Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.

The Hardest Prayer in the Book

Image: A car accident with the caption, “Who will live and who will die?” 

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

The Unetaneh Tokef [“Let Us Tell the Power”] is probably the scariest prayer in the entire liturgy. It begins with a preamble to set the tone, reminding us that even the angels are terrified of the Day of Judgement, which is right now. Judgement Day is not some faraway time, not some mythical other universe, but right here and right now.

Then, before we have a chance to really digest that startling idea, it states an obvious fact that none of us want to think about: we have absolutely no idea who will live to see next year. So that we cannot dodge the thought, it spells it out with the catalogue above in a relentless cadence whether you read it in Hebrew or English: there are many unpleasant ways to die, and we are vulnerable to all of them.

We. Personally. Individually. Are. Going. To. Die.

None of us want to think about it. Ask any attorney who assists people in writing a will. Clients know they are supposed to have one and they don’t want to think about it. They cancel the appointment (“Whoops! I forgot about the dentist appointment!”) they forget the appointment (“Where is my brain???”) they show up to the appointment without important documents, they stall on reviewing it once written, and they don’t like paying the bill for the whole thing either. We human beings resist thinking about our own mortality.

So once a year, the liturgy gets directly in our faces and forces us to think about it. This prayer is a wake-up call.

If I knew for a fact that my life would be over next week:

  • What words do I want to say, and to whom, today?
  • What messes do I want to clean up, and not leave behind me?
  • What will I choose to do with my time in the next week?
  • How do I want to be remembered, by family, by friends, by my opponents?
  • What is too important to leave undone?

These are the questions of the High Holy Days. Unpleasant as it is, the Unetaneh Tokef grabs us by our lapels and shakes us, reminding us of the obvious: time may be short. 

All that said, there are those for whom the words of the prayer dredge up the horror of recent trauma. A Jewish blogger named Deborah who lost her father to suicide describes her decision about this year’s prayer in Why I Will Leave the Room when the Unetaneh Tokef is Recited on the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I endorse her way of dealing with the prayer in her situation.

I myself nearly died last Yom Kippur. Blood clots in my lungs robbed me of breath and came close to robbing me of life. I don’t know how I will experience the Unetaneh Tokef this year, but my plan is to take lots of Kleenex and hang tough. If I learned anything last year, it was that we must periodically stop and say, “Really, what if I die tomorrow?” because that is reality. So I plan to do it, this year and every year.

You have to decide what’s right for you.

The High Holy Day services are laden with rich experiences: sounds, sights, words, ideas. To whatever degree we can be fully present to them, they will make us more fully present to the rich potential in our lives.

Science and Religion, Another View

Image: Photo of Rosalind Ellis Franklin. I have been unable to obtain rights information for this photo; if any reader is aware of the owner, I would appreciate that information.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. –Rosalind Franklin in a letter to her father, 1940.

These words were written by one of the discoverers of DNA. I’ve been reading her biography, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. It is a well-researched and highly readable account of the tragically short life of a scientist whose work in the 1950’s has changed all our lives.

If you are thinking, “Didn’t Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA?” you are partly correct. However their work would have been impossible without the data and the images produced by Franklin’s methodical experiments. Some scientists today feel that she was unfairly robbed of credit she should have been given at the time. (Read the book or follow the links for more information about Franklin and DNA.)

I was fascinated by this young woman. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Jewish families in Britain, a descendant of King David, no less. She was a brilliant scientist known not only for her work with DNA but also for work on RNA and viruses, and one of the leading experts on the structure of coal in her day – all before her death at 38!

I can see in her words above that she had done some serious thinking about an issue that troubles many of my students, who find most of their childhood notions of God completely blown up by science. If science is true, then religion is … what? Bunk?

This young Jew (she was about 20 when she wrote those words) must have felt the tension between the religious language she learned as a child and scientific truth. I find her statement above impressive.

Since the scientific revolution it became difficult to talk with a straight face using  much of the language that we traditionally used to talk about topics of ultimate meaning. There is no big man in the sky. Life evolved on earth, it did not appear neatly organized over six days. No angels. No heaven in the sky. No hell under the earth. No “book of life,” not really. So why not just throw out all that religion stuff, all the fairy tales?

Rosalind recognized that real religion is the recognition of something greater than one’s self. For her, that Greater One is “the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future.” She knew that she was not the center of the universe, no matter how brilliant she was, no matter how fancy her pedigree. She was not distracted (and in fact, she seems mildly annoyed) that others cling to impossibilities.

If you find her and her ideas interesting, I recommend the book. I felt that every moment of reading it was well-spent.

6 ways to become an informed voter

If you haven’t discovered Rabbi Rosove’s blog yet, I recommend it highly. I also recommend passing this particular column around to friends who may or may not know how to get ready for an election.

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

My son, Daniel, has written a blog on behalf of “MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger” that he calls “6 ways to become an informed voter.”

Though the election campaign has not focused on the issue of hunger insecurity in America, it is a significant issue affecting millions of Americans, nevertheless.

Daniel (who handles all grants and grantees for MAZON) has written an important piece that I recommend you read. You can find it here:

In his blog, among other things, he notes:

The freedom to vote is a fundamental political right. Elections and voting matter. The American Jewish community has always been civically involved. In the 2012 U.S. election, Jewish voter registration rates topped roughly 90%, compared to 74% in the general public. Our community also has unique power based on where we live. While the American Jewish population only makes up 2% of the general…

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What is Selichot?

Image: A waning moon. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Tonight is Selichot at many synagogues around the world.

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach [tune], listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list can disturb the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. My neighbors and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so their sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY ALL THIS FOCUS ON SIN?  When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui [list of sins] are behaviors that will have bad consequences if left unchecked. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility and take action to change our behavior in the future. Ideally, this is more than “resolving to do better” – it involves an action plan.

6. WHY IS THE SERVICE HELD  AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if we don’t believe in God, we need to deal with things we have done.  Whatever is your highest ideal, focus on that and substitute it for the God-language.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. It is usually not a long service. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. But more than anything else, it is a service to get us ready to change our ways for the better. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tavo

Image: An open Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

First fruits, blessings and curses – that’s a quick summary of this week’s Torah portion. It’s timely, coming as it does just before the High Holy Days, when we are asking ourselves:

  • What are the “first fruits” of my labor?
  • What do I share with the world and my community?
  • Which mitzvot do I keep?
  • Which mitzvot do I fail to keep?
  • What curses do I bring down upon myself and others by my behavior?

That last question isn’t very modern sounding at first blush, but it has modern implications. I do not expect a lightning bolt to strike every person on earth who does wrong. However, most mitzvot have consequences both for keeping them and for failing to keep them:

  • If I tell lies, I spread confusion in the world.
  • If I injure other people, they hurt.
  • If I fail to speak up for the underdog, the world will be a worse place.
  • If I do not pay my employees properly, they will go hungry.
  • If I use the environment carelessly, the world will be depleted and full of poison.

… and so on.

Mitzvot have consequences.

This week’s divrei Torah:

When We Reach the Place of Promise – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Unintelligible but Meaningful  – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Ki Tavo – Rabbi Seth Goldstein (Podcast)

Creating Our Own Narrative – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

You’re the Best! – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Podcast – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

Maimonides on Conversion – Rabbi Ruth Adar


Maimonides on Conversion

Image: Portrait of Maimonides, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the famous formula for bringing the first fruits to the Temple, the same formula that we recall in the Passover Haggadah, beginning:

My father was a wandering Aramean. – Deut 26:5

This line was the subject of a question sent to Maimonides (1135 – 1204) by a man known to us only to us as Obadiah the Proselyte. “Proselyte” is a fancy word for “convert.” Obadiah wanted to know if it was permissible for a convert to Judaism like himself to refer to Jacob as “my father” when in fact Jacob was not his physical ancestor. He extended the question to phrases such as “Our God” and other phrases that suggest familial relationship. 

Maimonides’ gracious answer has been a comfort to gerim [converts to Judaism] ever since. “Yes!” he writes in return, “You may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least.” Maimonides reminded Obadiah that Abraham brought many souls into the covenant, and that ever since then, all those who have adopted Judaism are counted among the disciples of Abraham. Maimonides concludes by admonishing Obadiah: “Do not consider your origin as inferior!”

So, too, do the blessings, curses and commandments in this portion apply to all Jews, not only some. We are one people, whether we became Jewish in the waters of the womb or in the waters of the mikveh.

This d’var Torah appeared in slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.