Good Yontev. I have never had as hard a time writing sermons for the High Holy Days as I have this year. But my difficulties weren’t for my normal reason, that writing is easier when you actually have something to say. Quite the opposite. Have you ever gone to the cereal aisle in a grocery store without knowing exactly what cereal you wanted? The number of choices is overwhelming. There have been times when I’ve looked around and decided, oh forget this — I’ll just have waffles. Too few choices and you’re unhappy with the limitations. Too many choices and you freeze up, unable to decide. Well, there is so much going on in the world today, I haven’t known what to talk about. I guess I’ll have to stick to the theater theme I introduced last night.
Last December, I saw a play called Gloria at the Dallas Theater Center. It was darkly funny, completely shocking, deeply moving, and thoroughly thought provoking. The essence of the play is how does one deal with the aftermath of a catastrophic event. During the play, one of the characters breaks down, almost into a fetal position, and cries out, what do I do with the bad?
We have so much bad going on today. What do we do with the bad? It’s overwhelming. There is terrorism, mostly international but also domestic. There is open and unashamed anti-semitism, racism, and bigotry most notably in Charlottesville but really all over. There are earthquakes and hurricanes, unprecedented floods, fires that are devastating the west, one natural disaster after another. There is illness, personal or loved ones, and death. What do we do with the bad when there is so much of it?
How, we ask ourselves, does God allow so much bad to happen? I am not asking a new question, by the way. This question has been asked so many times through so many centuries that it actually has a name. It is called the problem of theodicy. That is, how can a God who is all good, all just, all knowing, and all powerful allow bad things to happen in the world, especially to good people? Spoiler alert: I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know anybody who does. But Jewishly speaking, especially when you don’t have an answer, always question the question and question the assumptions. Is God truly all good, all just, all knowing, and all powerful? I don’t want to believe in a God who isn’t good or just, so those aspects of God, I’m not prepared to question. Is God all knowing, however…?
You may be surprised, but at the beginning of the Bible, God is not all knowing. After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they clothe themselves and hide from God. God asks two questions of Adam and Eve: where are you? who told you that you were naked? [Genesis 3:9,11] An all knowing God wouldn’t have to ask these questions. After Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks: where is your brother Abel? what have you done? [Genesis 4:9-10] An all knowing God wouldn’t have to ask these questions. When God speaks to Abraham about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, God declares: “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” [Genesis 18:21] An all knowing God wouldn’t have to investigate. If God isn’t actually all knowing, then bad things can happen because God isn’t aware that they are happening.
Is God truly all powerful? There is a klutz kascheh, a fruitless question, that challenges this notion. Can God create a rock so big that even God can’t lift it? Either way you answer it, God seems limited. But let’s ignore paradoxical questions and look for the answer in the Kabbalah instead. According to the Kabbalah, first there was only God, but then in an act of Tzimtzum, willful self-contraction, God created the space for us to exist. God limited God’s self so that we had the space to exist and in that space, God is not all powerful.
For whatever reasons that evil exists in the world, we have to acknowledge that it does. So we’re still left with the original question: what do with the bad? Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught us one of the answers: “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od. V’ha-ikar lo l’hitpacheid klal.” All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence is not to make yourself afraid. When I lived in Israel I shopped every Friday morning at Machane Yehuda because that’s where you got the best produce at the best prices. One Friday, after I had already been to the market and gone home, there was a terrorist bombing there and among the dead was the man I bought my flowers from. My ulpan teacher wanted me to stop going there and only go to the supermarket that had an armed guard at the entrance, but I refused. I wasn’t going to let them change my life. In 2015, according to a quick Google search, so you know it has to be true, about 28,000 people were killed worldwide as a result of terrorism. In the same year about 38,000 people were killed in road accidents, just in the United States. Don’t be afraid of terrorism any more than you are afraid of driving in a car. Okay, so you shouldn’t vacation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, or Syria where most of the terrorism occurs. But you should also wear your seatbelt. Don’t drink and drive. Put down the phone! Distracted driving is deadly. How do we deal with the bad? Don’t be stupid, but don’t make yourself afraid either.
Anti-semitism, racism and bigotry are on the rise or at the very least more visible today than before. All of it takes root in not recognizing the humanity of other people. There is an apocryphal saying: one person dying is a tragedy, but 1,000,000 killed is a statistic. The nazis knew that and reduced us to numbers, something other than human. We combat bigotry of all kinds by creating human connections. When we see others, and they see us, as human beings, it’s much harder to hate. It’s much harder to hurt or kill someone you know and have a connection to. How do we deal with the bad? We reach out and embrace each other’s humanity.
This year seems to be a particularly bad one for natural disasters with landslides, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, wild fires — you name it and we have had it this year. These things happen because we live in the world and they are a part of nature. Is it possible that our own actions have made these natural disasters worse? Perhaps. If there were stronger building codes, for example, maybe fewer people would die in earthquakes. But nothing we do will stop the earthquake from coming. So I always look to the words of that great 20th century sage, Mr. Rogers: when there are scary things in the news, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Better yet, I would add, be the helper. How do we deal with the bad? We pitch in and help.
Illness and death are simply a fact of life, for life and death are two sides of the same coin — you cannot have one without the other. In those moments when I am confronted with illness and death, that is the time when I turn to God for comfort and strength. When we are in need, those are the times to rely on our friends and our community. How do we deal with the bad? We deal with it together.
There is so much bad in the world. There is so much bad that it can overwhelm us, leaving us feeling helpless and adrift. How do we deal with all the bad? How do we deal with the plaintive cry: ayeka, where are you? Ultimately, the way that we deal with the bad is by answering, hineini, here I am.