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 scary night sky. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

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.

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!

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

Rabbi Tarfon’s Guide to Elul

Image: A tangle of cables on a power line. Image copyright by Ian Beeby on Freeimages.com.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. If you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much; and the Master of your work is trustworthy to pay you the wage for your activity. And know, the giving of reward to the righteous is in the future to come. – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

One thing I have learned about myself is that if a task is too large, I simply freeze. I’m like a mouse under the gaze of a cobra: I cannot move. I go into “OVERWHELM” mode and stay there. And I like to think that Rabbi Tarfon knew something about this state, because of his wonderful piled-on sentence in the  quote that opened this post:

The day is short and the work is much and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the Master of the house is pressing.

See? He can’t even distinguish between the scary parts and the good things. He is describing the way I feel when I begin this month of Elul:

Oh my goodness there is so much garbage in my soul and I don’t know where to begin and there’s only a month and I can’t even think and two days are gone already and I’m very distractible and gee this is very uncomfortable and have i looked at my email yet today?

No kidding. That’s the inside of my head. Fortunately for those of us who are overwhelmed, Rabbi Tarfon also gives very good advice: We don’t have to finish, we just have to do the work one step at a time.

Thanks to Rabbi Tarfon, I walk into my living room. I take out one of several good books and I start taking stock of my life. (This year I’m rereading This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l.) Step by step, I will do the work of Elul, first taking stock, then figuring out what actions I need to take. One by one, I will do those things. And a month from now, I may not be “finished” but I will have gotten a lot of work done.

You can do this too, no matter how overwhelmed you feel. Begin the task, and trust that whatever you accomplish, that is what you need to do this year.

And if you’d like to know more about Rabbi Tarfon, read Meet Rabbi Tarfon elsewhere on this blog. He’s one of my favorite rabbis and I hope you’ll like him too.

5777: Jewish Years Explained

Image: Street sign in Jerusalem “Happy New Year St.” Photo Mt Scopus Radio  Some rights reserved

We’re about to begin the year 5777 and sooner or later, someone will wonder, “5777 years from WHAT?”

The simple answer: 5777 years from the creation of the world, as determined by counting back years in the Bible.

You and I both know that human beings weren’t created on the sixth day after the Big Bang. We could get into a very interesting discussion about “days” in the context of creation (literal days? or something more metaphorical? or is the Creation story not really about time at all?). Or we could stomp off harumphing about how the Bible and science are completely incompatible.

The truth is that religion and science had a battle long ago, and many of us decided that scientific method was better at addressing the “how” of the world, so we quit looking to the Bible for science. Torah explores the meaning of creation, a question that science can’t and won’t address.

BUT – long before we abandoned the notion of a six day Creation a few thousand years ago, we Jews began numbering the years by a certain pattern. We remember many things in terms of their placement in Jewish time. Also we are “a stiff-necked people” and we cling to some things just to be stubborn. So even though it is a bit anachronistic, we still number our years by the old system. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the shaliach [service leader] will announce the arrival of the year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven.

So the more complex answer to the question, “Why 5777?” is “Tradition!”

 

Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days

Image: Man blowing a shofar. Photo by jonathunder via wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Do you hear the sound of that distant horn?

The High Holy Days are on their way sooner than we realize. This year they begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on October 2, 2016. Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on October 11.

In other words, school begins in the Northern Hemisphere and then “bam!” it will be time to welcome 5777.

Are you reading anything to prepare for the season this year? Doing anything else to prepare?

Here are some books I’ve found useful for High Holy Days preparation. Don’t try to read them all! Spending quality time with one good book can be an excellent help.

The official start date for preparation is the first of Elul. This year (2016) that will fall on Friday, Sept 2 at sundown. I’m publishing this list now so that you can have a bit of lead time to visit your local Jewish bookshop!