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.

The Blessing for Earthquakes

Image: Kenemetrics Seismograph recording a quake. Photo by Yamaguchi, some rights reserved.

At 12:50 last night a small earthquake shook my neighborhood. Given that I live not far from the Hayward Fault in California, it was not a huge surprise except that it woke me up. I fumbled for my cell phone, to check the time and to check Twitter to see if it was an #earthquake or merely a dream. Nope, #earthquake.

Then I tried to remember the blessing for earthquakes. That one wasn’t so easy – I remembered seeing it in Tractate Berakhot [Blessings] of the Talmud but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it. Finally I had to get up and look it up:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

Whew! Having settled that, I could go back to sleep!

quakemap

A Prayer for Love

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34

 

This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6

 

 

After Orlando: 10 Options for Action

Image: Graffiti on a brick wall: “Seek Justice.”

Here are ten ways we can take action, if we choose:

  1. We can mourn the dead and comfort the mourners.
  2. If there is a memorial or demonstration in our area, we can attend.
  3. We’ve already begun to see places to donate to assist the victims and their families. Pulse Victims Fund by Equality Florida is a GoFundMe site with responsible connections.
  4. We can contact our elected officials about the loopholes and gaps in gun safety legislation. The murderer has already been described as a mentally unstable domestic abuser who had already been investigated twice by the FBI for terrorist connections, but he was able to purchase a military-style assault weapon with a high capacity magazine. What’s wrong with that picture?
  5. Register and VOTE. Before you vote, do your homework and vote accordingly: which candidates have voting records that match with your values? Which indulge in hate speech when they are campaigning? Which elected officials are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association? Which elected officials have sponsored or supported the over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills pending in the states? (Thanks to my colleague, Rabbi David Novak, for reminding me of this one!)
  6. We can speak up whenever we hear hateful speech from anyone about any group of people. Every time we say, “Not cool” to someone spouting it we remind them that it is wrong. Every time we fail to say something, we suggest by our silence that those words and attitudes are acceptable to us.
  7. We can donate to institutions that track hate crimes, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League.
  8. We can educate ourselves about anti-LGBTQ violence. Did you know that 20% of the hate crimes in the U.S. are directed against this small minority? Or that 70% of ant-LGBTQ murder victims are people of color?
  9. We can donate to local organizations that provide mental health support to LGBTQ clients. Here in my local area one choice is JFCS-East Bay but it should be easy to find organizations in your own area. Many of us are freaked out pretty badly after a day when on one coast, 50 LGBTQ people were murdered in cold blood and on the other coast, a man was arrested on his way to the Pride parade with a car full of weapons and ammunition.
  10. Donate blood, if you are able. Even if you live thousands of miles from Orlando, this and other gun violence puts pressure on the supply of blood. According to the American Red Cross, every pint donated may save up to three lives.

Notice what isn’t on this list: “thoughts and prayers.” Author John Scalzi wrote an eloquent post yesterday about “thoughts and prayers” and the emptiness of those words. I am reminded of the prophet Isaiah, who spent most of Chapter 1 of the book carrying his name decrying the futility of ritual when real live people are suffering.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Holy One.

I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts;
and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

Why are all those sacrifices offered to me? asks the Holy One.
I am fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!

Yes, you come to appear in my presence; 
but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards?

Stop bringing worthless grain offerings.
They are offerings of abomination to me!
Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations —
I cannot stomach the sin within your assemblies!

My soul hates your Rosh-Hodesh and your festivals.
They are a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them!

When you spread out your hands I will hide my eyes from you;
no matter how much you pray I won’t be listening,
because your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves clean. Get your evil deeds out of my sight.

Stop doing evil! Learn to do good!

Seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
defend orphans, advocate for the bereaved! – Isaiah 1:11-17

If you have other ideas of action to take in the face of this terrible event, I welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Who Brings On the Evenings

Image: Starry sky. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish prayer has a rhythm that roots it in the natural world. Our “day” begins at sundown, and we greet the day with a traditional prayer:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe,
who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.
Adonai Tz’vaot is Your Name.
Ever-living God, may You reign continually over us into eternity.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who brings on evening.

– Ma’ariv Aravim, Evening Service, Mishkan Tefilah 

I love this prayer. I love the way it locates me in time and space. It invites me to watch the process of the arrival of nightfall. It mentions the sunset obliquely (“opens the gates”) and then holds my hand as I watch the stars come out.

It propels me from a contemplation of the marvels revealed by science into wonder that can only be expressed through poetry.

Whatever our understanding of God, it can speak to that understanding. It works as well if we believe in a personal Creator of all things, a Wisdom behind the scenes, or a Unifying Principle underlying all reality.

Here is my own translation, slightly different:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space,
who with Your word brings on the evenings.

With wisdom You open heaven’s gates,
And with understanding You change the times and cause the seasons to alternate.

You arrange the stars in their courses in the sky according to Your will.
You create day and night.
You roll away light before darkness, and darkness before light.

You cause the day to pass, and the night to come,
And you make the distinctions between day and night.
Lord of Hosts is Your name.
Eternal God, may You reign over us forever and ever.

Blessed are You, O God, who brings on the evenings.

Ma’ariv Aravim, my translation

 

 

 

Another Way to Pray

Image: A rabbit, listening. Photo by skeeze.

Jewish prayer can take many forms.

Formal, communal prayer happens with a minyan: we gather and we use the ancient words to fulfill the mitzvot of Shema and sacrifice.

Jewish prayer may take the form of blessings: blessings before and after eating, blessings before performing mitzvot, blessings for small everyday experiences and blessings for big things like brit milah or a wedding.

Jewish prayer may be meditative prayer, and there are many different forms of meditation. Lately I’ve been praying by listening. I sit quietly, I quiet my mind, and I listen.

Random thoughts enter; I notice them and let them float through. Random sensations nudge my consciousness: a breeze, a small muscle twitch. Most of it I simply allow to float through me.

But every now and then, as I sit quietly, I hear something I need to hear. Sometimes it is an insight. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a reminder that I need to deal with something, need to speak with someone. And sometimes it is my body, telling me something I need to notice.

And occasionally, I hear a question.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” – I Kings 19:11-13