Jewish tradition. And were we gathering in-person, at our Yom Kippur afternoon discussion, you would tell me if what works for me also works for you.
Why am I here? Do we want justice or ‘just us’? Our Jewish tradition has clearly and unequivocally affirmed that Humanity was created to be God’s partner in perfecting our world. God concludes the sixth day of Creation in Genesis chapter 1 by confirming it as “very good”. Why? Because it was then that Adam, Humanity was created. The first five “days” were God-declared merely “good”, but with arrival of Humanity, what was only “good”-- could be, might be, had the potential to be-- “very good.” Partners with God we have the singular responsibility, unique among all living things, to make life better for all living things. The Kabbalists 500 years ago called that imperative tikkun olam, repairing the world. God does not ask of us, desire from us, demand from us right belief—but rather right behavior. And that brings us to the Hebrew word tzedek, that we translate as justice or righteousness. Derived from that root, Something tzodek is correct. And tzedakah is not “charity” but the “right” thing to do. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we read in Deuteronomy (16:20)— “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” It is our primary mitzvah/commandment, and it can never be justice for ‘just us’, for each of us must be responsible for the well-being of all of us. Why am I here? To make something better each day of my life, to make a difference each day no matter how small, to be able to look in the mirror and say that the world is at least just a little bit better today because of me. Why am I here? It couldn’t be more clear or more simple!
What comes after “here”? Will I be getting my just reward? Jewish tradition ultimately leaves that question unanswered for the simple reason that we can’t know for certain what happens after death. We can guess, we can hope, we can even promise—but we can’t know! If we do believe in a God of justice and mercy, then how can we not believe that if there is life after life, then those who were good here will receive good then? And because we can never know what comes after “here”, Jewish tradition declares the singular importance of living our lives well while we are here. And our just reward for living just lives is knowing we’ve done the right things, knowing we’ve improved the world, even just a little, that we’ve repaired it with how we lived our lives. Our just reward is our personal satisfaction that with our finite lives we have properly and appropriately fulfilled the mitzvah/commandment of tzedakah, of ‘doing the right thing’. We already know that we are expected to be, and must be, responsible partners with God in making better the “here”. And since we cannot and do not know what happens to us after that “here”, today is all we can be responsible for. Can I live with that uncertainty? Can I be fully and completely satisfied with the this-world reward of every day ‘doing the right thing’? I can, and I am.
Why do bad things happen to good people? So where is divine justice? This is certainly the most difficult and challenging question that religion must answer. In his great and important, yet small book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that we all want to believe that God is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and all good. But, he says, God cannot be all three.
If when bad things happen to good people, we believe that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God cannot be all-good because God then knowingly lets bad things happen, or even causes bad things to happen to the innocent! If God is aware of, and in charge of running the world, then the innocent suffer because God not good. And that’s not acceptable!
If when bad things happen to good people, we believe that God is all-powerful and all-good, then God is not all-knowing, for surely if God knew bad stuff was happening, or about to happen, an all-powerful and all-good God would certainly do something to protect the innocent, but if God doesn’t, apparently God doesn’t know. And that’s not acceptable!
So we must believe that when bad things happen to good people, God is all-knowing and all-good and God has chosen not to intervene, has chosen to limit divine omnipotence. But why?! Kushner goes on to write that if God, all-knowing and all-good, were to intervene, just once, just once before a good person is killed in a hurricane, or dies from cancer, or is the victim of violence—then God (if God is indeed just and fair) God would have to intervene every single time before bad things happen to good people. And if God interfered in accidents or natural disasters, or intentional evil, or pandemic disease-- then existence would no longer be ordered, natural law would end, and without order and consequences there would be chaos. So God does know when we hurt, Kushner writes, and God cries and mourns with us. And God promises that when bad things happen we are not alone. And when we pray for strength and courage in the wake of misfortune, adversity, disaster, disease and even death—those prayers are answered because emanu El, God is with us. We have been given the gifts of choice and conscience, and the knowledge of good and evil. We are commanded to use these gifts well, with integrity, living lives of justice and righteousness and mercy. And despite our efforts to ‘do the right thing’ there are bad people out there, and the laws of Nature are known and recognized, and accidents do happen, and when we make mistakes there are consequences, and the struggle to control disease continues, and bad things do happen to good people. And living in this world, all we can do is do all we can to make life and living better for us all.
I titled this message “Know Justice, Know Peace”. Once we know, believe and accept that justice can never be for ‘just us’; once we know, believe and accept that the just reward for ‘doing the right thing’ is in fact that very ‘doing; once we know, believe and accept that God does not make bad things happen, but that God is with us when it does—then we will know “peace”. And then we may appreciate that the word shalom means far more than merely, simply “peace”—it means wholeness, completeness, fully ‘at peace’ with myself and my life because all is in order, hakol b’seder. I know why I’m here, and ‘after here’ is not a concern, and though life and living does and will come with ups and downs, this is a good world that we have been gifted, ours to make better.
Shana tova um-tuka, May this be for you a good and sweet new year.
Commanding “Get Thee”Rosh Hashana 2021
Most of you I’m sure, know the story of the non-Jew who came to Hillel 2000 years ago, with the challenge: “Teach me all of Torah while standing one foot”. Hillel’s response was, of course, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. All the rest is commentary on that single principle, now go and study!” There is a tradition that the story does not end there, that that non-Jew, impressed by Hillel, went on to study and become a Jew-by-Choice of great fame. Legend has it that this student becomes Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag of the late 1st C, mentioned several times in Mishna. All of which allows me to introduce the following quote, recorded as a statement from this same obscure rabbi with the funny name, Ben Bag-Bag. In Pirke Avot/The Sayings of the Fathers we find “Turn it over...and turn it over again, for everything is in it! Contemplate, grow old and gray over it, but do not leave it, for there is no better pursuit for you than the pursuit of Torah.”
I remembered Ben Bag-Bag as I turned over an already known oddity in this morning’s Torah text and found something new. When God commanded Abraham to go to a then unspecified mountain and offer up his son, God tells him lech lecha. Those two words lech l’cha are literally translated “go to you” or “go for you”. What is strange is that in context, the second word l’cha is unnecessary. God could have told Abraham lech, that is “go!”. Why add l’cha, “to you, or “for you”? Other than its poetic effect, what is it adding to the command “go!”? And because “go to you” or “go for you” is such an awkward phrase in English, it has long been a problem for translators. And additionally, this two-word phrase occurs only two times in all of Scripture, both times in the Book of Genesis, both times in the Abraham story. And both times at an excruciatingly pivotal moment in Abraham’s life! Earlier, in Genesis 12:1, at the very beginning of the Abraham narrative, God tells then-called Abram to get up and go to a new and unknown land that God would show him. He didn’t know where this new land would be or anything about it. And the divine command to Abram back in 12:1 of Genesis begins with the same lech l’cha that we read this morning! Back in chapter 12 God commands: “lech l’cha from your land, and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” And then the second and only other time, that lech l’cha appears in Hebrew Scripture, is our Torah reading this morning when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. The dialogue builds as Abraham begins to comprehend the magnitude of what God wants: Take your son! Your only son! The one you love! Isaac! And lech l’cha, to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you.
This series of divine commands reminds me of the intense and dramatic music from the movie 2001, the booming drums of Zarathustra. Like the rising crescendo of the timpani there, in this morning’s text each statement becomes louder and more insistent: Take your son!; Your only son!; The one you love!;Isaac! reaching its climax with “lech l’cha and offer him there…” And if we look back to chapter 12, to the only other place the phrase appears, we find the same pounding and increasingly severe command from God. Lech l’cha - Go From your land! From your birthplace. From your father’s house! To a land I will show you!
We are clearly supposed to see, and hear, these escalating commands in parallel. The imperative of both is “lech l’cha to an unknown place.” I cannot imagine two more traumatic commands than these. In the first Abram is told to leave behind the safety, security and familiarity of his native country, family and friends. Abram must “let go” of his past! Let go of the social, personal and emotional ties which connect him to everything familiar. And not only is he told to completely give up his past, he doesn’t even know what he’s to give it up for! Lech l’cha, Go to a land that I will show you. Where...? Why...? ... Despite his anxieties, fears or trepidations, Abram sets out, willing to let go of everything that “was”, for the divine promise of what might be. Then ten chapters later, no longer the daring young man of the first lech l’cha, Abraham, hears those same ominous words again, though this time he’s well over 100 years old, rejoicing that in his waning years that he and Sarah have finally been blessed with a son. This lech l’cha is every bit as painful as the first: having already been asked to give up his past, this time he is commanded to give up his future! And, again, like the first lech l’cha, Abraham is to go to a place only God knows! In chapter 12 he was to travel to a land which God would show to him, and here in chapter 22 he is to travel to a mountain which God would show him. Having already been cut off from any ties to his past, he is to ‘tie down’ his future and cut that away as well! Abraham is to be left in the present with nothing!
It’s unfortunate that our English translations don’t convey the force, the life-changing magnitude of lech l’cha or, more significantly, the connective power of its momentous repetition as it bridges the two crucial episodes of the Abraham narrative. When we render it merely as “Go to one of the mountains which I will show you...”, it’s a very weak reflection of the actual Hebrew, and we lose altogether the commanding and connecting force of its repeated command. And if we translate literally, “Go for you to a mountain” or “go to you to a mountain”, with that cumbersome grammar, it just sounds wrong! Making things even worse, some translations render the first lech l’cha as “leave...” and the second with the equally mundane “go…” hiding both the literary significance of the repetition and the thematic confrontation of the challenge. Of all the English translations, perhaps the best of all (may God forgive me this commendation!) is that of the King James Bible. There we find lech l’cha rendered “Get Thee!” In chapter 12 it reads: “Get Thee out of thy country...”; and in chapter 22: “Get Thee unto the land of Moriah”. Though the 1611 King James Bible preserves pretty well the meaning of lech l’cha, when the 1982 the new “Revised” King James translation was published, it regrettably uses the more common and pedestrian “...go...” in each instance. The comparative study of English Bible-texts aside, there is an important message to be found in the connection of the two lech l’cha occurrences. One demands that Abram risk his past for the sake of an uncertain tomorrow, the other that he risk his future for the sake of an uncertain today. And this morning, I ask you to do both! The challenge of this Rosh Hashana morning is the command of “Get Thee”, the challenge to separate your Jewish self from the past and from the future for the sake of a meaningful Jewish present! Now what do I mean?! I think that for many of us we do the Jewish things we do, are the kind of Jews we are, even pretend to be the kind of Jews we think we should be, because of an emotional reliance, a ‘need-to-affirm’ the past or the future. Less concerned with ourselves than with what has happened, or will happen, we ‘give up’ the potential of the present.
What is it that we need to “let go” from the past? There is danger in thinking that we ought to shape and govern our Jewish lives only because of what parents or past generations proclaimed to be necessary “tradition!” When what we do, or pretend-to-believe is what we think we should do or should believe because that’s what Judaism has always been and must still be—it’s no longer personally or authentically our own. As admirable as it is to keep alive the traditions and ties to our personal and communal past, unless those traditions are inherently true for us today, they become shallow and superficial gestures, not worthy of inheritance by the next generation, and will probably be rejected by them. Rituals observed and beliefs affirmed simply for the sake of their performance and confirmation because “this is how we have always preserved our Jewish Heritage” seems to me short-sighted. What we do as Jews, and what we believe as Jews must be personally meaningful and fulfilling. Being or doing Jewish “just because” is an empty gesture.
And when we do our Jewish thing merely and only “for the sake of” the future, that is equally empty and misguided. We all know that in most congregations, membership grows with new families whose children reach school-age. I was often told in my other life by new members to the congregation that joining the synagogue “is important for my children.” Even less authentic than one who is Jewish ‘for the sake of the past’, is the parent whose Judaism is ‘for the sake of the future’. If the former prompts activities which are nothing more than gestures, even more superficial are those induced by the latter. After all, if Judaism is not personally authentic and meaningful for the parent, how could we expect anything else from the child.
The challenge which God placed before Abraham, daring him to let go of his past and his future, had frightening consequences because it meant that Abraham had to establish his own ‘ground of being. And it is no different for Jews of our generation than it was for the only man of that first generation. If our understanding and affirmation of personal, meaningful Judaism is to be authentic, then it must be established by and integrated within the present of the Now. From the parchment of our Torah, this echo, reverberating for millennia, calls out to us today. It is the challenge and the command of lech l’cha, Get Thee! Do it for yourself. For your own Jewish well-being. Let go of the bonds of easy validations from the past, and justifications to save the future. If your Jewish identity is defined by what you think you should do or be or believe; or by what you hope will be in the future—how can you establish personal authenticity in the present. Lech l’cha - Get Thee! Get Thee into thyself, and trust that value and worth and meaning are to be found there. Go for yourself, for your own well-being, for your own satisfying sense of Jewish identity, go for yourself to discover a land of promise and a mountain of strength-- a challenge which dares us to become our own authentic selves.
This morning, Abraham is commanded lech l’cha - Get Thee to a mountain I will show you. There he was to find a ram, caught by its horns in a bush. Our attention as well is about to be drawn to the horn of the shofar. Today, we stand with Abraham, in the immediacy of the now, the truth of the present. Let us hear in the shofar’s call a modern challenge to authentically become. Today, the shofar proclaims lech l’cha.
Shana tova um-tuka, May this be for you a good and sweet new year.
Remembering Rubenstein Erev Yom Kippur 2021
Rabbi Richard Rubenstein died last May 16th, 97 years old. A colleague of mine wrote: “He was the most iconoclastic, maddening, frustrating, heretical and creative Jewish thinker of his generation.”
Back in the mid-1960s, as the world seemed to be growing increasingly secular, several Protestant theologians were challenging traditional belief in an all-powerful God running the world. The cover of Time Magazine April 8, 1966 proclaimed “God is Dead?”. Meanwhile, Traditional Jews in 1967 saw the Six Days War as confirmation of a very much alive, all-powerful, saving God, even as other Jewish theologians were challenging the belief in an all-powerful and loving God after the Holocaust. And among the latter was Rabbi Richard Rubenstein who in 1966 published After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. He challenged the notion of a cosmos-controlling God after six million Jews, one million of them children, perished in the Holocaust. He wrote then:
I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in [humanity’s] historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God's punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God's will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God's purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept.
Rubenstein contended that what is “dead” is not God, but rather the God of traditional beliefs. His daughter, remembering her father this summer, said “He saw God as indeed ‘the Lord of all creation’ [but] who left human beings to make their own moral choices.” Yom Kippur, he wrote, is “our response to the human need to face our own imperfections and our own capacity for change. We are meant to judge ourselves, God does not sit in judgment of humanity.”
There is a story, said to be true, that took place at Auschwitz about a group of girls who decided that as far as it was possible for them, they would observe Yom Kippur. Worship, of course, was out of the question; but fasting certainly was not! So they nervously approached their SS supervisor for permission to fast, asking for a lighter work load that day for which, they hastened to assure her, they would make up after Yom Kippur. Furious, the SS supervisor denied them, and instead not only imposed overtime work ‘in honor of the holiday’ but threatened that anyone lagging in work would be sent directly to their death! Undeterred, the girls worked and fasted, exhilarated by the thought that they were sharing this day with Jews the world over. When finally, after sundown, having eaten their piece of black bread and thoroughly satisfied with their efforts, they discovered that they had miscalculated. They had fasted on the wrong day. And the storyteller asks: Was their prayer for atonement heard? I know! What kind of a question is that!? If prayer ever was heard, ever is heard, then the prayer in their fast certainly was. Those today who argue that Yom Kippur prayer must only be offered in ‘real’ synagogues, or that the Rosh Hashana call of the shofar is only ‘kosher’ if heard in an acceptable shul, should be silenced in their self-serving theology.
The truth is that the value, the significance of this Yom Kippur moment has very little to do with which day it is or in which place we sit, or with one’s level of ritual observance or knowledge of tradition. Because this is both a shared communal moment, and one of personal introspection, gathering purposefully together (albeit virtually) we acknowledge that we are part of something so much bigger than any of us individually or collectively. We come to Yom Kippur confronting the worst of what we’ve done, pleased with the good of who we are, and hopeful for the best we might become. And we bring to Yom Kippur a commitment that transcends time and place and prayerbook, a commitment not only to the immediacy of ourselves and our community, but to the values and worth of our Jewish Heritage. While the story of the girls in the death camp reaffirms our faith in the power of the human spirit, and reminds us of the transcendent and transformative effect of a community in prayer—the story also underscores us that Yom Kippur after Auschwitz cannot be what ‘at Auschwitz’ it still was! For our generation, it’s clear that it was not only our community that was destroyed, it was our theology as well. And we legitimately ask “what can Yom Kippur mean to us after Auschwitz, after the Holocaust, after the Shoah?” We regularly use the English word “Holocaust” but the Hebrew Shoah, meaning “destruction” is much more appropriate. The problem with ‘holocaust’ is that the word in fact refers to a burnt offering, a sacrifice—as if what happened to us 80 years ago was some kind of sacrificial offering to God! Surely that is theologically, intellectually and emotionally unacceptable. Memories of the Shoah, both collectively as a community, and personally in the stories of our families, still dominate the way we speak and think of Judaism and Jewish history. For many Jews the Shoah, along with the modern State of Israel, have come to define the substance and essence of their Jewish identity. But for other Jews, the stark reality of the Shoah is a challenge to faith and belief and prayer. And the truth is that “After Auschwitz” theology must respond to what happened at Auschwitz. Our prayerbook speaks of a loving, all‑powerful and protecting God who defends the innocent and rules with justice and righteousness. But such a faith is no longer tenable as Richard Rubenstein wrote in 1966. Again I quote:
Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God's punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God's will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. ...The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept. [After Auschwitz]
Rubenstein and other modern Jewish philosophers and theologians have written that belief in a loving and protecting ‘Father’ cannot be sustained in the reality of the Nazi Destruction. After Auschwitz how are we to affirm the language of faith proclaimed in our prayerbook? Take for example the famous prayer by Maimonides, Ani ma’amin. It’s found in the siddur’s daily morning service, and often sung at Holocaust Memorials. “Ani ma’amin, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he be delayed, I will await him.” We sing it in memory of the victims because we’re told it was sung by Jews as they went to the gas chambers. Prior to the Shoah the intent and focus of this pleading petition was surely its opening phrase ani ma’amin b’emuna sh’leima, “I believe with perfect faith…” But since then, we hear it quite differently, with emphasis on the phrase that follows: af al pi “even though”. “I believe with perfect faith even though…” We want to affirm faith, we want to believe, even though, in spite of what we know! What has changed after Auschwitz is that faith can never again be so simply affirmed. We have to give up what was traditional belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent, protecting and preserving, loving God. If faith is to be found it must stand side-by-side with af al pi/ “even though”, despite what happened. After Auschwitz, we know the truth of historical reality, and we struggle to believe. So what can we then “know” about God? After Auschwitz the only God we can rationally accept and affirm is a God of limitations. Those faith-statements found in Scripture and our prayerbooks, today ring hollow. Because if God is omnipotent and benevolent, protecting and preserving, just and right, then God was punishing us with the Shoah, (along with gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped). If God was then and is still “in charge” and good, then the Shoah must somehow be “purposeful”—and that can’t be! So I am left with the choice that either God is 'not', or that God is limited. And given one or the other, my response is clear! I spoke on this Rosh Hashana evening. Our relationship with the Divine, as experienced through our history, reveals to us a limited God, one who cannot do everything we think God ought to. But can we accept a limited God!? That is the question we must face if, after Auschwitz, we are to redeem Jewish faith and belief, if we are to redeem God! A possible response is found in the words of one of the Shoah’s victims. She was Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who wrote this before her deportation to a death camp.
One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: [God] cannot help us, [so] all that really matters [is] that we safeguard that little piece of God, in ourselves, and perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn't seem to be much [God] can do about our circumstances, about our lives, [but then I don’t] hold [God] responsible. [God] cannot help us, but we can help and defend [God’s] dwelling place inside us to the last. [An Interrupted Life, Pocket Books, 1983 pp. 186-187]
Rubenstein wrote that God is limited because God is only able to work from within us! God cannot and does not cause evil to end or bless the good. And this is not a world where God punishes sin and rewards righteousness. The terrible destruction of the Shoah is not God’s failure, it is humanity’s failure. Rubenstein wrote that the voice of God speaks from within us, reminding us that we must help God help us. Ani ma’amin, ‘I believe’ b’emunah sh’leima ‘with perfect faith’ that God is with us because God is within us, waiting, hoping, believing that we will not fail God. That becomes Richard Rubenstein’s conclusion in After Auschwitz.
But four years later he again addressed and challenged traditional theology writing this:
I believe [in this] conception of God… [which has] deep roots in both Western and Oriental mysticism. According to this conception, God is . . . the Holy Nothing. To speak, admittedly in inadequate language, of God as “Nothingness” is not to suggest that God does not exist. On the contrary, the Holy Nothingness is a plenum [ie. the whole of all matter] so rich that all existence derives therefrom. God as the “Nothing” is not absence of being, but an [overabundance] of being. The infinite God, the Ground of all that is finite, cannot be defined. . . for in no sense is God a definite thing or a being bearing any resemblance to the finite beings of the empirical world. The infinite God is not a thing; the infinite God is [like] no-thing. Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God . . . is that God is the ocean and we are the waves. Each wave has its moment when it is identifiable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground. Furthermore, because the waves are surface manifestations of the ocean, our knowledge of the ocean is largely dependent upon the way it manifests itself in the waves. So the waves are caught in contradictory tendencies. They are the resultants of forces which allow them their moment of identifiable existence. And at the same time, they are wholly within the grasp of greater tendencies which merge them into the oceanic ground from which they have been momentarily distinguished, without ever really having separated from it. Similarly, all living beings seek to maintain their individual identities, yet there is absolutely nothing in them which does not derive from their originating ground. [Morality and Eros, 1970]
Rabbi Rubenstein, I think, would remind us on this great day of Yom Kippur, as we consider who we were last year, what we might have been, what we did or did not do-- that God is the not the heavenly and distant divine judge, sealing our fates for the coming year. God is not beyond us, God is within us, waiting, hoping, believing that we will not fail God.
The Reality of our Mortality Yom Kippur 2021
This will be long day for us, powerful, even compelling. But not because we’re afraid of how God will mark us down in the great “Book of Life” and seal us into the new year.
Let’s just admit that for a variety of reasons, we don’t believe that bubbe-meise. The powerful effect of Yom Kippur comes from the impact of today’s roller-coaster liturgy that takes us up, down and up again. We begin with the reassuring security of coming together with common purpose: lifted by this morning’s familiar prayers heard and sung. In the afternoon we are reminded of the hardships of our history, only to confront our own mortality in the Yizkor/Memorial Service. And then we finally arrive at the fulfilling and satisfying conclusion as the gates close on the year past, and we together, hand-in-hand so to speak, step into the year ahead. Yom Kippur reminds us of our human frailty and the up-and-down fragility of life itself. Fasting from last night until this evening’s break-fast is a physical and very tangible reminder of our human condition. And our finitude is most prominently apparent when this afternoon our liturgical journey leads us into the Yizkor/Memorial Service as we fondly remember friends and family-- and recognize the reality of our own mortality.
You know there are websites that will tell you the exact day of your death! I googled “death clock”, looked at several sites, and seeing that most gave me but a few more years to live, and at most eight (though two said I should have already died!) I stopped looking. But for about 20 minutes, I sat face-to-face with the fact that I really am going to die! And though there is great debate about what happens to us after we die, all of it theoretical and theological, my dying is actual and absolute. Hardly a revelation but it did get me thinking-- not particularly about my death, we all know we’re going to die. We all know, whether or not we think about it consciously, our time on earth is limited. But I did begin to wonder why it is that we waste so much time? We fritter away seconds, days and even weeks as if we don’t need them, as if we have all the time in the world. And we all do it! Even though we are intelligent, cognizant, sentient beings. Even though we are consciously aware that our time is finite, we willingly waste so much of it. Why do we behave this way, tucking the reality of our mortality into a corner of our consciousness, ignoring the inevitability of death? We do it because always wondering if, and worrying that, this moment might be my last, is a lousy way to live! Who willingly chooses to live as if any minute it could end? And so we decide we won’t think about it, and the days and months pass by, and we get along just fine without confronting or contemplating our earthly end. Until, that is, we come to Yom Kippur. On this day we starve ourselves into a (so to speak) near-death weakness. Our prayerbook asks: who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by flood? We will read the names of our friends and family who died this past year, and so many loved ones before them. And for a brief moment we might even wonder ‘after I’m gone, with someone read my name?’ Our liturgy tells us we stand before God awaiting judgement, and our Torah reading this morning pleads “choose life and not death.”
I have to admit that in these weeks of my lead-up to Yom Kippur, I’ve been thinking a lot about the swift passage of time, and how helpless I am, caught in its steady, strong and speedy flow. And though I’m now emotionally and intellectually quite calm and accepting facing death in the abstract, how will I feel or behave when I’m facing the actuality? Will I want or need some kind of reassurance about what comes next? Will believing in some kind of life after life make me feel better then? But in the end, we can’t know what we can’t know. So round and round we go, but the emes is this: we don’t know what happens after death. So the better question becomes, what do we know about what’s supposed to happen during life? There is a great phrase in the Book of Proverbs [10:2]: Tzedaka tatzeel mimavet – Tzedaka/righteousness redeems from death. Tzedakah, living rightly in this world somehow redeems death from a state of unknowing non-being, non-existence to--something else. For me the poet of Proverbs is promising not a salvation from death or a resurrection of life or an after-death existence-- but a recognition that what gives my life value and meaning and longevity, even immorality, is what my life means to others! Tzedaka/righteousness redeems from death. Righteousness: how we behave, how we live rightly and justly-- redeems me from the uncertainty of death. How does that work?
We confront our lives on this day, asking ourselves if what we did last year made a difference to those immediately around us, and to our community, and to the world. Because in making a difference, there is immortality in what we’ve done, in who we’ve been, in who we are. It really is the only reasonable answer to the question of whether or not there is life after life. Of course this isn’t new, it’s not a revelation, nothing you haven’t heard before, many times before. It’s the faith statement embodied in our well remembered phrase “they live on in the acts of goodness they performed, and in the hearts of those they cherished and who revere their memories” We repeat that regularly as Kaddish is introduced, and in funeral eulogies. And we affirm a similar idea in the faith-statement we sing after reading Torah. The aliya-blessing upon completing the Torah portion says “v'chayay olam natah b'tochaynu – eternal life you have implanted within us.” Chayay olam/eternal life, eternality is already implanted, innate and intrinsic in our lives. It is not something we attain, or are promised, or rewarded-- it is inherently human. It only needs to be realized by how we live our lives.
When I was in college, I thought that I had figured out, at least to my own satisfaction, how to understand God and our connection to the Divine. I imagined an all-encompassing reservoir of living energy. We draw from this reservoir while alive, each adding his and her own creative intellect and energy, which then becomes the cumulative awareness of others. An eternal, if you will, reservoir of human energy that transcends human history but is human history. The source from which everything intellectual and intelligible comes, from which morality and truth flow, and in which all that we are is contained. I’m still intrigued by that notion of an eternal reservoir of human civilization, from which we draw, and to which we give, even though it is not particularly satisfying as a theological “hook” upon which I can hang a manageable image of God. But at least it is something I can wrap my questioning mind around. And it fits within the faith statement from our Torah aliya: “v'chayay olam natah b'tochaynu – eternal life you have implanted within us.”
Eternality is already in us. It is not a destination after death. Our world is filled with the presence of both the living and the dead. And though only the former are tangible and physical, both are present in the unfolding of our lives, in our growth and nurturing, and in the friends and family and community we gather around us.
This afternoon, in the Memorial Service we will read this:
All things pass away, but You are eternal. Teach us, O God, to see that when we link our lives to You, and strive to do Your will, our lives acquire eternal meaning and value. And sustain us in the hope, for we dare not ask for more, that the human spirit, created in Your image, is, like You, eternal.
We live on in the acts of goodness we perform, and in the hearts of those we cherish and who will revere our memory. V'chayay olam natah b'tochaynu – eternal life you have implanted within us.
Shana tova, May yours be a good year as you inscribe yourselves in the Book of Life.
Reading the 23rd Yizkor 2021
It wouldn’t be a Yizkor/Memorial Service without the 23rd Psalm. Many of us recite it from memory, familiar in its King James translation. This afternoon, I want to look at it more closely. You can find it on page 489 of our Holiday prayerbook. This psalm of only 57 words in Hebrew is one of the great gifts that we’ve given the Western world.
As we walk through the verses, I’ll be making the point that the psalm moves us from “security and serenity”, to “unsettled anxiety”, and finally to “realization and return”. Typical of much of Scripture’s poetry, this psalm has a somewhat hidden structure, neatly divided into three sections, each consisting of three statements, and then a final conclusion—ten units in all.
The primary theme of these Holidays is t’shuvah, usually translated as “repentance” – as in the name of our machzor our prayerbook: Sha-arei T’shuvah, Gates of Repentance. T’shuvah however, is better understood as “turning” – a turning toward God, or turning back toward our truer, better selves, or turning in a spirit of forgiveness and generosity toward those around us. We will “return” to this theme shortl;y
Section One: Security and Serenity (in three statements) Eternal God, You are my shepherd, I shall not want. You make me lie down in green pastures, You restore my soul. You lead me in right paths for the sake of Your name.
The psalm begins with pastoral imagery, a feeling of calm and beauty, God as my shepherd with the reader – each of us – sheep in God’s flock. God takes care of us, ensures our well-being, and in this there is comfort. The Psalmist in saying “I shall not want”, means “what I don’t have, I don’t really need,” expressing a security and serenity of satisfied well-being. Not only have I everything I need, resting in green pastures, soul-restored, and upon rising, God will lead me along the way.
In Section Two notice the shift from God in the 3rd person to the 2nd person. Section Two: Unsettled anxiety (again in three statements) Even when I walk in the valley of death, I shall fear no evil for You are with me. With rod and staff You comfort me. You have set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
And though God guides and protects us, takes care and provides for us, we also know that though the “way” may begin with restful pastures, there will inevitably be valleys of deep darkness. The psalm moves quite suddenly to this dark place, with just one word, gam which means “also”, and a much better and more accurate translation than the usually seen “Even when I walk . . .”. Walking the “way”, we sometimes find ourselves separated, in a valley of deep darkness. But even there, apparently alone and cut off from our protector, our shepherd, “I will not fear” because there, even there, “You” are with me. And notice the insistent pronoun “You”, close, connected, familiar. Even in the dark valley, I am “comforted” by God’s rod and staff. And we ask—why a rod and a staff? Aren’t they the same thing? No. The rod is for discipline, for directed prodding; but the staff is a shepherd’s crook, for rescuing fallen sheep, for pulling back those who’ve wandered. We are comforted by the rod and staff, the discipline of rules along with the protective salvation of rescue. And even in times of anxiety and fear, even facing enemies, God prepares and lays out a sustaining and nourishing table, like the shepherd taking care of his sheep. And though this second section is one of unsettled anxiety, it ultimately returns to security and serenity.
Section Three: Realization and Return You have anointed my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely good and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The last section of three statements transitions us back to where we began, but with a deeper realization that our relationship with God goes beyond the shepherd/sheep metaphor. God “enriches” my head with oil. This is not a sacramental “anointing”, but a comforting, and very personal indulgence: I am special and deserving of special treatment. My cup is more than full, even more than I need-- echoing the prior “I lack for nothing”, I have all that I need.
God’s goodness and mercy do more than “follow me all the days of my life”-- they actively seek me, they come after me, reminding me I have only have to stop and turn as I walk along life’s way, turn around to meet God’s goodness and mercy, that has followed me, sought me, having been there all along. And of course “turning” is t’shuvah the turning of repentance, the central message of this day. Turning, accepting, embracing God’s gifts, returns us back to the top, with the concluding line: And I will dwell in the house of the Eternal forever.
We’re taken back, turned back if you will, to the first section of the psalm, where we dwelt metaphorically in restful pastures, but here it affirms that in actuality we safely and securely dwell in the House of God for my length of days.
The 23rd Psalm carries us from soft and secure comfort, to dark anxiety, to knowing realization. Three sections of three lines each, and the returning conclusion—a perfect 10.