I am sure you might be wondering why it has been so long since I wrote last. Well, to be honest, I have been pretty angry at you. You see, I have been in this position for only a short amount of time and I have seen so many negatives. Too many people have been punished for things they should not have been punished for. Good people, really righteous people have left us, Lord. I have been really confused. I guess you could say I have lost my belief in You. After all, why should I believe when my prayers go unanswered?
Just a short time ago, I was visiting with a very sick individual. This very brave man explained that he was ready to die. He was no longer afraid…he was no longer angry or confused. He told me it would be ok because his family would no longer suffer. I felt so small. After all, I was the one who was supposed to be strong. Instead, I was torn up inside and this brave man was being strong – he was comforting me. It was supposed to be the other way around.
You see, God, he died…just like so many others. Why? That is the question I keep asking. I live a good life. I do all the things I am supposed to do. Truly. And, yet, my prayers just do not get answered. How do you explain the loss of life of a child? How do you explain the loss of life of any young person? What about sudden deaths? I just don’t get it God…can you help me out?
Oh, one other thing. You have asked me to do some pretty interesting things. You have asked me to warn people of the bad things that will happen if they do not listen and follow your rules. I just do not know how you expect me to give this message. After all, bad things happen anyway, and I have no explanation. Tell you what, you show me a sign…anything. Make a rose bush grow outside of my home. Help me to become a rich man, anything that will prove to me you are there. If you do this, I will be reassured you exist and I promise that I will continue to spread the message. Otherwise, I just do not feel like I am qualified any longer to do this.
***Look out to the congregation and make eye contact***
Raise your hand if you have ever felt anything expressed in the letter I just read. Have you ever just felt, “Dayeinu?” Well, I am here to tell you that none of us in this room can ever truly understand God’s plans. Yes, this may be frustrating – I can assure you it frustrates me. After all, as humans, we have a desire to do what it takes to be successful in life. We expect doctors to be able to cure disease. We expect lawyers to be able to get justice for their clients. We expect rabbis to be spiritually uplifting and help us with our life struggles. Do we expect too much of ourselves? Or, what about the opposite: are we too dependent on God?
As a clarinet player, I was always instructed to practice like I wanted to perform. That way when it was time to perform it would feel as if I was just practicing. Or, if we practice like we want to perform we might be able to actually hit that note perfectly every single time we play. What about that football kicker that practices the same 35 yard field goal over and over…hitting it every time? Then, he gets to the game and misses the 25 yard field goal. How do you explain that? Is it only up to us? Is there luck involved? Is it God’s design that we have some limited control on our outcomes?
Rabbi Lebow has brilliantly expressed to us over the past 10 days that sometimes we just have what we have. Other times we must remember how lucky we are to have what we have. And, there are other times when we are not able to realize what we have. If good things happen, we often say, “Baruch HaShem,” or “Thank God.” However, what about when bad things happen? Do we dare say, “How dare you God?” “God, why did YOU let this happen?” Rest assured my family, I think it is extremely important to thank God for the blessings we have in our lives and even to thank God for the opportunities to learn and grow when we make mistakes or bad things happen. It is also ok to be angry at God…after all, being angry at God is still being in communication with God.
However, the point is that WE are also a part of this. Remember the Brit between God and Abraham? God created the world and has always expected us to play an equal part. If we assume God is the only player – what is our purpose? Are we to just sit back and let things happen without any input or without having an impact? I think not. I believe it is vital for us to realize our own impact on the world around us. I also believe it is possible to believe in B’sheret, “fate,” while at the same time believing in free will.
Yes, as humans we make mistakes. We fail. WE fail. Let me repeat that again – WE FAIL. I know…if we are in partnership with God, than what part does God play in our failings? Where is God when bad things happen? When a doctor loses a patient…is it only the doctor’s fault? Or does God have a part in that? What about when that same field goal kicker hits a record breaking field goal? He points to the heavens and thanks God. Did God kick the field goal? What part did the kicker play?
These are some difficult questions my friends. No one ever said religion was easy. Heck - there is not much in life that is easy. What is essential is that we realize and recognize how important we are AND how central God is in our lives. I can hear it now – Rabbi, what about those who do not believe in God? Where do the Atheists fit in this equation? What about someone who believes in something, maybe God, but is not sure – you know the Agnostics? Let me take a small break from my sermon to address this:
Here is my opinion – I believe Agnostics are not so different from me. After all, I am, even today on my own religious and ideological journey. I am certainly not in the same place I was a year ago, and I am sure I will not be in the same place next year. There have been times in my life in which I was not sure of what God is or was. But, I did believe in something. I guess you might say that sometimes I would call myself a Jewish agnostic!
As far as the Atheists go – well, I have said this before and I will say it again. Atheists do believe in something. Nothing is by definition something – the lack of something. Therefore, I can say that even those of us who are more agnostic or those of us who are less agnostic…there may have been times when we also were Atheists…maybe confused Atheists, but Atheists none the less. I am sure there are some of you out there who disagree with me…after all, this is a Synagogue. However, nothing that I write or say is meant to judge. I believe the TKE tent is big enough for all of us – no matter where we stand in our beliefs.
Ok, back to the crux of my sermon. Throughout the Jewish year, we are constantly hearing about and studying a variety of stories and topics. What I can say for sure is that every class I have taught at some point brings us back to a few realizations: 1) The Bible and all Jewish sacred texts have different meanings for every one of us; 2) Everyone has the right to be a part of the conversation, regardless of their individual beliefs; and 3) Whenever we find THE answer to anything, we will find it extremely difficult proving ourselves or getting others to agree! That’s the nature of being Jewish in the 21st century!
In the beginning of this sermon, I read a letter written to God. Well, you know what? That letter was written by someone other than me. You might be surprised to know who wrote the letter. Jonah. Yep, that’s right. The same Jonah that traditional synagogues read and study on Yom Kippur…the same Jonah we will be studying later today. The same Jonah that every young person knows: the story of the whale swallowing Jonah after he is cast into the ocean. You see, Jonah was a prophet who was sent to prophesy in the name of God, and not just the one time in the Book of Jonah we all know and love. Actually, Jonah, according to one Midrash, was sent 3 times to prophesy in the name of God. It was in the Book of Jonah, the third time, in which he struggled with his required prophetic responsibility. When he first was asked to do so – prior to this story, back in the book of 2 Kings – he did so without any question.
According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, an aggadic-midrashic work on the TaNaKh, Jonah’s arrogance and fear of being regarded negatively caused him to run away from God’s command:
Why did he run away? The first time, God sent him to restore the territory of Israel and His word was fulfilled, as it is stated: ‘He [Jeroboam II] restored the territory of Israel from Lebo-hamath [in accordance with the promise that the Lord…made through His servant,…Jonah son of Ammitai]’ (2 Kings 14:25). The second time, He sent him to Jerusalem to destroy it. Because [its people] repented, the Holy One Blessed be He acted in accordance with His great mercy and repented of His fatal intention and did not destroy it. Thus Israel called him a ‘false prophet.’ The third time, He sent him to Nineveh. Jonah reasoned with himself, saying, “I know that this nation is quick to repent. Now they will repent, and the Holy One Blessed be He will dispatch His anger against Israel. Is it not enough that Israel calls me a false prophet, but idol-worshippers will do so as well! I shall run away instead…” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 10)
The mystery of the story of Jonah is not so different from the mysteries and struggles we face every day. When we find ourselves in troubled times, it is easy to curl up on our beds, cover our heads with our blankets and hide from what might be the inevitable. Other times, we may find ourselves embracing what will be…and still other times we rise up to make change. Sometimes we succeed…and other times we do not. What does this all mean? Well, I believe the message Jonah finally understands from God applies to us as well. And, although the message is not always easy to hear or accept, it is right in front of us: Sometimes all we can do is enough and sometimes it is not. It is during those times when we feel it is not enough that we must work even harder to try to understand – maybe not the outcome or the result. What we must try to understand is how we can and will continue our lives from that point.
The end of 5772 to the beginning of 5774 has brought a lot of great moments…and many challenges for us. It is my hope that we can learn from this that just when we think we know all the answers, it is time to take a deep breath and relax. Shabbat comes every week – are we doing enough to appreciate the Sabbath? Do we find ourselves overworking or just doing enough to get by? My friends, when you find yourselves in your darkest moments, find someone to share the burdens. When you find yourselves in your highest moments, share with someone else…we have to do this together. After all, as a family we love, cry, celebrate and mourn together.
5774 brings to us so much possibility: may we move forward with every intention to improve upon ourselves, sharing our successes, our happy moments, and even our darkest moment with each other, and let us always remember God’s presence even if we do not appreciate it. We may not always appreciate or even admit that God is there with us, but it is important nonetheless to have a relationship with God…regardless of whether it is a “good” or “bad” relationship.
My dear TKE family – my wish for each of us is that we are able to find our own personal Dayenu this year. May we be inspired by something greater this year…and may this inspiration be contagious, affecting every one of us here today. G’mar Hatima Tovah – May each of you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a wonderful and healthy 5774!