Erev RoSH Hashana 5779/Sat 29th September 2019

Compassionate God, Compassionate Congregation

by Cantor Tamara Wolfson

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

Last Shabbat, I shared with you a sermon about some of my failed resolutions in years gone by, and I challenged us to go into the year 5780 with a renewed awareness of the control we have over our lives. I wanted to follow up that message with another admission to you all: what I asked you to do in last week’s sermon is much easier said than done. So tonight I want to open up a dialogue about how difficult it is to keep this perspective, and how the wisdom of our tradition might help us have compassion for ourselves and feel more empowered as we begin another year.

I said last week that while we don’t have much control over how our lives will end, we do have control over how our lives are lived. We know this instinctively, but we forget it frequently. And when we feel the least in control, we might even feel the urge to look up at the sky and shout into the universe, shout at God, or shout at ourselves: “Seriously? Why me, why this, why now?” The other day when I was stuck in the middle of an especially bad tube delay, I started thinking about what would happen if God ever decided to answer those questions.

Why me? Don’t worry, it’s nothing personal. 

Why this? No real logic behind it, it just happened.

Why now? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

After I played out this dialogue in my head, I wasn’t exactly comforted by it… but I wasn’t completely at odds with it, either. It’s not my theology that everything happens for a God-given reason, or that events in my life are predetermined by something I might have done in my past.

Progressive Judaism often challenges this theology. It’s the reason that the American Reform movement removed the second paragraph of the Shema from its’ prayer books. The passage reads in part:

“And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship foreign gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you.” (Deuteronomy 11: 13-17)

My grandfather used to joke about his grandchildren by saying that he would happily take credit for any of the great, amazing things we did in life. But the minute we did anything bad or embarrassing, he didn’t know us anymore. We might sometimes be tempted to do the same with God. I’m uncomfortable with a God who will take away rain for our crops if we do anything wrong, but who will cause our flowers to bloom if we’ve done God’s will. But at the same time, I’m also guilty of bartering with God during bad turbulence on a flight: that if I can just survive this trip, I’ll recommit myself to being a better person and a better Jew. On some level, I know that God doesn’t work this way. But on a visceral emotional level, I don’t want a God that causes my train to be late, but I do want a God that causes my plane to land safely.

One of the most memorable books I’ve read on this subject is called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner. In it, he writes:

“God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes.”

Rabbi Kushner continues: “The question we should be asking is not, ‘Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?’ That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’”

Kushner challenges us to shift our thinking from blaming Divinity to empowering humanity. Of course, he is not the first to suggest this shift. Decades earlier, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his commentary on Genesis Chapter 2:

“And God completed’ means that God finished [God’s] work, though the world remained incomplete. When God created the earth from [formless matter], [God] did not replace the chaos entirely. Some of this primordial entropy was allowed to remain, so that man, through his own effort, could strive to eliminate it…. Man was given the great assignment of completing creation.”

Of course, this great assignment comes with many questions. How do we partner with God to complete the work of creation when our circumstances might make us feel hopeless, dis-empowered, or even angry with God? When the world feels broken beyond repair, when our lives feel overwhelming, where does God fit into the picture? And what kind of partner will God be, anyway, if we’re working on this tikkun olam project together?

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson gave me a new lease on my definition of God when he taught me about process theology during my first year at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He started from the premise set by classical theology that “God must be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Based on this presumption, God has – and must have – all the power… God has – and must have – all knowledge, knowing everything that is, was, and will be. God is omnibenevolent – pure good”.

Process theology, in contrast, asserts that “the world and God are in a flux of dynamic change, of related interaction and becoming… We are partners with the cosmos and with God in our own becoming… The past is offered to us, and God meets us in this moment, as in this moment we come to be anew… In every moment we are coming into being again and again. God holds out a choice to you that you are free to take, free to reject, and then God meets you in the next choice, with the next possibility.”

This is the language of choice and possibility rather than blessing and curse. Process theology, according to Rabbi Shavit Artson, offers no expectation of God’s direct interference in our lives. It doesn’t require that God answers for or explains anything. Rather, it requires of us a re-framing of our relationship with God, with the universe, and with our lives. It is not God’s job to change our lives for us. It is our job to use our God-given free will, observe the choices we are met with in life, respond to them, and accept the consequences of our actions. 

Our tradition grounds us in a covenant with God that accompanies us through the multitudes of choices we face in our lives and keeps us in conversation with our values, our morals, and the rituals that keep us centered. Indeed, this season offers three pillars on which we can lean: teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah. Three choices filled with the possibility of positive change and renewal. In this season of soul-searching and chest-beating, I hope we can find the compassion within ourselves that we implore from God as we invoke God’s attributes: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun. Compassionate, merciful Divinity mirrored in compassionate, merciful humanity. May this be God’s will, and may this be our will.