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.

Yom Kippur: The Rehearsal

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

What sort of people rehearse their own deaths?

Jews, that’s who.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.

One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.

I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.

What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen? 

Here and Now

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Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Dalo_Pix2

9/11/2012: After Trauma, what?

Paramedics
Paramedics (Photo credit: Werner Vermaak)

Today is September 11, 2012. It’s eleven years since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking eleven years ago that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.

Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget  November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.

As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him.  The parents who lose a child will never be the same.

In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year 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.

Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) 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 even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may  work towards a life after tragedy.  There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose.    Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.

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.

Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.

If, this Elul, 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.

No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma,  not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.