Kol Nidrei 5782/2021 - Rabbi Steve Leder

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Leder
  • Sermon
  • Yom Kippur

If you want to be busy with direct messages from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, your work and personal email accounts, be the rabbi of a large congregation and write a couple of books about pain and suffering.  There is so much suffering in our congregation and so much suffering in the world. 

A widow with two small children whose husband died messages me asking when the pain will end and why did God do this to her and children.   Was it her fault?  Another woman whose father died and whose husband is tired of her moping around the house and bursting into tears asks me, “Why can’t my husband understand?”

“Rabbi, I was just diagnosed, pray for me.” 

“Rabbi, the CT scan is tomorrow, pray for me.”

And then there was this Instagram message from Lori.   It arrived last week.  

“Rabbi, I loved your post. But my nine-year-old son has so many unfair challenges from his ADHD. We try so hard to help him and see him for his gifts (he has an extremely high IQ) and to nurture them. But also, the tools that have been given to us to help him are not enough and the medications give him such awful side effects.  I find myself angry at God now before the High Holy Days. How can God make life so hard for a child?  A child?  Everyone recognizes physical challenges in children, illnesses and other obvious ailments. But a child with behavioral challenges is so stigmatized in our modern orthodox community. I understand how God can challenge me, but it is breaking my heart as I head into the yamim noraim and my child continues to suffer. It doesn’t make any sense. My child is beautiful and innocent. How can God start his life this way?”

I told Lori I would write to her after the High Holy Days but I have decided instead, to answer her now.

Dear Lori,

I am so sorry you are in pain and angry with God. I would be angry too if I thought God deliberately chose my innocent child to suffer, to be different. I understand where the idea that God is responsible for your son’s and your pain comes from. It is all over the Torah; the idea of an omnipotent God who creates, knows and controls all.  A God who can bring plagues, part seas, build and destroy at will. If God is all powerful, then you are right, God must be responsible for your sorrow. 

But that is not the only image of God in the Torah. There is also the God who cannot control humankind, has to create a flood to wipe out everything and start again. The biggest do-over in history. There is the God who has to ask Cain where his brother Able is because God doesn’t know. When Cain answers God’s question with his own famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s implied answer is, “Yes, you are. I am not in control of everyone and everything, and certainly not your moral choices.” 

In the very first few words of the Torah, painted right there above our bimah, the world that God creates is called “good.” Not perfect. Not great. Just “good.” Making a good world better is up to us, not God. 

Maybe the most hurtful idea in the entire Torah is that there is no unfairness in the world; there is only punishment for sin.  Good people prosper and bad things only happen to people who are apparently good, but who are actually not good from God’s view of the whole picture. This idea is all over the Torah, the Talmud and our Yom Kippur prayers about God watching, keeping a ledger called the book of life and death; a Santa-Clause-like God making a list and checking it twice, of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, then dolling out rewards or punishments accordingly. This is old time religion and it hurts. If this is all you know of the Bible Lori, how could you not be angry at a God who would punish an innocent child and his mother; how could you not reject a religion and a community that believes you suffer because you only appear to be innocent but are actually morally corrupt?

Maybe it will help you to know that I think of God’s list-keeping and the books of life and death like “as ifs.”  In other words, not literally true, but meant so that we live “as if” they are true.  As if there is a God who holds us morally accountable for our decisions. The ancients had to know because we know that innocent people suffer all the time, but that being a decent, humane human being still matters. I think so much of your pain and comes from mistaking metaphor for fact.

There is another view of suffering in the Bible that might comfort instead of infuriate you. It is the story of Job.  Terrible things happen to this man Job who by the Bible’s own admission, is a blameless man. To me, Job is the most important book in the Bible because it is the first not to blame the victim; the first to admit totally innocent people suffer. Job is not Jewish, he is an everyman, he is all of us. You and your son are Job. We are all Job.  We all have times in our lives when we feel the unfair, crushing weight of suffering.  Why me?  Why this diagnosis? Why this toxic relationship? Why this setback? Why this loneliness?  Why?

God behaves outrageously in the book of Job.  He makes a bet with the devil that he can abuse this good man named Job and this good man will never turn away from God. God takes away Job’s wealth, his business, his family, his health, everything. Job’s friends say you must have been bad. He says “No I have not. In fact, I have been faithful to God.” Finally, Job challenges God. “I’m a good person God. Why me?”

Did God try to justify Himself? No. Instead, God says, “Are you big? I am. Can you keep the ocean waves within the shore? Do you make the sun rise? Try it.” 

In other words, who is little man with his puny powers of thought and reason and judgment to challenge the universe to be righteous as a human would be; to attribute human qualities to the universe? The universe is a mystery and I am it. 

To which Job replies, “I have heard thee and now I behold thee.” He renounces his human judgment in the face of the mystery that is God and the universe. (as paraphrased by Joseph Campbell)

We are sometimes subject to a force far greater and more powerful than we; a force that animates all of existence of which we are only a grain, a speck, a breath. 

I want to tell you one of my favorite old stories that I hope touches your heart. It’s about an illiterate shepherd boy who entered the synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, on Yom Kippur.  He didn’t know the prayers, so he starts to whistle like he did out in the field, the one thing he knows he can do beautifully.  His whistling is his gift to God.

The other worshippers are horrified and what to throw the boy out, but the Baal Shem Tov stops them and says, “Until now, I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court.  But this young shepherd’s whistling was so pure, his gift so sincere, that it broke through and carried all of our prayers to God along with it.”  

None of us can fully know God’s ways, but this I do know.  There is no relative value to life in Judaism; every person’s life, whether with ten minutes or ten decades left to live, is of equal and inestimable value.  Your son has a tikkun, a spark of light to bring to the world; we all do.  Each of us has our own unique way of living and loving and laughing and caring unlike anyone else who has ever lived or ever will live.  Yes, your son is challenging, and misunderstood, and sometimes in pain, and unique, and brilliant, and beautiful, with a melody in his soul that soars to the very heavens above.   

It is Kol Nidre, the night we seek forgiveness for getting it wrong sometimes. Job’s friends got it wrong with his suffering. He was innocent. Some people have gotten it wrong with your son. Maybe you have gotten it wrong with God. We all get it wrong with each other sometimes.    

I lit a yahrzeit candle last night for my father. We buried him four years ago this morning.  A few hours later we went to shul for Kol Nidre. Jewish law left us no room for shiva. Instead, my dad’s life and his death are forever intertwined with this solemn night; this night of wondering about our own destiny in the coming year. Will we live, or will we die? Who or what decides and does it really matter anyway?  

“My poor dad,” I said to Betsy and Aaron, matchbox in hand, holding back the tears.  “He drew such a bad hand...  Ten years of Alzheimer’s. Ten damn years. The last five in a diaper and a bib staring from his wheelchair into the distance, listless and lost. Why?”

I am a rabbi. I am supposed to understand these things. I do not. But I know what God said to Job.  And I know what my dad said when we told him about his diagnosis, what he would say to you Lori, and what he would have said standing next to me in the kitchen last night as the candle flickered, “Es iz vas es iz--It is what it is .”

Sometimes, “Why?” is the wrong question—a cul de sac where we go around and around and can never leave.  The older I get, Lori, the more suffering I see and endure, the more I realize that we really are only human, our vision limited, our understanding so incomplete. 

Betsy, Aaron and I put our arms around each other, we each share a memory. I miss him so much. I do not understand why he had to suffer, and I never will. I am, after all, we are all, after all, only human. It is what it is.  Yet in the candle’s gentle light I summon my faith and say Kaddish. “Yehei shlamah rabbah min shamaya—a great peace descends upon me,” affirming that even darkness, in its own, mysterious way, reveals the beauty of life itself. This comforted Job. This comforts me. I hope it comforts you. 

Love and L’shana tova to you Lori, and to your beautiful, sweet boy…