A couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, “Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There’s a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?”
I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that’s a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by “God” and what you mean by “control.”
And she said, “But doesn’t Jewish tradition say that’s exactly how it works?” Well: yes — and no. “Jewish tradition” says a lot of things that don’t necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It’s a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water…” That’s a theology that can be hard to swallow.
Now, I’m a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don’t want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
“But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree.”
Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as “repentance.” I prefer “return.” It comes from the root meaning “to turn,” and that’s the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, and we turn ourselves around. We look at who we’ve been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.
Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we’re doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l’hitpallel means “to discern oneself.” That’s what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world.
And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means “charity.” But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.
Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition’s tools for fixing what’s broken in our world.
And so much is broken. In recent weeks alone we’ve seen hurricanes, wildfires, and Nazis marching. Since I began working on this sermon, there have been more earthquakes in Mexico, more hurricanes in the Caribbean, unthinkable devastation in Puerto Rico. How can we maintain hope? How can we keep putting one foot in front of the other?
First we have to face in the right direction. Jewish tradition says we should orient ourselves toward God. If that word isn’t comfortable for you, try: we should orient ourselves toward justice and righteousness, toward kindness and compassion, toward hope and love.
We have to be willing to do the inner work of discerning our own patterns and how they feed into the brokenness of the world around us. We have to resist “checking out” and assuming that someone else will solve the world’s problems. Our spiritual practices can be critical tools in this work. Prayer and meditation and spiritual direction can help us to be authentic and whole as we do the work the world demands. They keep us honest. They keep us real.
And we have to pursue justice in all its forms. We have to work toward a world of righteousness. Feed the hungry. Rebuild what’s broken. Protect the vulnerable. Dedicate our hands, and our pocketbooks, to helping others. Even if you can only give a few dollars, or a few hours of your time, what matters is that you give.
These things are how we sweeten the harshness of living in this world where there are fires, and floods, and losses. Notice that even in this ancient prayer, it doesn’t say that God will soften the decree. It says that we will — if we choose to.
Last night we sang Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s poem “Unending love:”
We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves. We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing. We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear. We are loved by unending love.
We are supported by hands that uplift us even in the midst of a fall. We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting. We are loved by unending love.
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled, ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices; ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are loved by unending love.
Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices. Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are the hands of God in the world. Whether our hands build or destroy is up to us.
It’s easy to get hung up on whether or not we “believe” our high holiday liturgy: is God really judging us? (What do you mean by “God?” What do you mean by “judge”? For that matter, who’s the “us”?) I invite you to try setting aside the question of belief, and ask yourself instead: how does today’s liturgy make me feel, and what does today’s liturgy ask me to do?
How it makes you feel is a question I cannot answer — though I’d be delighted to sit down with you to hear about that anytime. But I can tell you what I think today’s liturgy asks us to do. Today’s liturgy asks us to take responsibility. It asks us to take our choices seriously. It asks us to resist despair, and instead to recommit ourselves to working toward a world that is more compassionate and more righteous than the one we inhabit now.
The question that sparked this sermon was rooted in flood and fire and devastation. The destruction we’ve seen in recent weeks is horrendous. I do not believe that God caused the hurricanes, or the wildfires, or the earthquakes.
I do believe that their damage was worsened because of human choices. Sometimes individual human choices, and often aggregate human choices. For instance, generations of lawmakers and businesspeople, in south Texas where I grew up, chose to pave the wetlands and marshes and prairies that used to act as natural flood absorbers. And because those wetlands and marshes and prairies are now covered with asphalt, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, there was nowhere for the floodwaters to go.
Our choices impact the world. That’s the bad news. It’s also the good news, because we can choose differently.
We can’t keep hurricanes from happening. But we can elect government officials who take science seriously. We can pressure our government to enact laws that will change the system in which paving over a wetland for somebody’s profit is considered a good idea. We can build a society in which no one lives in poverty anymore, and no one lives in places that are polluted or unsafe. We can collectively make different choices about how we care for each other and for the planet that we share.
Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, we can see in the world an infinitely complex chain of causality, and laws of nature, and human choices. The laws of nature aren’t up to us. But our choices are.
To say that our choices matter is frightening because it means we’re responsible. And it’s exhilarating because it means we can make the world better, if we choose to.
One of the most radical Jewish teachings I know is that our actions impact God. I want to say that again, because it’s so surprising. Every little thing we do or don’t do has an impact on God, the Source of All! According to the Jewish mystical tradition, when we do mitzvot with intention — whether lighting Shabbat candles, or fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry — we impact God’s own self. When we do mitzvot with mindfulness, we heal a brokenness within God.
Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that when creation came into being, God withdrew God’s-self — God created a space that was not God — in order to make room for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to heal. Our mystical tradition teaches that when we act here “below,” our actions are mirrored “on high.” When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within God too.
That idea may or may not work for you. Maybe you don’t believe in a God Who needs our help in order to heal. But there are human beings who need our help.I n south Texas, in Florida, in Mexico City, in Puerto Rico. And even if we aren’t acting for God’s sake, we must take action for theirs.
As we face a world that may feel increasingly apocalyptic, Jewish tradition offers us valuable tools for staying focused and creating change. We need teshuvah, turning ourselves and our communities and our world in the right direction. We need tefilah, the inner work of spiritual practice to keep us spiritually honest. And we need tzedakah, creating justice with our choices, and our hands, and our hearts.
This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us. This is the work to which authentic spiritual life calls us. May we emerge from this Yom Kippur with our hands and hearts strengthened, ready to direct our teshuvah, and our tefilah, and our tzedakah, toward fixing what’s broken. As we sang last night, and we’ll sing again now: may we bring all of our love, and our compassion, and our kindness, to the work of building a world of healing, a world of safety, a world of shalom.
Love, compassion, lovingkindness, and peace.
(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
Opportunities for tzedakah / righteous giving: