Intro: Each year I give one sermon that is repeated in all of our three main services. This one was offered at Walt Whitman on the first day of Rosh Hashanah; with some improvements it is the same sermon and anyone who is somehow here who was there should feel free to take a break and return in 15-20 minutes for the conclusion of the service.
This sermon is mostly about God, a little about us too. It comes out of the biggest question we ask about God – why do bad things happen to good people? Why do they? One of those bad things is dying. Now people die all the time. 2000 WWII vets every day for example. And loved ones of many sitting here today have been lost in the last year or two. But sometimes the deaths are really hard to deal with and make us ask the difficult question, and that has happened too often around here of late and is the catalyst for this sermon.
Within a few feet of each other on the hillside in the Beth El section of the Garden of Remembrance Cemetery in Clarksburg are four graves, two just filled and two filled within the last 18 months. There lie the remains of Karen Dubin (age 54. run over by a truck jogging near the Pentagon on her lunch hour Pesach 2012), Fancine Lanar (died within days of her 60th, long battle with cancer lost that same spring), Ann Kaplan (age 50, her short fight with cancer over this past spring) and Mindy Davis (51, her struggle with cancer lasted longer than Ann’s but had the same sorry result later in the spring). Each death was a wrenching one for the family and for our community, and each time questions about God followed immediately. In times of tragedy, those questions almost always arise. And this time of year, when we think about God and religion more than 2any other time, the same kinds of questions arise. Why did God let that truck run over Karen? Why didn’t God help the doctors cure Fancine Ann or Mindy? What good were all our prayers and misheberach’s? Friends, there is usually no good answer when bad things happen to good people, which is why it’s been a question since Job in the time of the Bible thousands of years ago. I do not think that God causes one person to get cancer and another not, it’s usually just fate/ bad (or good) luck, and while I don’t think God drove that truck into Karen I also don’t think God can stop a speeding truck or a speeding bullet. What then CAN God do, especially when we need God the most? That is a fair enough question. What I want to propose today for us to consider – with help from colleague Harold Kushner who wrote the book on this and has written more about it lately – is a new way of understanding what God CAN DO. In the process, I think we will learn also what God’s partners, that is us, can do. But first a little context for this understanding.
Let me ask you a question: Why are we here today? That may strike you as a strange thing to ask. We’re here because today is Yom Kippur. For those of us whose lives are strongly shaped by the Jewish calendar, today is the most profoundly spiritual day of the entire year. We can’t imagine not being here. For those whose lives are less dominated by the rhythms of the Jewish year, coming to shul on Yom Kippur is the least we can do to declare ourselves Jewish. Mordecai Kaplan used to describe the attendance of people like that as “observing the yahrzeit of their parents’ religion.” So I understand why we all make a point of being here on Yom Kippur. But why is Yom Kippur/ The Day of Atonement, on the day it is, the 10th
We understand why Passover comes on the first full moon of the spring, because that’s the anniversary of the Israelites leaving Egypt – note that it made sense for them to 3leave Egypt by night on a full mooon, lacking headlights on their SUV’s. We understand why the Shavuot festival comes seven weeks later, because that is the traditional date on which the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. We celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar because it was on that date that the Jews of Persia were saved. Rosh HaShanah comes on the first day of the first month of the fall, 1st of Tishri, because that is a logical time to start a New Year – much more logical than early January. But what is special about the 10th of Tishri that it was chosen for YK? What does that date commemorate?
Rather than admit that YK is a holy day whose date of observance was chosen arbitrarily, the Sages employ some creative mathematics and calculate that, after the Israelites offended God by fashioning and worshipping a Golden Calf while Moses was still on Mt. Sinai, and after God scolded them for it and Moses had to plead on their behalf, it was on the 10th of Tishri that God was persuaded to forgive the people. Therefore the 10th of Tishri became the great High Holy Day of forgiveness and making a fresh start. Let ‘s recall those moments. If you remember the biblical story of the Golden Calf – one of my favorites – the people got restless while Moses was on the mountaintop. Moses represented a visible symbol of God’s presence in their midst, and without him, they felt abandoned. So they coerce the High Priest Aaron to build them a statue of a calf (it was probably a bull) to represent the presence of God in their midst. Meanwhile Moses is atop Mt. Sinai, where God gives him the tablets of the Ten Commandments, inscribed by God on stone, and Moses starts down the mountain. He is confident that the people will be so impressed by what God has done for them, not only freeing them from slavery but telling them how to guide their lives in freedom, that they 4will be God’s faithful people forever. Halfway down the mountain, he hears the sound of singing and celebration. He looks down and sees what they are doing, worshipping the Golden Calf hours after they had promised God not to worship idols (or more precisely, not to worship God in the form of a person or other living creature). Moses is so chagrined, so disappointed, that he throws the tablets to the ground and they shatter. Friends, that could have been the end of the story, not just the story of the Golden Calf; it could have been the end of the Jewish people as a people consecrated to God. Except that Moses intervened. God says to the people, “This is how you treat Me after all I’ve done for you? You want to march through the desert to the Promised Land, go ahead, but I won’t be with you. You could have been a special people, a light unto the nations, but you settled for being like everybody else.” Moses has to intervene to plead the people’s case before God. He reminds God that just a few weeks ago, these people lived in Egypt, their lives and minds shaped by the Egyptian way of doing things, a way of life in which nothing was deemed real unless you could see it and touch it. Your kind of God, God, that we cannot see or touch, is not easy for them. And God relents and gives Israel another chance. God then invites Moses up the mountain a second time, and there He utters a verse that the Sages considered so important that it’s recited six times in the course of Yom Kippur. Adonai Adonai El rahum v’hanun, erech apayim v’rav hesed v’emet… – I am the Lord God, merciful and compassionate, patient, loving and forgiving, promising My love until the last generation, forgiving transgressions and pardoning. In plain language, God is saying – and please listen carefully – “Understand what I really am. I am not a God who metes out reward and punishment, evaluating prayers 5 and deciding which ones deserve to be granted. That is what human rulers do. Rather, I am a God of second chances. I help people so that they don’t repeat next year the same mistakes they made last year. Even more, I help people in difficulty, not by making their path smooth and easy but by holding their hand as they walk a difficult path. I help them not by taking away their problems but by giving them qualities they didn’t believe they were capable of, so that they can deal with the problems themselves. They themselves become the answer to their prayer.”
And when the Israelites heard those words – HaShem HaShem etc. – on the 10th of Tishri so many years ago, they realized they had not lost their connection to God after all. They had outgrown a childish notion of God, one that was never really true to begin with, and replaced it with a more realistic one, a demanding God (sure) who was also 1) a God of forgiveness and 2)a help in time of difficulty. A God of second chances. Let’s talk closer to home now, about our own concept of God. We need to learn what our ancestors learned on that 10th of Tishri. I remember a story I heard years ago, about a husband and wife going out to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary with dinner at a fancy restaurant. Leaving the restaurant, they get into their car to drive home, and the wife turns to her husband and says, “What’s happened to us over the years? Do you remember when we were courting, when we were first married, we’d get into the car and we’d snuggle up next to each other and drive home holding each other? Now look how far apart we’re sitting.” And the husband points to the steering wheel and says, “I haven’t moved.”
Can we apply that story to what has happened to us as Jews over the years? Maybe when we come to shul today, we no longer feel that sense of awe we felt when we were young, when coming (here) made us feel so close to a God who would watch over 6us if we deserved it. Most of us don’t feel that any more. But God tries to tell us, “I haven’t moved. I’m still the same God, but you’ve shed some fairy tale notions you used to believe about Me – which is fine – but you have not replaced them with an understanding of who I really am. That’s where that sense of emptiness comes from.” But, if we are lucky, we will find ourselves open to a more realistic concept of God, one not based on wishful thinking, not a God who controls everything and can be bribed and bargained with, not a God Who can prevent tragedies and tragic deaths like we here have experienced of late, not that, but a God who gives us the qualities of soul, the strength and the resilience to deal with life as it really is, not a God who promises to reward us for obedience but a God who promises to be with us no matter what we do and no matter what happens to us that we don’t deserve. A God of second chances. That is God to whom we, in our times, can relate. Now, let me apply this understanding of God to two real life issues; these will be my proof texts and the bulk of what remains in this sermon.
ISSUE ONE resonates with where I began this talk, bad things happening to good people: Rabbi Kushner, almost at the end of his book, shares a dialogue with a congregant that illustrates this way of understanding God and religion, and human tragedy. A young widow challenged R. Kushner about the efficacy of prayer and religion. Her husband had died of cancer, and she told Kushner that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery. Her parents, her in laws, and her neighbors all prayed. A Protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes. Every variety, language, and idiom of prayer was mustered on his behalf, and none of them worked. He died right on schedule, leaving 7 her and her young children bereft of a husband and father. After all that, she said to him, how can anyone be expected to take prayer or religion seriously? Is it really true, Kushner asked her, that your prayers were not answered? Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness. But what did happen? Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, Protestants prayed. At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all. You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing. They were trying to tell you that this was not happening to you because you were a bad person. It was just a rotten, unfair thing that no one could help. They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too not only to you and your children, and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone. That is what their prayers were saying, and I suspect that it made a difference. And what about your prayers? Kushner asked her. Were they left unanswered? You faced a situation that easily could have broken your spirit, a situation that could’ve left you a bitter, withdrawn woman, jealous of the intact families around you, incapable of responding to the promise of being alive. Somehow that did not happen, somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken. You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things. Like Jacob in the Bible, like everyone of us at one time or another, you faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, then you ever would have thought you were. In your desperation, you opened your heart to God and what happened? You did not get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy. I offer that, Kushner concludes, as an example of a prayer being answered, of religion working, of God giving us 8 resources, sticking with us, giving us a chance to live again. God our help in time of difficulty.
APPLICATION TWO flows from the same understanding, is maybe more about us and what God wants us to model that flows from God as now understood. Let me apply this different concept of God – the God of Second Chances Who can’t fix everything or heal everyone but gives us resources and forgives us (that is key to this second application) and sticks with us – to one particular piece of our lives that sooner or later almost all of us face. What happens when people in our lives fail us, or disappoint us, as often will happen, and our relationship is broken or on the verge of breaking? The saga of the Golden Calf, God’s anger at the people, Moses’ intervention and God’s forgiveness raise an interesting question: when something breaks, something that was precious to us, is it ever possible to put it together again so that it’s as good as new? It would be nice to think that a God of second chances would make that possible, but the answer seems to be, No, you can’t. It will never be the same. But what a God of second chances does make possible is that you will end up with something in its place that will be even stronger and better than the original. It’s like the saying attributed to Hemingway, “Sooner or later, life breaks us all, and we heal stronger at the broken places.” I read about a Rabbi in Los Angeles who died a few years ago. His name was Rabbi Levi Meir. He was an Orthodox Rabbi and a licensed psychotherapist, and he specialized in counseling Orthodox families who came to him with their family issues. When a couple would come to him and tell him of problems in their marriage, problems with their children, he would tell them the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. He would describe how Moses was coming down from Mt. Sinai carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments written by the hand of God Himself. When he saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses gave up on them. He gave up the hope of ever seeing them become the people he had hoped they would be. So he threw the tablets to the ground and they shattered. Then, after the people realized what a serious thing they had done, God tells Moses He’s going to give Israel a second chance. He tells him to go back up the mountain for a replacement set of tablets, and this time (this is the key to the story), God would inspire him but Moses himself would write the words on the stones. Rabbi Meir would tell the couple he was counseling that the original tablets written by God symbolize perfection, even as God is perfect. But perfection is too much to expect of human beings. So God told Moses to fashion a replacement set, representing the will of God as crafted by a human being, subject to interpretation by other human beings. The new ones would demand the maximum but leave room for human frailty and imperfection. And those were the tablets that accompanied the Israelites on their journey.
Then Levi Meir would say to the couple, “When you married each other, it felt so perfect. You looked forward to the future being perfect forever. You would love each other and make each other happy every day of your lives. You would have children who would make you proud and never disappoint you. Then the first time you have a serious argument, the first time you hurt or disappoint each other, that’s the crack in the first set of tablets. That’s the loss of the dream of perfection. Now the challenge facing you is, Can you do what God taught Moses to do? Can you replace that dream of perfection, of perpetual bliss, with a more realistic and forgiving one, a vision that will make allowances for human frailty?” Just like God figured out to do on the 10th of Tishri back when. If you can see your life and relationships that way, that is the second comforting message of the 10th of Tishri, the Jewish holiday of second chances. Can you do what God told Moses to do with himself and with the people he was leading: give yourself and give those around you permission to be human, to be less than perfect? To forgive, as God did on 10 Tishri. Can you leave behind your shattered dreams of who you dreamt of growing up to be and what you might accomplish and exactly what your family would be like, and learn to cherish who you have become and who is with you on your journey? Can you embrace a more realistic view of human nature? That is the hope, and it follows easily from a more realistic view of God – the very God Who accepts us for what we are, knows we cannot be perfect, forgives us.
My friends, the 10th of Tishri, what we call Yom Kippur, is the anniversary of the day when God realized that, if He wants a world with people in it, it won’t be a perfect world. He can’t expect perfection from us. He can’t expect us to be like God. It’s enough to ask us to be human beings in the image of God, a combination of faith and frailty, aiming high and falling short, And on (this) Yom Kippur day so many years ago, God forgave the people who built the Golden Calf. He forgave us for being imperfect human beings, and hoped that we would learn from God to forgive each other for being imperfect as well. 3200 years ago on a hot day in the Sinai desert, our ancestors built an idol and they called it God. They tried to fashion a God they could control, with prayers, with sacrifices, with the bribery of good deeds. And when God said to them, “You just don’t get it. After all I’ve done for you, you do this?” and when Moses had to intervene and the people feared that they had lost the chance of being God’s people forever, it was on the 10th of Tishri that God relented and gave our ancestors a second chance, and taught them a lot about how they could learn to offer the same to each other. That’s what it means to start a New Year together. It’s a fresh start, a second chance. May it be for all of us, for all Israel, for people everywhere, a year of life and health, a year of growth and goodness, a year of being like God a resource to others in time of trouble, a year of outgrowing mistakes and learning to see the world not through the lens of what we thought life (and God) would be but through the lens of what we’ve learned about God and human nature that can never be taken away from us. Amen
Rabbi Bill Rudolph