The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Responsibility, Humility, Gratitude (Kol Nidre sermon)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation 
Kol Nidre 5773/2012
Responsibility, Humility, Gratitude

“I have come to report,” said Tevye the carpenter to the funeral director, “that my wife has died, and I wish to make arrangements for her burial.” 
“But how can that be?” asked the funeral director. “We buried your wife two years ago.”
“Oh, that was my first wife,” said Tevye, “and now my second wife, too, has died.”
“Pardon me,” said the funeral director, “I didn’t know you had remarried. Mazel tov!”
~adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore
ed. Nathan Ausubel, p. 301

It’s a somewhat dark and uncomfortable joke, in the long Jewish tradition of laughter through tears. The inept funeral director becomes the punchline. Or, if we can be more generous, he’s making an attempt, however feeble, to find some joy in grief.

I imagine we can all relate to one or both characters in this little tale. One who experiences loss after loss; the other, faced with the bereaved, tongue-tied at how to respond.

We humans have always struggled to understand suffering, grief, loss, mortality; we ache to know why -- Why me? Why this innocent person? Why do I deserve this? Why would God allow this to happen?

Philosophers and theologians give this aching a name: the Problem of Evil. It goes like this: 
If God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, then how can there be evil in the world? So either one of these premises is wrong -- and God is not all three -- or there’s something wrong with how we define “evil,” as in, perhaps what we call evil is part of God’s grand, mysterious plan for good.

Jewish tradition grapples with this problem, too. In my summer course, we studied several biblical approaches, two of which I’ll comment on today. Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) offer different responses to this problem of evil, to the question why bad things happen to good people, and how to live in response.

Job is probably the most famous of the Bible’s approaches to this question. Told as a fable, it’s a story of a righteous man who becomes a guinea pig in an argument between God and The Accuser. “Sure, he’s pious,” says the Accuser in the divine assembly -- “He lives a blessed, happy, wealthy life! Take that away, and he’ll curse You, God.”

Stunningly, the God of this tale allows the test to proceed. Through a series of catastrophes, Job’s children are killed or murdered, his fortune taken, his livestock stolen or slaughtered, his entire body afflicted with a burning skin rash. And Job doesn’t curse or reject God. But he does question God, and he calls God to account for what befell him. “Indeed, I would speak to the Almighty,” he says. “I insist on arguing with God” (Job 13:3).

In a misguided effort to comfort him, Job’s friends offer him a lengthy theology lesson -- just what a grieving person wants to hear. They utter such gems as, “Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed?” (Job 4:7). “Will God pervert the right? Will the Almighty pervert justice? If your children sinned against Him, He dispatched them for their crime” (Job 8:3).

In other words, if some ill befalls you, you must have done something to deserve it. This distasteful theology is alive and well today, in some corners of the Jewish and broader world, and even in our High Holiday prayers. It echoes the early biblical view that obedience is rewarded, and wickedness punished, in the here and now. But most of us, myself included, can’t stomach this view. It leads to such detestable conclusions as, the Holocaust happened because Jews disobeyed God.

As it turns out, the God of Job also dislikes this simplistic theology. After Job’s so-called friends waste their breath trying to convince him that he must deserve his misery, God finally intervenes. First, God rebuts Job’s accusations:
Then Adonai answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge? ...I will ask and you will inform Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. (Job 38:1-4)
God puts Job and us in our place by contrasting us -- small, mortal, limited -- with the infinite mystery of the universe. Thereafter, Job does teshuva. He recants and repents, turning to God’s wisdom.

As the Book of Job concludes, we learn that God is angry at all of Job’s two-bit theology-peddling friends. It is Job, and only Job, who has acted rightly and spoken rightly of God. God rewards Job and restores his wealth because of both of Job’s reactions: initially, Job’s demand for an explanation of the misery that befell him from a God who claims to rule in justice and mercy; and second, Job’s admission of ignorance when facing the Eternal Creator. Job maintained his integrity and humanity by reacting in both of these two ways. The lesson for us is to strive for those two ideals: responsibility, on the one hand, to take a stand when the universe operates unjustly; and humility, on the other hand, to acknowledge that we can never have all the answers, or be fully in control.

If those were the only two attributes -- responsibility and humility -- for us to strive to nurture in ourselves, we’d be missing out on a vital element of the human condition: joy. 

And so enter Kohelet, a book whose very inclusion in the Bible the Rabbis questioned, because of its radical worldview. Kohelet looks out on the world, and observes. Unlike Job’s friends -- who insist simplistically and naively that the innocent flourish while the wicked suffer; and unlike even Job, who sees the injustice in the world, and stands up against a willful deity to demand an accounting -- unlike both of them, Kohelet sees the injustice in the world, but responds with utter resignation. “If you see in a province,” Kohelet says, “oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and right, don’t wonder at the matter” (Koh 5:7). And furthermore:
I have also observed under the sun that The race is not won by the swift, Nor the battle by the valiant; Nor is bread won by the wise, Nor wealth by the intelligent, Nor favor by the learned. For the time of mishap comes to all. (Koh 9:11)
Anyone can watch the news today, or observe one’s own family and circle of friends, and see the plain truth of Kohelet’s observation. But Kohelet meets this reality with resignation. “The Problem of Evil? Sure, I see it. So now what?” Kohelet’s solution is a recurring theme of the book:
Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy... Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun — all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. (Koh 9:7-9)
More famously: eat, drink, and be merry. The message is about making the best out of the hand you’re dealt. Some critics of Kohelet claim that it advocates hedonism, the selfish pursuit of pleasure. While merriment can cross the line into self-indulgence, there is a sacred aspect to joy as well.

A story to explain what I mean: One of the rites of passage of all Hebrew Union College rabbinic students is the Modern Jewish Thought course with Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz. Now in his late 80s, he is a giant of Jewish theology, one of the most important and prolific voices of the 20th century, and today. For our final exam, our task was to come prepared as a class to ask him our burning questions. Since we had covered the Problem of Evil during the semester, we asked him: In your opinion, what is the most compelling response to the Problem of Evil? We thought he would rattle off his preferred theology, some kind of intellectual answer. But he said: “Being grateful everyday for my health.”

This was truly a great teacher at work: we expected a theological solution, he gave us an experiential truth. Enjoyment is holy when it acknowledges blessedness, when it’s tethered to gratitude.

Responsibility, humility, gratitude -- three lessons of Job and Kohelet, three ingredients for living a balanced human life even in the face of uncertainty, loss, and pain.

*   *   *

A few months ago, I got a call from Hospice of the Valley. A local woman, whom I’ll call Sarah, had survived cancer for a few years, but now she’d reached a point where she couldn’t fight it anymore. Surgeons had removed as much of the tumor as they could, but it grew back aggressively, within weeks. The family wanted a rabbi to meet with her, as she neared the end, to start making plans -- the kind of plans about which all of us would prefer to stay in blissful ignorance, but that we must all face, someday.

I met with her twice, just before she died. Even in those last days, as weak and frail as her body was, she still had a glimmer in her eye, and managed a gentle crack about how young I look, for a rabbi. Sarah’s two adult sons were there with her, and it was in their presence, I realized, that this three-part lesson of our tradition was exemplified -- responsibility, humility, and gratitude.

They felt responsible. 
Both sons had taken significant time off work to be Sarah’s full-time caregivers alongside the hospice nurses. They wanted to make sure personally that their mother was cared for at the end as deeply as only they could do. They wanted to do their part to ease her pain. They told me: “Our mom taught us by example that you do everything you can to take care of your family. That’s how she treated us. How could we not be here to do the same for her?”

They were humble.
They didn’t pretend that they could fix anything. Prayer and medical science had done all they could toward a cure. Now was the time for comfort, and a deeper healing. They accepted the mystery of disease, mortality, and pain heroically and hopefully.

They were grateful.
They recalled happy and funny memories, stories of sibling rivalries, inside jokes, all the special stuff of family. They showed me a picture of their mother, only a few months before the end, dancing with abandon in her living room. It exhausted her, what with the chemo, but she had to dance, shout, smile, and clap. Her sons gave thanks for the joy they shared with her. The younger son, who was engaged, got married in a civil ceremony at Sarah’s bedside. How thankful they all were that Sarah could witness that celebration.

Responsibility, humility, gratitude.

Responsibility means choosing life, love, relationship -- even in the face of death and loss. It means avoiding the resignation of Kohelet, and not letting the inevitability of suffering numb us to the pain of the sufferer, or distract us from our duty to help soften it.

Humility means cultivating the honest humanity of Job, to know how much we don’t know. It means accepting that bad things will happen to the best of us, to the least deserving, to those we love the most, and we will never understand why.

Gratitude means giving thanks for blessings when we have them, for health and family, friends and community. It means cherishing moments of joy, and taking the good with the bad, whatever may come.

In 5773:

When confronted with the mystery of why bad things befall good people, may we be humble enough to say, I don’t know.

When we face suffering that can be prevented or alleviated, may we feel responsible enough to say, I must act. 

And when we find ourselves lucky enough to eat, drink, and rejoice, even for fleeting moments, may we feel grateful enough to say, Thank you.

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