September 23, 2015
Rabbi Jon Adland
Kol Nidre is an evening of conflicting and surging emotions. The haunting liturgy stirs memories of the past where there were missed opportunities or mistakes left uncorrected. We think about relatives no longer here who sat at our Yom Kippur table or joined us in the seat to our left. We give thought to new beginnings in our lives and hopefully to a better world. Our own mortality comes into play as we listen to the powerful, but strange theology of the “unetaneh tokef” and again at tomorrow afternoon’s Yizkor when “we remember them.” At times, as we read, listen and pray, we are drawn to the meaning behind the words in the mahzor, while at other times we drift harmlessly about this holy space looking at the colored windows or wood slats, the color of someone’s clothes or the passing of day to night. It is hard to stay focused every moment when our soul is challenged to come to terms with who we are, how we might live, and the thoughts of the souls of others. Kol Nidre grips us tight with the opportunity of letting go of the burdens of yesterday, while propelling us forward into a better tomorrow. It causes us to think and recount and consider. This night, more than any other day or time on the Jewish calendar, we are pushed to confront the meaning of our lives and to struggle with God in that life. Yes, we are filled with conflicting and surging emotions, and our relationship to and our understanding of God is at the center of everything that happens, that we read, that we consider on this day.
Jews have a special, but unusual relationship with God. A serious Jewish life is filled with at best God’s presence constantly and at worst consistently. God is the author of the mitzvot, the source of our wisdom, the meaning of goodness, the beauty of nature, the pain in our souls, and the joy at a simcha. Yet, for all that God does for a Jew by offering us a path to a life filled with goodness and meaning, a life that tries to make a difference in who and where we are today, the depth of writing about Jewish theology is sparse and our desire to talk about God not always evident. Many years ago, when I taught the class on Judaism at Lexington Theological Seminary, the Jewish understanding of God didn’t appear in the syllabus until the last third of the course. To the future Christian ministers who were my students in the class, they couldn’t understand why God didn’t come first. My answer to them was that to most Jews God exists, but our response to the existence of God is much more important. Before we could understand the Jewish God, we needed to learn about what Judaism expected of us first. Those expectations are a reflection of God in our lives.
For most of the last thirty years one of the most articulate Jewish spokesperson’s in this country about God has been Rabbi Harold Kushner. His signature book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written around 1980 in response to the death of his son, pushed Rabbi Kushner to understand God in his life and then bring his theology to the forefront of the debate about the place of God in our lives. He argued that bad things happen in this world, many unexplainable bad things, things beyond our power or control, and that our power lies in allowing God to help us heal in response to the tragedy in our lives through God’s strength and love and comfort. Rabbi Kushner didn’t and doesn’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, but that God is our source of strength in helping us cope with the world swirling around us. I still use this book in teaching and continue to recommend it to anyone who wants to know how one Jew thinks about God hoping that Rabbi Kushner can help one more person to overcome tragedy, sorrow and anger.
Over the years Rabbi Kushner continued to help us with our own personal searches with books such as, Who Needs God, To Life, How Good Do We Have to Be, and Living a Life that Matters. Each of these books encourages us to consider who we are, how we behave, where God can be in our lives, and what role we play in the world. Rabbi Kushner isn’t writing exclusively for Jews, but his books resonate with the neshama, the soul, of Judaism.
About ten years ago, Rabbi Kushner published a new book titled, The Lord is My Shepherd, a book about the 23rd psalm. In many ways this book was the exclamation point to When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Twenty years ago, Rabbi Kushner gave us the strength to use God’s help to cope with the tragedy and complexity of our lives. Today, the rabbi offers us a single psalm that, as Kushner writes:
“In just a few lines…conveys the distilled wisdom of generations, offering us a way of seeing the world that renders it less frightening, teaching us to deal with the loss of people we love and with conflict with the people who don’t like us or who treat us badly. It shows us how to recognize the presence of God at times and in places where we might think God was absent or when we might be so distracted by our own concerns that we would overlook God’s presence. It has the power to teach us to think differently and, as a result, to act differently.”
Is this not what the conflicting and surging emotions of this Holy Day are asking us to confront? Are we not called upon to think about the loss of those we loved, conflicts with others, and through all of this to find a place for the power, strength, love, caring and compassion of God to rest? The awe and dread, fear and power of this day are ultimately about healing: healing our bodies and souls, and the cleansing and refreshing of our minds. This one psalm can help us down this road, give us reason to live, and help us confront our own mortality.
Join me for a moment and say the words with me:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul.
He guides me in straight paths for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil
For Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine
Thou anointest my head with oil,
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
There is a cadence to these verses, which echoes inside of us. We may not know all the words, but the rhythm is there. Whether it is at Yizkor or a funeral or a moment of solitude and remembrance at the grave of a loved one, we speak these verses and our soul understands. Rabbi Kushner tells us that this familiarity comforts, but that its message is much deeper. He says, “The psalm does not deny the shattering reality of death and loss, nor does it minimize how painful death and loss can be to us.”
The psalm does not offer those who live pious lives hope that death and loss won’t touch them. On the contrary, the psalm is about reality. We have enemies, life isn’t easy, and we face challenges, but during each of these moments God is there to stand with us. What the rabbi said in his first great book he repeats here by reminding us that we can’t control all the events in our lives, but we can control how we respond. Learning how to respond to the events around us whether at the joy of a simcha or the pain brought about by events beyond our control is so very important. Rabbi Kushner says that ”…if we are anxious, the psalm gives us courage….if we are grieving, it offers comfort….if our lives are embittered, it teaches us how to cope….if the world threatens to wear us down, it guides us to replenish our souls.”
As much as I would like to go through the 115 English words of this psalm and offer to you the incredible theological as well as personal soul opening depth it imparts, I can’t. Instead let me share with you my insight, with Rabbi Kushner’s help, to a few verses in this psalm that I believe can help sustain us in the hours ahead on this holiest of days. When the sun sets tomorrow and we hear the final tekiah gedolah blasted from the great shofar, you can take this psalm and its soul into your being when you might need strength, comfort, or just the presence of an all loving God to wrap you up and carry you just a little bit forward on your life’s journey.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” are the first words we hear and these may be words we are comforted to hear. Believing in God as a shepherd who walks with us daily, protecting us from harm, and feeding our bodies and souls when necessary is a pillar of my faith. The world we live in today doesn’t always offer us comfort. The news is filled with tragedy, war, bombings, murder, and mayhem. In this crazy world, the one constant I have is my personal relationship with God. I know that in my life when I need God to give me strength or comfort, that God will be there. It is not a matter of the level of a person’s piety or observing mitzvot or practicing daily prayer. It is about faith and the author of this verse had a faith that is similar to mine. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” There is no equivocation of God’s existence in this verse. “God is” the writer says and I say the same to you, “God is.” As long as I know that “God is,” then I lack for nothing. The materialism in my life allows me to do things such as sleep comfortably, and enjoy my hobbies, which can bring me a measure of happiness, but this is incomparable to the sense of peace in knowing that God is always with me.
Rabbi Kushner writes,
“A skeptic might ask, if the Lord is my shepherd, if it’s God’s responsibility to keep me safe, why isn’t God doing a better job of it? Why is it that I can never watch the news on television or open my morning paper without hearing or reading about some tragedy or crime? Why am I constantly seeing good people dying, good people crippled by illness, good people divorced, fired, cheated? Where is God’s saving grace and compassion in all those cases?”
The skeptic’s challenge is the eternal challenge against God. If bad things are happening, then a God can’t exist as why would God let this kind of pain exist? The psalmist said that God is a shepherd. The psalmist could have written that line differently, but the psalmist wanted a God to laugh at the special moments and weep at the sad ones. The psalmist wanted a God that is close and loving and comforting. An all-powerful God might be able to do what the skeptic wants, but then where is humanity in this divine creation of God’s? Kushner concludes,
“…the psalmist would teach to the world, without illusions that nothing bad will ever happen, but without the fear that we will be utterly destroyed by the things that do happen. We will hurt, but we will heal. We will grieve, but we will grow whole again….Thou art with me.”
A second verse, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” This verse is about death, but not death only. It is about the realization that death is all around us, but in spite of this, each of us must keep going. To be consumed and paralyzed by death, to stop living, caring, loving and helping because death is all around means that you are no longer walking, you have stopped in the valley of death. I remember a man in Lexington whose wife died of cancer in her 60’s. This man’s grief was uncontrollable not just in the week or weeks following this very sad death, but even two years later he couldn’t stop crying. He had stopped walking.
Rabbi Kushner recounts the following conversation with someone struggling with a loss:
“Had you been the one to die first, what advice would you have left for your loved one? How would you have wanted him to spend the rest of his life?”
I would have wanted him to miss me, but I would have told him to live as fully as possible, as a tribute to the life we shared.” I follow that up with the obvious suggestion that she follow that advice herself. (paraphrased from the book.)
Most of us are not consumed like this person. We take the lessons Judaism teaches us about mourning and gradually move back into the world. Whether it is shiva, sheloshim or the 11 months, we know that Judaism says take your time, think about your loved one, reflect on the memories, ease back into the working and regular world out there. We say it may be easier when someone has lived a full life. That may be true and the grieving and sadness less intense, but it doesn’t change the mourning. We must mourn and we must continue to remember.
The Jewish calendar asks us to pause five times a year, on the four holiday seasons: Yom Kippur, Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot, and on the anniversary of the death to remember those whom we have loved and lost. Rabbi Kushner adds, “It gives us permission to go on with our lives…I urge people to see that the same love that makes the death of a person hurt so much is the love that should inspire us to keep walking through the valley….”
We are created in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim, which could be translated as in the shadow of God. The shadow of death is our yesterday and the shadow of God our tomorrow, like the two mountains that exist on either side of the valley. When we emerge from the valley and the sunlight shines strong, the shadows disappear back inside of us. We move forward with the memory of our loved tucked inside our heart and the shadow of God safely in our soul and we continue on with life.
As we know, the psalm concludes with the verse, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” While the verse ends this psalm with the presumption of comfort, there is a disquieting note that must be addressed: we are living in God’s presence always and our actions should reflect this. A famous story helps illustrate this.
A rabbi hires a horse and carriage to take him to a neighboring town. The carriage was making its way along a road with fruit trees and orchards on either side. The time of the year to pluck the fruit was now and the scents wafted under the nose of the driver and rabbi. The coachman finally stopped by the side of the road and told his passenger, “I am going to climb over the fence and steal some of the fruit. You sit here and keep an eye out for anyone coming. Let me know if anyone sees me.” He had just crossed the fence when the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver jumped back into his wagon, drove a bit farther, stopped and said, “I’m going to try again. Make sure I’m not being seen.” Once again, as soon as he crossed the fence, the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver was puzzled. He said, ‘I don’t understand it. The road is empty; the area is deserted. I don’t see another human being for miles. But every time I try to grab some fruit you tell me someone’s watching. What’s going on?” The rabbi pointed heavenward and said simply, “Someone is watching.”
Living in God’s house means never being alone. In Genesis we read, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Loneliness can crush the soul of a human being. We are social creatures by nature and habit. We want to be around others. The psalmist reminds us that even when you are by yourself you are not alone. God is present. God is watching. God can’t replace the hug of another human being or the sound of a voice or the comfort of a companion, but we should know that even in our darkest hours God is with us, always. When we are frightened, exhausted, terrified, ill, sad, depressed, disappointed, wandering aimlessly, in pain, or facing death, we are in God’s house, God’s presence, and God will give strength and blessing. All you have to do is look and then be prepared to listen beyond not just the sounds of the world, but to that part of you that listens without ears. It is there you will find God and you will know that you are in God’s house, forever.
Yes, we enter this holiest of days not knowing where it will go or lead us. My hope for all of us is that it will lead us beside the still waters, which can help with the conflicted emotions of this day. And when all is said and done and the great shofar is sounded, I pray that goodness and mercy shall follow all of you the rest of your days., “And we shall dwell in God’s House forever..”
Kein Yehi Ratzon—May this be God’s will.