Yom Kippur Yizkor 2014
Somewhere, in some obscure article or journal, which I can no longer find, I recall someone doing a survey of people's sensitivity to pain. Groups were assessed by ethnic origins and I assumed were asked to measure some value for pain or the absence of pain. How much, perhaps, would they pay to avoid pain.
As I can best recall, Jews were the most sensitive to pain. Be it physical pain, or imaginary pain, pain is pain, and Jews hurt. We Jews aren't stoical about it. In fact, not only are we commanded to heal illness, we are also commanded to minimize pain.
This is a very curious religion, since, we would assume, from the way religion is commonly taught, that we shouldn't worry. Our pain, our hurt, is only temporary, it is only an illusion of our attachment to our selves, it is but the price we pay for heaven, and so forth. Yet no Jew is commanded to be in pain. He is commanded to be out of pain and to heal the pain of others.
This is Yom Kippur, and we have gathered for Yizkor, we feel very much the hurt and pain, this one, emotional, of the loss of someone we have loved. We seek, in our religion, the balm to heal, the medicine to soothe our hurts.
Undoubtedly, the hardest task for a Rabbi is to deal with good people who have suffered, be it an illness themselves, or the pain or death of a loved one. The question so often asked, is
"Why me?" Why her?", "Why us?"
It is a perennial question.
There is a sage in the Mishnah who is commonly known as Acher-which means "another". What happened to this sage ,that he came to be known by such a disparaging title? It is said that Elisha ben Abuyah, his correct name, was a great scholar, of the time of Rabbi Akiba, and the teacher of the great Rabbi Meir.
One day, he observed a young man climb a tree, take both the mother bird and the chicks, and come down unscathed.
To take the mother as well as the chicks was forbidden by the Torah, and it irked the scholar that this scofflaw should have escaped unscathed. Then another young man climbed a tree, and this young man too found a bird's nest. He chased away the mother bird, as the Torah demanded, and took only the chicks. The mother bird was spared in order to produce a new generation of birds. The Torah promised long life for sparing the mother bird. Upon return to the ground, he was bitten by a poisonous snake, and immediately died. The great Rabbi was outraged. The one who broke the law went scot free yet the one who was meticulous in observance died of snake bite , a death reserved for sinner, not saint. He declared Zo Torah --Zo Scharah?? This is the Torah-- This is its reward??
At that moment, it is said, he turned from Judaism completely, and became Acher, another.
How many times have we seen just that which affected Elisha Ben Abuya so greatly. Good people suffer while wicked people thrive. Why should God allow it? Can God allow it?
Where is God in this equation?
This question has served as the meal ticket for a great many philosopher, especially in the monotheist religions, which all presume an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. The philosopher's answers were often great masterpieces of sophistry. Thus, they would posit that evil is an illusion of perspective, that evil is merely the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light. There is the perspective that evil is necessary for the good to stand out and be truly appreciated, just as ugliness gives contrast to beauty or darkness gives contrast to light. But such answers are, in Rabbinic parlance, a refutation with a straw, easily broken.
Some Jewish sources sought to find the cause of suffering in our own actions.
Since God is just, what happens, illness, war, accident, is our fault. We Jews are particularly prone to this, and this thought is in our own prayer books-- "Mipney Hataeynu galinu"--for our sins we were exiled. There is in this thought, the sense that a universe with an overly strict God is preferable to a universe with no God.
There are variations on the theme, in which the suffering we have now is compensated in the next life, while the triumphant wicked will get their due in the next world. There is the view, in Jewish thought, just as in Hinduism or Buddhism, that if we suffer, it is because we committed wrong in a previous life, and are now paying for it, but will thereby be elevated to a higher level in the next as compensation.
I, for one, could never say to any person ,"If you are ill, it is for some sin, unknown to you ." I will never say it, and I find, that on the contrary, my greatest task is to assure the one who is suffering: You are not guilty (Unless, of course, we are talking to someone who has committed some gross crime, a mass murderer or a terrorist).
Sin may be the cause of the troubles of the human condition—after all, we are all flawed beings in some way or another, yet no one dare point a finger at anyone and say, “ Your misery comes from some sin unknown to you!”
No, sin as the cause of suffering is not an acceptable answer either.
Fortunately, our tradition is not monolithic. We are not tied to the answers of one Rabbi, sage, philosopher, or prophet over and above all the others. On the contrary, in our tradition, from the very pages of the Bible and Rabbinic lore, there is open dialogue and a serious search for the salve and balm for our deepest wounds.
Our sages rephrased the issue in the tale of Job. Job is each and every one of us who has suffered for no good reason.
Job's three friends try to assure him, "Job, Confess, You have some great secret sin". .Job refuses to admit any guilt, yet also refuses to turn against God. No answer gives him satisfaction, until God, in full awe and wonder, appears in personal revelation, denounces the three so-called friends, and vindicates Job This personal vision, the assurance that there is a God in full command of the universe, rather than a universe in chaos, is sufficient answer for Job .
Later sages took a new page out of Job's experience
Job did not suffer because he had done wrong--the suffering was an indication of his very special saintliness. Thus, Rabbi Jose ben Judah, could say, "Precious are afflictions, for they are accompanied by God's glory" Or, as in the words of a Rabbi in the Talmud, "Whom God favors, he tries with afflictions. In such an attitude, many indeed found comfort. I am good, but I suffer; then I must be a special object of God's concern, that it is intended to raise me to even higher levels. We Jews suffer because we are God's chosen people, not God's rejected people. In this thought, indeed, many Jews, over the centuries found great comfort .
Yet not every sage-was thrilled with that assurance. One Rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan in particular, had dedicated his life to comforting others. It is said that his colleague, Rabbi Eliezer was deathly ill, and he came to visit him.
He turned to his friend, and asked "Do you accept your suffering? Said Rabbi Eliezer, "I want neither suffering, nor any rewards from heaven for my suffering." Then, said Rabbi Yohanan, give me your hand," and raised his friend up in health.
Note in this story, that the great sage does not try to justify God to his friend. He does not lay a guilt trip on him, to say "You have. sinned, and God has punished you ."He does not try to bolster him by saying “It is God's will".
He is a faith healer in reverse. The healing does not come because Rabbi Eliezer has faith. It comes because he refuses to accept the suffering.
Even beyond this, we see, in our heritage, a call and a challenge, a dare to God Himself. Justice and right are paramount overall, and God is called to task. In the Bible, Abraham, God's personal friend, dares question God's justice at the planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God accedes to Abraham's position.
This attitude is reflected millennia later, in a Hasidic tale.
There is a wide-spread tale of a poor, simple tailor who ,on this Day of Yom Kippur, began to bargain with God,"Ashamnu, bagadnu. "All right, God, so I did cheat this year. I over charged one man, another, I took too much cloth, the other, I made a sloppy stitch. Sure, those are my sins. But look, God, look at your sins--famine, war, widows &orphans. I'll tell you what. Let's make a deal. I'll forgive you your sins, if you forgive me mine."
At this point, it is said, the Baal Shem went over to him in great agitation. "Why did you stop? You had God pinned down. A little more, and he would have been forced to send the Messiah.!"
We must, at this point, recognize, that in our day ,in our frame of mind, we can not accept an image of God as one pushing myriads of buttons, this button for health, and this button for illness, this one for life, and this one for death. As Jews, we have accepted the truth of a universe of law and system, in which material events have material cause and effect. Disease is from germs and earthquakes are from the motion of geological structures, and we no longer seek God as the blame for these events, even if our insurance forms describe them as "Acts of God." This is especially true for us as Jews, still living in the shadows of the Holocaust, in which clearly, the human choice of evil, and not God's wrath, is to be blamed.
Jews long ago realized that God, for all the philosophical terms of omnipotence, could not control everything. Among Jewish mystics, there was a realization, that for the universe to be created, God had to be absent from it. This inevitably led to a catastrophe in the universe and the existence of evil which God alone could not conquer. The human being, the Jew ,in particular ,was the special vehicle whereby the universe would be restored to purity and wholeness and whereby evil would be conquered. We are then, not God's victim, but rather, God's partner in the restoration of the universe, God's partner in both a physical and metaphysical sense.
What then of ourselves. If God is not there to bail us out of our troubles, if he no longer splits Red Seas or makes Manna fall on our wildernesses, what then does God do for us. If "Why Me?" is to be answered, “It’s not your fault", then we are still left with the pain and hurt. Where is God in this equation?
The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, suffered in his final years from a debilitating illness. He was torn by doubt and conflict, since he was part of that ancient world which saw illness as coming from God in punishment of sin. Here was a Holy Man, a Tsadik, surrounded by a community of Holy Men--why did he not find healing? He fell into great despair.
Then, as his strength ebbed, he began to recover his bearings. At a gathering of his followers, he suddenly shouted out,"Gevalt- “Zich nit meya-esh zein!” Do not despair! There is no such thing as despair at all ! "He drew forth these words slowly and deliberately, with strength and depth that he taught his disciples for all generations, that we would never despair, no matter what we endure.
At the entrance to the Bratslaver Synagogue, in the time of the Warsaw ghetto, there was a large sign, "Jews, Never Despair!" It is said that even in the times of the horrible ghetto, his followers danced with great strength and fervor.
“Jews, Never Despair.!" This is the great message of Judaism. God is to found in the depths of our pain, as the source of hope, strength, endurance.
Just this is what we add in our daily service for an entire month preceding the High Holy Days, the 27th Psalm. The poet depicts his enemies, ready to pounce on him, and he asks for one thing: "It is your face that I seek, says my heart;
It is your presence that I crave, 0Lord. Hope in the Lord and be strong, hope in the Lord and take courage."
God is found and is present in our hearts as we leap over the hurdles in our life, or even just live through them.
We find God in our ability to reach out beyond our pain, beyond our problems, and look to our fellow human being, whom we are taught, is " betzelem Elohim “, in the image of the divine.
We will never answer the question, "Why Me?” Or " Why Us?" but we can give meaning to our lives , to our pain, when we can rise above it, and act, in God like manner with hope in God within us to conquer and overcome evil, pain, and suffering. To this goal we labor, and declare, "Jews, Never Despair!, We never lose hope in the face of whatever life deals us."