Yom Kippur Morning Sermon: Why….


A few months ago, we were at a friend’s house for dinner.  We sat there for a few hours enjoying pizza and wine.  The kids were coming in and out of where we were sitting as we chatted away on a warm spring evening.

Luke and I knew all of the people there well, but they did not know each other.  So much of the evening was spent getting to know each other.  The typical questions – what do you do? Where did you grow up?  What college did you attend?

It turns out that several of the people there attended the same university around the same time so a game of Hoosier geography began – did you know so and so… yes I did what about… etc… You know how it goes…

But later the in evening someone brought up a recent tragedy that occurred… Did you hear about…then they recounted the terrible thing that had happened.  Immediately someone else said I heard about that, but did you hear about this one….and told story of something else equally awful that just occurred.

It wasn’t one upsmanship, instead was like as soon as one person mentioned the recent tragedy, it gave everyone else permission to do the same.  Given my role as a rabbi, I am often aware of the pain around us, but I consciously try not to bring it into conversation at social gatherings.  But on this night, it felt like there was relief in the room when someone did.  Even during our enjoyable evening with friends, the awareness of the fragility of life invaded our time together.  Soon we returned to the lighter topics such as new Netflix shows, movies and books.

I am sure you have had many nights like this one with friends.  When during a joyous evening, you are still aware of that darkness that can creep in.

Most of the time if we are lucky, we are conscious that bad things are possible but we do not spend too much time thinking about it.  But then something happens and all of a sudden we find ourselves facing the reality that our lives are not within our control.

Today, on this Yom Kippur, this holy of holies, I want to share with you about the past year in my life.  Almost exactly a year ago my husband, Luke, was diagnosed with colon cancer.  This came as a complete shock to us.  Not only because he is still young for this type of diagnosis, he exercises and eats a healthy diet, but also there is no family history of it.

With those few words, our entire world shifted.  Not only did we have all of the practical things to navigate such as surgery and months of chemotherapy.  But we had theological and existential questions to try to understand what was happening to us.  We had to continue living our daily lives when nothing felt normal or right.  Suddenly simple tasks like going to the grocery store felt almost impossible because so much of our effort and energy was so focused on Luke’s health and healing.

I am sharing this with you today, this Yom Kippur, not so you worry about me or my family – though I will always be grateful for how this community supported us. This past year was made so much easier because of this community.  I am also incredibly thankful team of medical professionals who treated Luke and their on-going monitoring him.  I am sharing this today, because I know we aren’t the only ones who found suddenly found ourselves dealing illness.  I know many of you are coping with a loss, illness and any number of other challenges.

When this something like this happens it impacts not only our daily routines, but we, you, me, all of us, can have our theological beliefs shaken to their core.  We seek answers about why it happened, how it happened and where to go from here.

We want to understand the why. We ask, why did this terrible to happen to me or my loved one?  Why is there so much pain and struggling?  In a world where God is supposed to be good and just, how can there be so much suffering?

Part of the reason we ask the why is for our piece of mind.  We think if we eat right, if we exercise, if we are good people than on some level we will be protected.  But as much as we don’t like it, we know the truth is bad things do happen to good people.  It’s why Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book on the subject is not called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” but “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

In calling the book when, not why, it asserts the premise that bad things can and do happen.  While, we cannot spend all our time worrying about something bad occurring, Rabbi Kushner suggests that on some small level we have to acknowledge it is a possibility.

We are not the first people to wrestle with the why or the unfairness of life.  In fact, these questions are at core of the Untaneh Tokef, the prayer we are about it say and is central to Yom Kippur.  It asks over and over again, who shall live and who shall die.   It forces us to face the reality that despite all of our best efforts, technologies and innovations, there are aspects of our lives beyond our control.  Early Reform rabbis took the Untaneh Tokef out of the prayer book because they did not like it.  But I do not think the High Holy Days work without it, because we need to acknowledge this difficult truth.

I have always struggled with the Untaneh Tokef, but at its center it is voicing our questions, struggles and fears. “It says, all who come into the world pass before You, like sheep before their shepherd, as a shepherd considers the flock, when it passes beneath the staff, You (God) count and consider every life.  You set bounds, You decide destiny.”

Often an image of a shepherd is comforting, as the shepherd’s role is to protect the sheep.  We like to think of God in this role for us.  The type of shepherd is described in Psalm 23.  “Adonai is my Shepherd, I shall not want, God makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me still waters, God restores my soul, God’s rod and God’s staff they comfort me.”  This shepherd is the epitome of a caring one, gently guiding the sheep along their paths.  However, in the Untaneh Tokef, this image of the shepherd is turned on its head.   The rod and staff are not for comfort, but for demarcation. And this shepherd is not watching out for the flock, but rather, determining which of the sheep will live and which will not survive.

This image is terrifying.  It is how we can be feel when something happens to us or our loved one.  We can feel like we are being targeted for no reason.

I had always read the Untaneh Tokef as the author agreed with those images, but what if we read in another way.  What if we read the prayer as if the author is as fearful to life’s unfairness as we are?  Instead of liking the theology that God is the shepherd arbitrarily deciding or determining our fate, this prayer challenges us to be uncomfortable with it. The Untaneh Tokef is seeking the answers to the why like we all do and I did this year.   It is in the struggle with us, vocalizing our worries and anxieties.

It is terrifying to know that we really don’t have control and to directly experience that lack of control.  There might never be satisfying answers to why.  Yet, within what we can control, there are choices we can make.  We can spin around in circles seeking answers to the why or we can figure out how to begin to move forward.

Like rabbis do, I spent a lot of the last year thinking about my theology and asking myself how Luke’s illness impacted it.  I often asked myself, what would I say to me if I came to my office to discuss a spouse’s illness.

Today, here is what I would say.  To begin with, I do not think God gave Luke cancer or causes the challenges we face every day.  I do not believed in a God who controls our daily lives to such a degree.  I understand how the image of an ever present God can be comforting for many, but it does not work for me.  I believe what is called a “watchmaker” God.  In this metaphor God is like a watchmaker who makes the watch and send it off into the world to run.  Like God allows our lives to take their course without interference.  Yet, God has placed into each of us all of the tools we need to share love, to care for each other and to add to God’s creation.  I also believe God has not abandoned us completely as a watchmaker might feel far away from the many watches she sells.

I have found God, every present in my life in particular way. I have found new holiness, even Godliness in relationships, in prayer and in Jewish tradition. For example, the Mi Sheberach became a moment each week when I prayed with increased intensity.  I do not think medically my prayer impacted Luke’s healing, but it lifted my spirits and strengthening him knowing that people around the country were praying for us.  Even though I don’t think God removes cancer, I found the combination of community and prayer helped Luke’s healing and my ability to care for him.

I have learned there is holiness the search for the why and being in conversation with one another about it.  I want to hear about your beliefs and how you approach these unanswerable questions.  I want to be in the process with you, to learn from you, and for you to be in our process with us.

Years ago I heard a sermon comparing a synagogue to an airport.  At airports people cry without being self-conscious about it.  There are happy tears and sad ones, separations and reunions all around.  People’s emotions and vulnerabilities are so close to the surface that we allow our feelings to flow freely.    But wouldn’t it be beautiful if, we were that comfortable sharing of ourselves in our congregation too?  As a society we are taught to say everything is fine all of the time, even when we are not. We need our sacred space to be a place where we can go, when things aren’t fine.  Especially when we are hurting and we need community.   IHC was that place for me and my family, and I hope it is for you and yours.

Creating this shared holiness comes from, as the Untaneh Tokef says: teshuva, t’filah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity.”

With teshuva, we are encouraged to focus on our relationships. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote about finding holiness, even sparks of the divine in our connections with other people. There is sacredness in our sharing our vulnerabilities and in needing each other.  There is holiness in allowing others to help us and in our helping others.  In a kehillah kedosha – a sacred community like ours, there will be times when are the ones who need support and times when we are supporting others.  This year more than ever, I have understood what Buber wrote –that God is found in the sacred connections between people.

T’filah, is prayer: our spirituality and theology. As we seek answers to the why, we can question what prayer really means to us and why, how and when we pray.  We can talk to each other about our beliefs and how they are changing over time.  We can recite Mi sheberach and pray for healing together    When we are in the middle of a crisis, it can be difficult to see the blessings around us.  But we can help each other find strength, stamina, and the little things to appreciate.

With tzedakah the Untaneh Tokef is reminding us that even in struggle it is our responsibility to being repair to the world one person, one family at a time.  What we do will be different for each of us, but when we do even a small act, it can brings healing to others and ourselves and that is tikkun -repair.

When a bad thing occurs it’s only natural that we want to understand why.  The Untaneh Tokef vocalizes our struggle and then it helps us live.  It urges us to weave teshuva, t’filah and tzedakah into daily lives to helps us recognize the holiness surrounding us.

Once there was a man named David, who was consumed with his own pain.  He had suffered greatly and wanted to understand why.  He felt targeted and wanted relief from his pain.

So he did what people do in these stories, and he went to see his rabbi.  He was talking to his rabbi and said: “Rabbi, I just don’t understand, why I am suffering so much.  I am a good person, why, why is this happening to me.”

The rabbi responded: “I know how much you have suffered and I see your pain.  Before I can show you an answer, I would like you to find me a mustard seed from five houses that have known no suffering.  When you find mustard seeds, I want you to bring them back to me.”

So David went on his quest going from house to house to find even one with no pain.  The first door he knocked on belonged to an older woman.  David and the woman began talking and she told him her story.  She had been widowed recently and she was physically unable to chop the wood to heat her home.  She was not only in pain from her loss, but also experiencing physical pain because of the coldness of her home.  At first David was annoyed because he had a specific task to accomplish from the rabbi.  The assignment was clear, he was supposed to find houses where there was no pain to bring mustard seeds back.  The woman standing in front of him was clearly struggling so this house was not going to help him on his quest.  He wanted to shut the door and walk away to move on to the next house.   But then he realized he had a little extra time and he was pretty strong so he could help her by chopping wood for her to hear her home.  A few days later it was cold again, so he went back to the old woman’s house and chopped more wood for her.

In next house whose door he knocked on, lived a family.  The parents in the family were struggling because their daughter was in the hospital but they had no way to get there to visit her.  Once again, David was annoyed at first.  All he wanted to do was find homes that had known no suffering and again, here was a family dealing with a crisis.  Again David wanted to walk away and try yet another home, but David knew he had a car and realized he could help them.  He felt compelled to return day and day to help the couple care for their child and soon he began looking forward to the time in the car with them.  And similar things occurred as David knocked on door after door.  David invited people to share their burdens with him.  They were touched by this kindness and David’s desire to hear their stories.  They opened up to him and spoke of their troubles.  Everyone was changed by the connections they developed with each other.

A year later David saw the rabbi again.  The rabbi asked how he was doing and he said he was surprised that he couldn’t find a single house without suffering and he had no mustard seeds to show.  The rabbi smiled and said that was precisely the point.  There are no houses without struggles or pain, but in his search David learned how to listen and helped ease the burdens of others.  He learned how to share his pain by opening up and being vulnerable.  In forming meaningful relationships David found many sparks of the divine.  He helped others and saw God’s healing power not only for them but for him too.

During our life’s journeys, we want to understand the why. When we seek our answers hopefully can be like David and learn from our search.  Today, this Yom Kippur the Untaneh Tokef teaches to ask questions and to recognize the holiness around us. When we approach our search through the lens of teshuva, t’filah and tzedakah then we can find holiness in prayer, in healing and community. We can be the sparks of the divine as we support in each other, as we connect with Jewish tradition and as we are community for one another.

May we all strive to see the holiness around us and truly live in community in 5784.