Maybe it’s because it’s an election year, or because football season is just heating up, or because things in the world are not stable as we’d like them to be, but for whatever the reason, our world seems like a pretty divisive place these days. It is hard to find what, if any, common thread streams through all of society, binding us together with one shared value or foundation. But I think I may have found the one force that spans all socio-economic groups, ages, education levels, and even sports team loyalties and political party affiliations? Want to know what it is? Reality TV. You know these shows: American Idol, The Real Housewives, The Amazing Race, and the list goes on and on with unparalleled popularity. My personal favorite right now is Storage Wars, and I watch with bated breath hoping for the day they find a shofar in one of these storage lockers! It seems we just can’t stop watching this so-called “reality”. Interestingly enough, a little while back, Psychology Today published a study that addressed why. It concluded: “Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too can become celebrities….”[i] Ironically, reality TV provides the ultimate escape from reality, because on some basic level, behind the quest for fame is the human desire to have significance beyond oneself; it is ultimately the quest for immortality.
Unfortunately, that quest, as we know, is a futile one. No one lives forever. We know it’s unrealistic. But in our world where it is hard to know what is real, where much of our reality seems unfixed and un-centered, it’s hard to find something to hold on to.
So today, I want us to get real - real in a way that doesn’t indulge a fantasy, that isn’t mind-numbing and simple, but in a way that provides some traction. But to do that, we’re going to need to get out of our comfort zones a bit, in a way that might be difficult. I promise it will be worth it in the end. OK?
Let’s start with what is arguably the only real religious question there is: If there is an all knowing Divine being we call God who is good, then why do bad things happen?
Yom Kippur’s liturgical centerpiece – Unetaneh Tokef – seems to give us the answer. You know it – “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day – it is awesome and full of dread. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die.” It’s really scary, difficult stuff – at least it is for me. But after the long, frightening list, the passage seems to indicate how we can avert our fate – “uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah maavirin et roah hagzeirah – but repentance prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” In other words: do good stuff, like repenting, praying, and giving charity, and you’ll be ok. Don’t and the consequences are clear. So the answer to that question we asked before seems to be that if good things happen to people, God is rewarding them and if bad things happen, God is punishing them. For me, and likely for many of you, this concept proves hard to swallow.
But on the surface, we buy in. Like the child that learns early on that actions have consequences, we as adults often unintentionally internalize the doctrine of reward and punishment. We ask of some insignificant problem – say getting stuck in traffic when we are already running late – “what did I do to deserve this?” then searching for some offense we must have committed that would yield such a punishment. “If only I hadn’t yelled at my spouse this morning” or “I should have given the guy outside of Starbucks the change in my pocket instead of ignoring him and walking away.”
Intellectually, we know this is ridiculous. Road construction and rush hour cause traffic jams, not reckoning and retribution. But the child’s voice won’t be silenced, and we find ourselves plagued by bad answers to a most difficult question. This, of course, is especially hard when it isn’t just a petty problem but when something truly devastating – soul crushing happens. When horrible things happen for reasons we can’t explain, we default to the traditional interpretation: it must be a punishment. Maybe we look to blame ourselves – what did I do to cause this or what could I have done to avert it, when most of the time, the answer is nothing.[ii]
And as such, we often jump to the false conclusion that either God is cruel and abusive or the world is devoid of purpose and meaning. And either way, unfortunately, people erroneously tune out of Judaism and tune in to things like reality TV.
But here’s the thing: there is actually a different option!
In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an incredible, healing book offering a Jewish response to his own family tragedy: the death of his young son from a horrible disease. The book has remained a best-seller for over 3 decades. Everyone thinks that the book is called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” But the book is actually entitled: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Not “why” but “when.” Kushner wasn’t interested in the root causes of something that happened in the past; he was interested in what possibilities exist for our responses.
What if Judaism and Jewish practice weren’t about blindly following an all-knowing God meting out judgments at will? What if Judaism wasn’t a system to help us gain reward and avoid punishment at all? – and what if instead these High Holy Days, specifically Yom Kippur, served to teach us exactly why Judaism is so incredibly relevant, meaningful, and necessary for our world today? And it’s all wrapped up in just one liturgical poem that we’ve been reading wrong the entire time.
So, at this point, if you are a cynic or a seeker or anything in between, I’d ask you to suspend your disbelief and just for a moment, forget anything you ever learned about Judaism and God in Hebrew School, and let’s go back to Unetaneh Tokef ‘s frightening statement about the sealing of fate and the troubling list that follows. What if this list wasn’t intended to be understood literally, but rather metaphorically, to remind us that so many of the events in our world are beyond explanation. They aren’t moral declarations about our lives, but they remind us that there are occurrences that are sealed from us. As one of my own teachers says, they are “…sealed off from our control, sealed off from our best intentions and best efforts. We will be struck by diseases that we have done nothing to invite. Hurricanes and flashfloods and human evil will wreak havoc, shattering the foundations of our homes and our most treasured assumptions.”[iii] The list reminds us that regardless of our successes, our appearances, our health, or our zip codes, we are all vulnerable, dependent, and finite. It’s incredibly di
difficult stuff to swallow, no less say aloud, but it is real nevertheless.
Here’s the twist though. Unlike secular culture that views this self-limitation as failure, Judaism sees it as opportunity, blessing even. Remember that troubling refrain: Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree? Want to know something? It’s translated wrong. Translated literally, it says: Repentance, Prayer and charity help the hardship of the decree pass. These three actions don’t impact the length of our life or alter that which is out of our control. What they do is help us control what we can! While describing the horrific realities of his experiences at Auschwitz, theologian Victor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way…Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”[iv]
This is what Yom Kippur asks of us – what is real in our life? What is the core of our life? Are we living by it? Are we moving toward it?
Did you ever wonder why tradition picked these three actions – repentance, prayer, and charity? I think it might have to do with the fact that the three chosen here each entail a diminishing of the self.
Think about it: Repentance or teshuvah, ultimately a returning to the best of who we can be, ironically requires a diminishing of who we are and our ego. To be in true relationship with another, and to return to who we really are, we can’t take up all the space.
Prayer or tefillah involves a similar phenomenon. Whether you just say the words, direct them to God or to the community, as Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, to pray “is to forget the self…In prayer, we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”[v]
And charity or tzedekah – this is of course most obvious. By giving to the other, we literally give away a part of ourselves – whether its our money or our time. Only through our substance becoming less can something greater occur.
These three practices don’t erase our pain, but rather, they move it, convert it into something that might be transformative for someone else, and then for us as well. Want to know what else these three tasks do for us – they let us write and seal our own legacies! Because we may not live forever, but our legacies do! And that we can very much control!
I heard this story in a TED talk that Brad Meltzer – the best selling author– gave last year, where he spoke about the power of legacy leaving. In it, he told the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese businessman who on August 6, 1945 took a business trip to Hiroshima. The same day the first atomic bomb detonated there. He survived. Injured but alive, he saw the devastation around him and decided to return to his home town - Nagasaki – where three days later the second bomb landed. He survived again, and spent the rest of his life talking, writing, and teaching about the importance of peace and the dangers of nuclear arms. Before he died 2 years ago, he wrote that he saw his life and work like a baton, and that every time the baton was passed, it helped form a raft for others – a raft that might lift people above the turbulent waters of war for generations to come.[vi]
Our world does not have to be meaningless. Each and every one of us can bring a sense of the Divine into the world and raise up every bit of that goodness, not just regardless of, but influenced by any tragedy or trauma that happens. It is why 20th century master Theologian Martin Buber got it right when he said that God isn’t above us, God is between us. The Divine exists in the space between people.
Why will I take Judaism, not just over reality TV, but over just about anything else, any day? Why does Judaism matter now more than ever? Because Judaism won’t change the dates at the beginning or end of our lives, but it will, in a most real way, let us live our lives and traverse whatever realities of life come our way better, giving real purpose to that which would otherwise remain meaningless.
Modern psychologists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what causes people to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives, regardless of their circumstances. Psychologist and researcher Dan McAdams teaches that at every major turning point in our lives, we have the choice to make our life’s story one of contamination or one of redemption. Contamination stories occur when a person encounters troubles and allows them to dominate their lives. Redemption stories, on the other hand, take a very different turn. Redemption stories occur when a person encounters troubles, but chooses to grow from them, give from them, to let them impact the future for the better. And the interesting thing about this concept is that the ultimate outcome of the story isn’t what matters.[vii] A story, even one without a happy ending, can nevertheless be a redemption story. All Jewish stories are redemption stories, even if they don’t end with “and they lived happily ever after.”
At the very end of the traditional Unetaneh Tokef there is a beautiful verse. For some reason, our Machzor doesn’t include it, but it reads, “Ushmeinu karata v’shmecha” “You, God, named us after You.” It means that our names endure; as God endures. Our legacies live beyond us. Our actions grounded in the work of connecting to others outside of ourselves, our work to make the world better not for ourselves but for others, these have timeless significance “even in a world that sometimes breaks our hearts.”
And so this beautiful poem by renowned ethicist Michael Josephson: “What Will Matter.”
“Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end…
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end. It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is … not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew but how many will feel a lasting loss when you are gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those you loved.
What will matter is not how long you lived, but how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.”[viii]
Because the essence of who we are and what we do for the good is Eternal, and in that very real way, we live on forever. And in that we see the very real promise of Un’taneh Tokef, of these High Holy Days, and the very heart of our faith.
In this New Year of hope, and goodness, and blessing for us all, Shanah Tovah.
Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A, PhD, Ed. Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2010
Lew, Alan. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 2003
McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: The Guildford Press. 1993.
McAdams, Dan P. Josselson, Ruthellen, Leiblich, Amia, Ed. Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 2001.
[ii] Hoffman, Dr. Joel M. “How Was Your Flight.” Who by Fire, Who by Water. P. 95.
[iii] Stern, Rabbi David. “Moral Matters: The Faith of Un’taneh Tokef”. Ibid. p 173.
[iv] Frankel, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. P. 65.
[v] Heschel, Joshua. Man’s Quest for God. P. 15.
[vii] Based on the work of David McAdams.