“Is Anybody Out There?”
Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778
Rabbi Aviva Bass
Some of you here today had a fantastic year last year, and have come here feeling optimistic and positive about your future. If so, that’s great. But I’m not talking to you right now. I would recommend you listen to me anyway, because, you never know, life has a funny way of turning on you when you think everything is going a particular direction, and then, it doesn’t. But this sermon is not meant for where your heart and mind are right now. This sermon is for the rest of you, who may have had a year filled with great despair, self-doubt, and who wonder if anything is ever going to get better. Perhaps you have even questioned whether you can dream anymore, because it seems like all your hopes and aspirations have come to naught.
We have all heard the sayings before: G-d doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle. We’re given exactly the problems and struggles we need to face in our lives, and no more. Give up your pain to G-d, Who will take the burden off your shoulders for you—you don’t need to carry it any more. If you believe these things, that’s fine for you, and I don’t want to burst your bubble. But, personally, frankly, I think they’re a load of garbage.
All you have to do is to take a look at the latest news or social media on the internet, and get the latest bird’s eye view of what tragedies have befallen people around the world, or even our own neighbors, and all these theories seem to crumble. Did the victims of the most recent hurricanes deserve to die? What about all who perished in the earthquake in Mexico? The parents who expected their children to arrive home from school that day, never to see them return? Did those who lost their homes and businesses and everything that they owned need that struggle in their lives? And look at our history. To even imply that the victims and survivors of the Shoah somehow received something redemptive from their suffering desecrates the memory of the Six Million Jews senselessly murdered by the Nazis and all who suffered the unimaginable at their hands.
Yes, it is true that people can learn from tragedy. I have in my own life, and I have counseled people who have become stronger and better in some ways as a result from having endured terrible trauma and suffering in their lives. We have just observed the 16th anniversary of 9-11. Listening to first-hand accounts and stories of those who survived that tragedy, yes, many have learned and grown from the time that they have lived since that experience, and we certainly have outgrown our naivite as a result of that experience as a nation. Yet would we choose such a path to learn these lessons? To imply that all the tragedy in the world is somehow meant or justified for that purpose seems callous at best, and, at worst, blames the victim and debases those who need our help most in the world today.
Human beings are capable of living through tremendous circumstances. Every day, people encounter losses on every level, and somehow live to tell the tale. But at what point are they surviving and not really living?
Since we are all here in synagogue at this holiest time of the year, beseeching G-d to write us in the Book of Life for a good year, I am going to guess that none of us simply wishes to survive our situations. We wish to thrive, to enjoy the life we have for as long as we can and as well as we can under our personal circumstances.
So where can we turn when we are most in despair in our lives? How can we keep going when it seems hard to hope that things will improve? Because none of us, if we live long enough, is immune. At some point, whether through cancer or another disease, loss of financial security, a tragic or unexpected death of a loved one, or just living through enough losses, at some time in our lives, we will ask ourselves, “What is this life really about?”
So today, on this Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah, I want to pose the question this way: Is Anyone out there listening to anything we’re saying here? Are we wasting our breath, mouthing all of these words? To Whom am I beseeching to write me in the Book of Life? And do I get a say in what is written there?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I pose them because I ask them as well. But I would like to share with you one response that has given me comfort, and that I hope will provide some for you as well.
You may familiar with Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which has offered hope to many suffering tremendous loss and grief in their lives. He has written many books since that one, and I would like to discuss one of them with you. It is entitled Overcoming Life’s Disappointments–a great title, and a very good book, in my opinion. Rather than preaching to the reader how he or she can learn and grow and overcome life’s circumstances, Kushner wisely turns to the Torah for an example. He finds in the life of Moses a great model from which we can all learn how to live and to thrive in our own situations.
Moses is a character filled with self-doubt. He is wandering after a lost sheep—and perhaps his lost sense of self as well—when he is diverted by the sight of a bush burning but not consumed. G-d speaks to Moses from out of the burning bush, commanding him to remove his sandals, for he is on holy ground, and then foretelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. G-d tells Moses that G-d is sending Moses to Pharaoh to deliver then, and Moses, understandably, feels inadequate to this task. Moses expresses his self-doubt to G-d, saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” G-d responds, “I will be with you.” Kushner calls this verse “one of the most important in all of Scripture.” Kushner points out the fact that, in response to Moses asking who he, Moses, is, G-d replies that G-d will be with him. In the next verse, Moses asks G-d for G-d’s Name, in effect saying, “OK, so who are YOU?” to which the Divine responds with the famous words, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” a virtually untranslatable phrase that is usually rendered either, “I am Who I am,” or “I will be Who I will be.” Kushner points out the fact that the word “Ehyeh” is the same word used two verses earlier when G-d says, “I will be with you.”
Kushner understands the verse, “I will be with you,” as G-d’s Name. He says, “That is what G-d is all about. G-d is the One who is with us when we have to do something we don’t think we are capable of doing. G-d is the light shining in the midst of the darkness, not to deny that there is darkness in the world but to reassure us that we do not have to be afraid of the darkness because darkness will always yield to light.” He quotes the theologian David Griffin who said, “G-d is all-powerful, but G-d’s power is not the power to control events; IT IS THE POWER TO ENABLE PEOPLE TO DEAL WITH EVENTS BEYOND THEIR, OR EVEN G-D’S POWER TO CONTROL.”
Thus, G-d is with us when we suffer, when we falter, and when we question ourselves, our Purpose, and our lives. G-d was with the first responders arriving on the scene 16 years ago, rushing into the Twin Towers on 9-11 and was with the morgue technicians arriving with the human remains from the explosion. G-d has been with the families of the victims of every tragedy, including the most recent hurricanes and earthquakes, and remains with them in their deep grief, horror, and shock. In Kushner’s view, G-d is with the adulterer who struggles with his own infidelity and with the alcoholic who doubts here ability to refuse another drink. G-d is with each of us in our own grief, our losses, our personal struggles, and our pain, because it is G-d who enables us to survive, and, eventually, to thrive, despite our suffering, and to alleviate the suffering of others.
Another famous contemporary rabbi, Harold Schulweiss, explains that he likes to think of the question not as “where is G-d,” but rather “when is G-d?” G-d is when we overcome our own fear and self-doubt to serve a Higher Purpose, to save a life, to help another human being, or to free ourselves from our own self-defeating patterns. As Rabbi David A. Cooper puts it in the title of his famous book, G-d is a Verb. G-d is helping, serving, healing, acting righteously, and doing justice. And G-d is having faith that G-d is doing and being with us, and through us, in every moment, as we, made in G-d’s Image, walk in the world.
As Kushner writes, “To the people who insist, ‘What do you want of me? I’m only human, G-d promises to be with them, assuring them that with G-d on their side, they can be more than ‘only human.’”
Is anyone out there? Well, perhaps another way to think of this question is, “Is anyone in here?” Who is in here, inside of me, my Voice of Ehyeh, “I will be?” Am I listening, truly listening, to my own words of prayer, do I hear my own cry and that of the others around me, even here, within this very room? What difference will I make in my life and in the lives of others, with G-d at my side and within? How will I allow G-d’s light to shine through me in my darkness, and how can I make of myself a lamp through the darkness for others? What will I write in my own Book of Life this year? And will it be a new chapter or just a repeat of my story from the past?
As we begin this New Year of 5778 together, may each of us find the Light of G-d within ourselves, guiding us through our darkness, for ourselves and others. May we feel, as the Psalmist declared, “G-d is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear?”