Yom Kippur – 5762
Rabbi Ilana G. Baden
Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation
I read the newspaper yesterday. Here is a sampling of the headlines I found:
• Airlines struggling to stay aloft
• Child abuse, neglect killed 45 here last year
• Mad cow disease case confirmed in Japan
• Economies are headed for recession
• Pakistan won’t end Afghanistan ties
• Sikh residents report harassment
• Miners killed in rescue are praised as heroes
• 100 injured when blast derails train in India
• Last standing piece of building is toppled.
There’s no denying it: We live in a complicated world. Perhaps this morning’s Torah reading puts it best: R’ei, natati l’fanecha hayom et ha-chayim v’et ha-tov; v’et ha-mavet v’et ha-ra. “See, I have set before you this day life and good; and death and evil.”
As a Jewish people, we do our best to focus on ha-chayim v’ha-tov, on life and good. We remind ourselves daily of the blessings in our lives: our family, our friends, God-willing, our health. We look around with pride in this synagogue – as we gather with our community at this High Holy Day season, thanking God for another year that has been granted to us.
However, while we strive to concentrate on the good things in life, we cannot ignore ha-mavet v’ha-ra, the death and the evil. We cannot ignore the fact that the world is also filled with misfortunes. Natural disasters – such as earthquakes and tornadoes – wreak havoc on communities. Medical complications – such as miscarriages and cancer – cause suffering not only for the patient, but for friends and family alike. And national travesties – such as the recent attacks on New York and D.C. – remind us that the world is not as safe as we would like it to be.
So, as we gather today on this Yom Kippur, we are faced again with that eternal question: Why does God allow bad things to happen in this world and what is the meaning behind them? Clearly, this is a difficult question, a question that has plagued the minds of scholars and sages throughout the generations. In response, there are those who say that suffering is a form of Divine Punishment; there are those who say that suffering is a test of our faith; and there are those who say that suffering is the means by which God can teach us valuable lessons.
Suffering as punishment. What does this mean?
Thousands of years ago, the Holy City of Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by Israel’s enemies. Many interpreted this devastation as divine retribution for not keeping God’s commandments. The prophets of the day preached to the people that God had allowed this calamity to take place because of His anger and contempt for the society’s corruption. They scolded the people for their sinful ways, saying that it was because of Israel’s rebelliousness that God allowed their enemies to overtake them.
And so, too, today, do we have people that would like to blame us for what has happened in our country. Self-proclaimed, would-be prophets, such as Jerry Falwell, say that the devastation in New York and D.C. is due to God’s wrath over matters such as pro-choice, homosexuality, and the ACLU. They blame us – yes, us – for giving into what they deem temptation and corruption; for pushing God to take such a drastic measure in order to punish us for our misdeeds. While this view is certainly hateful to many, it does console a few. For it suggests that we could have control over disaster. If only we were more “righteous”, God would not have to chastise us with such tragedies.
Suffering as a test. What does this mean?
Another popular explanation of why bad things happen in this world is that God uses these misfortunes in order to test us. God wants to make sure that we are a faithful and loyal people. Therefore, He sets challenges before us, so that He can prove to Himself and to others, that we are worthy of His blessing. However, God is careful to choose only those whom He knows will pass the test, such as Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his beloved son to God; or Job, who was able to maintain his faith in God, even when faced with financial and personal ruin.
This view is reminiscent of an ancient commentary on a verse from Psalms: Adonai tzadik yivchan, v’rasha v’oheiv hamas sina nafsho. “God tries the righteous, but [as for] the wicked and he who loves violence, God hates his soul.” The rabbis, therefore, teach us that when bad things befall us, it is because God knows that we are capable of dealing with them.
Rabbi Yonaton, a sage from antiquity, compared God’s testing humans with a potter who taps his pots, so that he can be sure that they are sturdy. Rabbi Yonaton taught, “A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. So then, what does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for even if he gives them many blows, they will not break.” By testing the sound vessels, the potter is able to demonstrate that he has produced a commendable item. So, too, some would say, with God. By testing us, He is better able to assure that His creation is worthwhile.
How many of us can relate with this mentality? I, myself, have often heard people frame their own hardships in such a way. There’s the woman who lost her job. Upon receiving her pink-slip, she told her co-workers, “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. He’s sending me this trial so that I can learn to be more resourceful. I know I’ll figure something out.” And there’s the man who was diagnosed with leukemia. He told his wife, “This is a test, dear – a test of how well we can cherish each other in bad times, as well as good times.” And there is the headline on MSN.com’s web-page for America’s response to our current situation. It is a quote from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who commented, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Suffering as a lesson. What does this mean?
There are those who say that God allows bad things to occur in order to teach us a valuable lesson – a lesson we would not otherwise have learned if we did not suffer a bit.
It seems that many people find meaning and comfort in this view of suffering. By assigning a purpose to our pain, we might be better equipped to persevere through it. As Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik commented, “Suffering comes to ennoble man, to purge his thoughts of pride and superficiality, to expand his horizons. In sum, the purpose of suffering is to repair that which is faulty in man’s personality.”
Take, for example, the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness after being liberated from slavery. Our text tells us that there was a more direct route from Egypt to Canaan. Yet, God decided to lead them in a more round-about fashion so that the journey would last forty years. For generations, Torah scholars have wondered why God would do this.
One popular explanation teaches us that this was for the benefit of the Israelite people. For so many years, they had no choice but to be slaves, unable to control their own destiny. Therefore, God felt the need to extend their transitional period before they reached the Promised Land – so that they could develop the skills they needed in order to become an independent nation. Though the wilderness was a harsh and dangerous place, it was a necessary evil that would ultimately result in strengthening the People of Israel.
So here we have it: three different explanations on why God allows suffering to occur in this world: to punish us, to test us, or to teach us. To many, such interpretations are comforting. After all, who wouldn’t like to think that there is a grand, divine plan, and that everything happens for a reason? However, I, personally, cannot subscribe to any of these perspectives on why bad things happen.
God, as I understand God, is not is so petty as to need to punish us through pain. Neither is God so insecure that He would need to test our faith and loyalty in such a cruel way. And neither is God so cavalier with people’s welfares and lives to use them in order to teach us a lesson – no matter how valuable or valid that lesson might be.
So what do we do with all these stories from our Bible? In pondering this question, I am reminded of a story told about the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Once, when he was taking a train-ride, he met a very traditionalist rabbi. The two began to discuss Torah, and came to talking about the verses regarding Amelek, Israel’s worst enemy. They noted that it is written in the Torah that the Israelites were to utterly destroy the people of Amelek. Buber said to the rabbi, “You know, I don’t believe God ever really said that.” The rabbi was astonished. He protested, “But it’s written, and Moses wrote down everything just as he heard it from the mouth of God!” To which Buber replied, “Oh – don’t get me wrong. I believe that this is what Moses heard, but I don’t believe that this is what God actually said.”
So, if we reject the notions that God is punishing us, testing us, or teaching us, how can we interpret the evils that befall us? What do we make of all the pain and suffering?
Recently, Rabbi Debra R. Hachen wrote a modern-day midrash, or rabbinic story, that offers us another perspective on how to understand tragedy. Rabbi Hachen composed this midrash just last week and shared it with her congregation on Rosh Hashanah. Today I would like to share her words with you:
God sat shocked on the throne in heaven. God couldn't believe what had just happened down on earth. It was September 11 and God saw it all as it unfolded. God couldn't find words to speak, and tears started to form in God's eyes. Then the accusing angel approached, the one who was always trying to get people into trouble with God…
[Ha-Satan spoke:] "O Eternal One, Master of All, Judge of all Truth: here it is just a week before the holiest days of the year -- the days when you open the Book of Life and examine the deeds of each human being. And what will you find this year? Just when people should be starting to think about repentance, prayer and charity, you will find that almost twenty sinful people committed a terrible crime - and took the lives of 5,000 people in one day - in one morning! And, once again, O Master of All, they said they did it in Your name. Now is the time,” said Satan, “to get rid of humankind once and for all. It was a hopeless experiment, and it's not going to yield any good results."
…"O Eternal One," Satan spoke in a consoling whisper. "Just give me the word. I will take care of it all. We'll destroy this world and start over again. We angels will help you build a better version."
…The Eternal One [replied,] "You may be right. Perhaps there is no future for humanity. Perhaps it's time to give up. But I must be certain. I must send three of my loyal and faithful angels to check it out and see if there is any reason to save this world."
So God called three angels, the same three that had been sent so long ago to visit with Abraham in the desert, and gave them their instructions. "Each of you search high and low, and bring back to me any evidence that humankind is still worth saving and helping. Return by nightfall, and I will make my decision."
So the angels went down to earth and began to look through the rubble at each site. They saw the pain of those who were wounded, they knew that under the collapsed buildings there were thousands who had died. But they split up and began to search further for any evidence that man, in spite of all this evil, was worth saving.
The first angel [went to New York. He ] came across two men covered in dust. They were embracing and shaking, so he stopped and overheard them talking to a firefighter. “We were on the 68th floor,” they said, “when we realized we had to evacuate quickly or we would die. But there was a woman in our office who was in a wheelchair -- and the elevators weren't working. We found the emergency wheelchair and moved her over, so we could carry her down the stairs. It was hard work -- coming down all 68 floors. Others told us to leave her and run -- that the firemen would bring her later. But, we couldn't desert her. We passed the firemen on their way up to help others, and we kept going. We got her out, and an ambulance whisked her away immediately. Just as the ambulance pulled away, the building collapsed. We ducked under a van, and now we are just grateful to be alive. Another minute, and all three of us would have died in that building.”
Ahhh...thought the angel. The courage of the firefighters who entered the dangerous building to save lives, the compassion these two ordinary men showed for a woman in need, and their gratitude for being alive, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly scraped some of the dust that had fallen from the buildings off of their faces, and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The second angel went to Pennsylvania, [where] all on the plane had perished. He could sense the spirits of those who died -- could almost feel how they were still linked to their loved ones back home. So, following the trail of connection, he found himself in a home where a wife stood trying to explain what happened to her neighbors. Tears were rolling down her face. “He called me on the cell phone,” she said. “He told me how much he loved me, and then he said that he and four other passengers were going to rush the hijackers and try to stop them. After that, I never heard from him again. But now the authorities are telling me that the plane was headed for D.C. to crash and kill hundreds or thousands of people. I lost my husband today, but I know that he saved the lives of others by his actions.”
Ahhh....thought the second angel. The love of this man for his wife, and the courage these men showed in the face of evil, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly, lifted one tear from her cheek and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The third angel went to D.C. He too saw fire and smoke and death and rescuers hard at work. Then he started searching through the city to see how the rest of the people were reacting. Most were in their cars or on the streets heading home. They were in shock and disbelief. But he watched as one woman, a Christian minister, drove past a mosque, made a U-turn, and came back again. She parked and got out of her car and walked up to three Muslim women standing outside the mosque. "My friends,” she said, “what can I do to help?" - for there on the building were scrawled ugly words of hate, spray painted by those who blamed all Muslims for the attacks that morning. The women embraced and cried together, and the Muslim women thanked the stranger for her kindness and caring. She promised to return and bring others to stand with the women in solidarity against hatred and prejudice.
Ahhh...thought the third angel. The way this woman reached out to those who are scapegoated and wrongly accused, surely God will want to save the world for her sake. And so gently, almost invisibly, he captured the words "What can I do to help?" and flew up to heaven and presented the words to God.
Just then, Satan appeared before God to announce that he was ready to carry out the mission of wiping out humanity and that he had the plans already in hand to start over on another world. "All you have to do is give the command,” said Satan, “and I'll see it is obeyed immediately."
"Wait!" cried God. "You are right that humanity is capable of much evil. And you are right that from time to time it looks as if hatred has won out over love. But I have evidence that we cannot give up on the people down below us. My angels have brought me proof that there is hope for my creation: here is the dust to remind me how compassionate human beings can be - and how much they treasure life. For compassion's sake I will save the world. And here is a tear, a remembrance of the love shared between husband and wife, and a reminder of one who gave his life to protect others from harm. For the sake of selflessness and love, I will not destroy the world. And lastly, here is the voice of a woman who saw wrongdoing and did not turn away. She was willing to stand up for what was just and right, and to get involved. For the sake of justice and righteousness, I will not destroy the world, for they will in the end redeem this world."
Satan's face fell, and he knew he had lost again. "But God," he asked, "how many times will you give them another chance? Take a look at history -- how many wars and genocides will it take before you change your mind?"
"Oh, Satan," said God, rising up from the throne. "You don't understand. I also hate the suffering and pain. But as long as I can still see the goodness and mercy and love in the hearts of my children on earth, I must have hope that the pain will one day end."
[And God sat back down on the throne to begin hearing the prayers of those who were calling out from earth, and to record again the deeds of humankind in the Book of Life for the year 5762.]
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know why bad things happen, and I am not so sure that God does either – at least not on a case by case basis. Yes, God is ultimately responsible for everything – the bad along with the good. Our Torah portion reminds us – God gives us ha-tov, the good, along with ha-ra, the evil. Yet, I do not believe that God personally sends pain and suffering to us as individuals or as communities. God does not, per se, cause bad things, but neither does He stop them. Pain and suffering are a part of this world.
So what does God do when confronted with the tragedies and the travesties? I believe that God weeps alongside us, mourning for the loss and acknowledging the pain. And I believe that God is there beside us, giving us comfort and encouragement to live our lives with meaning, to perform acts of love and kindness, and to go forward in strength.