Thursday, September 27, 2012

Choosing the Right Path and Getting the Wrong Result

Choosing the Right Path and Getting the Wrong Result
Sermon for Yom Kippur Day 2012-5773
Rabbi David Kaufman

In the 1973 movie, Sleeper, starring Woody Allen, a man, Miles Monroe, awakens 200 years in the future. His doctors discuss his care when he wakes up:

Dr. Melik: Well, he's fully recovered, except for a few minor kinks.
Dr. Agon: Has he asked for anything special?
Dr. Melik: Yes, this morning for breakfast. He requested something called wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.
Dr. Agon: [laughs] Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances...That some years ago Were felt to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies? Or hot fudge?
Dr. Agon: Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
Miles Monroe: Where am I anyhow, I mean, what happened to everybody, where are all my friends?
Dr. Aragon: You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly two hundred years.
Miles Monroe: But they all ate organic rice! 

Woody Allen poked fun at the things that we do to try to stay healthy. He thought that people would find it funny, as we do, if the foods we consider today to be terrible for us turn out instead to be good for us. Many of us work very hard to keep ourselves healthy…some of us, not so much.

Few of us live like Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru who died at age 96 last January, would have wanted us to live, but then again there is only one Jack LaLanne. For those here who do not know about him, Jack LaLanne was the guru of fitness in America for most of the latter half of the 20th century. He created the jumping Jack. Yes, it is named after Jack LaLanne. For those of us who have difficulty doing one, much less ten, twenty, or fifty pushups; at age 43, in 1957, Jack did over 1,000 pushups in 23 minutes while on the television show, “You asked for it.” He worked out two hours a day, every day. Jack LaLanne believed that we could control our health, entirely. Yet while few of us live like Jack LaLanne, none of us IS Jack LaLanne.

We try to work out regularly. We run, walk, swim and bike. We eat organic. We diet. We play tennis and golf. We do not smoke or if we do, we work hard to quit. We take our medicines and follow the things that our doctors tell us to do. Yet too often in spite of our best efforts, illness strikes.

I wrote in my recent bulletin article about how as I look back on the year that has just passed, I am struck by the many health challenges faced by people in my life over the past year and a little more, no few of which are ongoing.

Some of these individuals inspire me just by walking through the door of the Temple; the very act a reminder of their inner strength and our human ability to overcome. Others have not been so fortunate as to be given the chance for healing, but have shown tremendous power of the spirit in facing their illnesses, inspiring many others. This year, I sat at all too many bedsides, offering words of prayer and comfort, holding hands, hugging shuddering shoulders, eyes filled with tears.

What does one say, when the question is an existential one, “Why?” Why is this bad thing happening to me? To her? To him? Why now? Even more specifically, why in spite of efforts to do all of the right things? Sometimes even when we choose the right path, we get the wrong result. That is what I would like to talk with you about today.

I will begin with a look at Fundamentalist ideas of reward and punishment, then at challenges to the idea that God punishes at all. Finally, I would like to talk about what is perhaps the hardest thing for us to address, the idea of not being in complete control of what happens in life.

Fundamentalist Ideas

On Yom Kippur, we are particularly mindful of our vulnerabilities, our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and our failings. The Torah uses the terms “blessing” and “curse” in describing the good things and bad things that happen to us.

We read in the book of Deuteronomy:

When all these things befall you, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which Adonai your God has banished you, and you repent to Adonai your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all of your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then Adonai your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.

The Deuteronomists, those who authored the Book of Deuteronomy and edited parts of the Book of Joshua as well, believed that whatever befalls us in our lives occurs because God blesses us or because God curses us. Everything that happens according to this belief happens because God wills it to happen. It is the philosophy that has guided traditional Jewish thought for generation after generation. It continues to form the basis of Orthodox Jewish thought today with some modification for free will, and is prominently found among Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Taken together, the belief that God either blesses us or curses us and the belief that God is always just, leads to the conclusion that God rewards only the righteous and punishes only the wicked. Blessings that are in our lives are rewards for our righteousness. Curses are punishments for our misdeeds. Therefore, if curses are present in our lives, according to this philosophy, it is because we have sinned.

Many of those who are suffering feel a need to seek out the reason why. Just as Job’s “friends” did in the Book of Job, there is an assumption that suffering must be deserved. In ancient times, suffering and sin went hand in hand to the point that in the story of Hagar and Sarah, Hagar is said to look down upon Sarah because Sarah was barren. It was not merely a reflection of problematic physiology, but of her sinfulness. God was punishing her.

Some take this kind of thought to an extreme, arguing that floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and other major natural disasters are the result of sinfulness, the disasters occurring as punishment by God. Our tradition, Reform Judaism, finds this idea offensive. We do not feel compelled to explain why God did these things.

For fundamentalists, who believe that God causes all things to happen, there must be reason why God made this happen or allowed it to happen. They ask, “What did these people do, what did we do, to deserve this?” No answer to that question is appropriate in my mind and I am sure that the vast majority of you, if not all of you, would agree with me. The problem is not the answer, but the question itself.

I have spoken and written about this many times in the past, but it never hurts to mention that the belief that blessings and curses are bestowed upon us by God for what we, ourselves, have done in our lives is already an advancement over the previous theodicy, the belief about divine justice, that is found in the book of Numbers, chapter 14. There we find:

Adonai, slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the sins of the fathers unto the children, unto the third and fourth generations!!!

According to this philosophy, righteous people are indeed punished!!! Not for their own actions, but for the misdeeds of their ancestors! How did anyone come up with this idea? Well…the basic concept is the same one that underlies the Avot v’Imahot prayer that we say in every service. In that prayer, we ask God to bless us because of the righteous actions of our ancestors. It must be assumed for that to happen that we could also be cursed as well.

The idea that we may be punished for the sins of ancestors is a reasonable explanation for why bad things happen to good people. It explains why the righteous might suffer. The problem is that this kind of god would be unjust and vindictive, taking vengeance upon innocents who had nothing to do with the action taken. A good and just God would not do this.

By the time that the book of Deuteronomy was written, it seems that the belief that God would punish descendants for the behavior of ancestors had ended. Now, blessings and curses were considered to be rewards and punishments for one’s own actions. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, when bad things happen to us it is because we ourselves deserve them.

Challenges to Fundamentalism

The problem is that where the earlier philosophy explained why bad things happen to good people, by putting the blame for punishment on ancestors, the philosophy as found in Deuteronomy does not. Deuteronomy argues that bad things simply do not happen to good people. If something bad happens to someone, they must deserve it. The righteous are never punished, because that would be unjust and God is always just.

This brings us to one of the first real challenges to the Deuteronomic idea of reward and punishment, the Book of Job. In Job, Job’s friends, people who know him to be an exemplary person, argue that the curses befalling him must be happening because God was punishing him for his sins. Job must have done something wrong about which they did not know. God would not punish a righteous man. Therefore, the path they saw for Job was to admit his failings and perhaps then God would withdraw the punishment.

The one thing that the story tells us to be true beyond any doubt is that Job is righteous. God tests Job to prove a point to Satan about just how righteous Job is. While the author tells a story that tries to explain why Job is suffering, the reader knows all along that Job is a righteous person who is being punished. How could this be? A just God, who is all powerful and all seeing, cannot punish the just, even if intending to reward later.

However, we have all seen innocents suffer. The story of Job rings all too true for us. The problem remains. A just god would not punish the innocent for the sins of others, nor would such a god allow the righteous to be punished if it were possible to prevent it. This day, during which the written prayers seek mercy and compassion from God in order to turn away punishment, we should remind ourselves that the view of God as judge and arbiter is not the only one provided by our tradition.

The 23rd Psalm holds a much different explanation for why bad things happen to good people and offers a different view of God’s role in relation to human suffering.

When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—or to translate the idiom more appropriately, “the darkest valley”,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me,
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

The 23rd Psalm, though we recite it during the funeral liturgy, is not about death. It is about those times when we find ourselves in a dark valley, where we might easily be afraid. Therein, when we cannot see the light ahead, the psalm reminds us that Adonai is our shepherd, watching over us, that God will not let us get lost, and that God will lead us to green pastures and to tranquil waters. Even when we find ourselves in the most awful places in life, we shall fear no evil because God is with us.

In the 23rd Psalm, there is no request for God to simply lift us from the valley into the light, nor is that expected. The God of Psalm 23 helps us to face the difficulties that we will encounter along the way, like a loved one holding your hand during a time of illness and pain. This God does not curse us, nor does this God have the power to remove our curses.

At this time of year, we call God, “Avinu,” “Our Father.” We ask God to treat us like a loving parent, with compassion and mercy. The God of the 23rd Psalm takes care of us like a parent with a sick child, loving, embracing us, aching out of helplessness, yearning to bring us to a better place, to bring us through the tough times. And like a parent, all the while calming our fears. God can not remove us from our darkest valleys, but like a parent, God can help us feel better as we walk through them.

Control over fate

Growing up, we are taught that our actions affect how we are treated. If we perform well in school, we receive good grades. If we behave at home, our parents will be happier and perhaps give us things that we want to have. If we are nice to our friends, they will be nice to us. We would like this pattern to continue on as we get older in all our relationships in life and many times we act as if this is the way things work.

We believe that if we eat healthy and live healthy, exercising and avoiding problematic things, that we will live forever or at least much longer and much happier. We do not bat an eyelash when we hear that someone who is battling issues with weight or smokes or drinks a lot tells us that they are suffering health consequences. But what of the marathon runner who has diabetes? I know at least one.

We are to an extent like the friends of Job. We would like to find answers that fit with our preconceived notions of how the universe works. God, in our tradition, brings order to chaos. We expect to find order. We do not like chaos.

We read the first verses of the creation story incorrectly:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being tohu va-vohu, all chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep. The spirit of God swept over the surface of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.

Nowhere are we told that all of the chaos was transformed into order, only that all that there was in the beginning was chaos. Some chaos remains. And nowhere are we told that all of the darkness was transformed into light, only that light appeared in the midst of the darkness.

If we are able to live our lives like Jack LaLanne, we will most likely live healthier lives than we might otherwise. We can bring some order to chaos, but we cannot forget that tohu vavohu are still around. Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

There are times when we may choose the right path, following it diligently, and nonetheless receive the wrong result because of something completely unforeseen or perhaps because the path that gets us closest to where we want to go, may not get us all the way there.

In the past year alone, more than one friend who never smoked a cigarette has recently found himself facing lung cancer. Most of us know of the challenges faced by a member of our congregation who went kayaking, fell terribly ill, and is now a famous face of health care reform. The young child of a colleague is facing leukemia. Tohu va-vohu.

We are not in full control. We realize that on this day, the Day of Atonement, perhaps more than we do on any other day. Whether we believe that God has influence in what happens to us or not, we know that we are not able to lift ourselves from all of those dark valleys, nor avoid wandering into a few in the first place. This day, we hope to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and healthy year, but we know that not all of us, in spite of our best efforts, will be so inscribed and it frightens us. Not that we doubt our worthiness, but that we doubt our ability to control what happens.

This day, we acknowledge both that we have the ability to influence the direction of our lives, to make teshuva, to turn to the right path, and that some things are beyond our control and that we hope for mercy and compassion when we face them.

We may not be able to avoid entering valleys in our lives, but we do have some say as to how we go about journeying through them. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is with us in our dark valleys, but others may also be there with us, giving us strength as well. It is my hope that I may be there alongside you with a caring presence at a bedside, with a word or a hug. I am always available for you and your loved ones, any day, any time of day.

And let us gain strength from one another in our congregation. Let us, each of us, reach out and help those in need in any way that we can, whether it is by giving blood, by donating money, by giving a hug, by calling or visiting those touched by illness or sorrow and letting them know that we are thinking about them. This is what being a part of a congregation and a community is truly about, offering and finding friendship and support, being there for one another.

May we ever help to bring true the words of Psalm 30 that we find during the concluding service today, “You have turned my grief into dancing, released me from my anguish, and surrounded me with gladness. Adonai, my God, I shall give thanks to you forever.”
Kein Yehi Ratson. May it be God’s will. Good Yom Tov.

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