Have Mercy: more on suffering

Image: Statue of a man holding his head. (strecosa/pixabay)

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I do what my doctor tells me to do. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We need to consider as a society that when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

God put us here for one another. Whether it is a spouse, or a friend, or a stranger, anyone who reaches out to another with love and kindness is an agent of the Holy One.

May we all have mercy on one another.

 

 

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Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

“You’re a Bad Jew!”

Image: Eleven angry, screaming faces. (Photo from Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Reading the comments sections of Jewish online publications, I cringe. There are people who seem to entertain themselves by logging on and writing comments about what a “bad Jew” the writer is for having such-and-such an opinion, or what “bad Jews” other people are. They write as the arbiters of everything Jewish, in a tone that implies vast Jewish learning, with content that reveals only vast ignorance.

I imagine someone who wants to learn about Judaism reading this stuff, and I shudder. What are they to learn? The misinformation this supposed expert just spouted? That Jews speak hatefully to and about one another? That somewhere there is a “Jew-Hell” that “bad Jews” go to?

(Aside: No, there is no Jewish hell, except for the ones we make here in this life.)

Sometimes these bumptious blowhards seem to say that only the most traditional practice is valid. Sometimes they seem to be saying that their Judaism is the only real Judaism. Other disagreeable dogmatists seem to think that any traditional belief or practice is terrible, or they take delight in detecting any scrap of what might be an inconsistency in someone else’s practice. And all of them are cruel, using belittling language to make their point: “Not only are you a bad Jew, going to Jew-Hell, but you are unintelligent and ugly, too!”

Do you honestly think anyone was ever persuaded by hateful words?

Words have power. We learn that in Genesis 1:3:

.וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.

Words create worlds. It is up to us to decide what kind of world we want, and to create it with our words. Cruel words produce a cruel world. Is that really what we want?

When Will Passover be Over?

Image: Matzah! Matzah! Matzah! 

Calendar-wise, Passover is complicated.

Some Jews will finish Passover at sundown after the seventh day. Others finish at sundown after the eighth day.  Why?

Inside the land of Israel (the geographic area, not the State) we celebrate 7 days of Passover, with one yom tov on the first day, and one at the end.

In the Diaspora (outside the Land) most Jews celebrate 8 days of Passover, with two days of yom tov at the beginning and at the end. The exception to that is that some Reform congregations (but not all) follow the Israeli practice.

Why the difference? When the Temple still stood the calendar, was set by astronomical observation from the Temple Mount. Signal fires were lit to let Jewish communities farther away from Jerusalem know that the holiday had occurred. Since long distances were involved (think Jerusalem to Babylon, Jerusalem to Rome, Jerusalem to Spain) the second day was added for the Diaspora. Later on, the calendar was set by mathematical calculation, and we could have gone back to one day of yom tov for everyone, but by then the custom was set. Local custom (minhag hamakom) is a powerful element in halakhah (the Jewish way,) so the double yom tov was set for most Diaspora Jews.

That’s why some Jews are a little vague about the end of Passover. To be sure about it, check with your local community, your congregation.

Whether they end Passover on the seventh or eighth night, one thing remains constant: by then the matzah has gotten a little stale and everyone is looking forward to eating bread and other chametz. I don’t know what percentage of Jewish families will be eating pasta or pizza on that first night after Passover, but I know there will be many!

Are you tired of matzah? What are your favorite things to eat during the week of Passover? What are you looking forward to eating when it’s over?

Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)

Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover.  Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.

The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.

Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)

The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.

Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.

Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.

May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a  member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!

 

Many Seders, Many Egypts

Image: The Weighing of Souls, from the Papyrus of the Book of the Dead, Egyptian museum, Turin Italy (photo by Souza_DF/Pixabay)

Each year, when I come to the seder table, I experience it a little differently.

At my very first seder, before I even thought I could become a Jew, I was mystified. I was the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask at a seder that was mostly in Hebrew and completely opaque to me. What I did know was that I had been invited to join that household for something precious to them. I listened, I followed directions, I drank four cups of wine and I left feeling a little sick. I look back on that seder, and realize that I was there as an observer, not as a participant, and four cups of wine is a lot of wine, so OK.

Every year since I began my journey into Judaism, the seder sneaks up on me. The first few years, I was worried about performance, from the dishes to the text. I wanted it to be “perfect.” I wanted it to be a correct seder. It never was, and finally it dawned on me that I was missing the point.

In the midst of the Maggid, the portion of the Haggadah where we retell the events of the Exodus, there’s the following passage:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אוֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8); “For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.” Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did he redeem, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:23); “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.”  – Haggadah from Sefaria.org

This is the passage that finally explained to me what I was supposed to be doing at seder. I began digging at the concept of Egypt, and the results have been coming for over 20 years. Each year, sometime during the seder, I identify an Egypt that I have left, or in which I am still trapped and in need of deliverance.

  • One year I suddenly flashed on my flight from a bad marriage and an abusive parent. I remembered my terror and my fear of the unknown. I burst into tears at the table and couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what was happening with me.
  • One year I realized that I was still in the Egypt of racism and a beneficiary of racism. There were bad things in my head that were never going away. Leaving that Egypt would mean reschooling my behavior and hoping that my mis-trained brain would follow.
  • One year I burnt myself rather badly kashering the kitchen. I felt grumpy at the seder table until it hit me that here I was again, in Egypt! I had let my ego take over my observance of mitzvot. I resolved to let the sea part and let it take my ego with it. My house has never been that perfectly cleaned for Pesach since, but my observance has been a lot more authentic.
  • One year I fled Israel for Passover. (I know, irony.) I was not sure that I was going back to finish rabbinical school because I was miserable. I felt too Other to be useful as a rabbi; too lost in Egypt to be any good to anyone.  Then I sat at seder in NYC with some Jews who hadn’t done a seder in years. I rose from that table, ready to go back to school, convinced that I had something to offer.
  • One year I was too exhausted for seder. I wrote about that seder in the post For a Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder.

I don’t know what Egypt I will be delivered from this year. All of us have “narrow places” in our lives, places that we’ve gotten out of, or can’t get out of, or ways in which we are stuck. The message of the seder is one of hope: wherever I’m stuck, whatever is sticking in my throat, the situation is not hopeless. The sea may or may not part (I’m open to a miracle) but Pharaoh cannot hold me: I am free.

What Egypts have you left? What Egypts remain?