I was given a gift at the end of my third year of rabbinical school when one of my professors came up to me and said, “I saw you in services when we first started learning together and I really thought your joy was somewhat inauthentic, that there was no way that you could possibly have that much joy and be authentically who you are. But I realized over these last two years that you embody the words of the Psalmists, “ivdu et-Adonai b’simcha - you serve Adonai with joy.”
I tell you this because I am going to be honest with you: this week, it has been very difficult to be joyful.
There's a story in the Talmud about a scholar named Elisha ben Abuya. Elisha ben Abuya once saw a father ask his young child to climb a tree to fulfill this commandment to shoo away a mother bird before taking her eggs. Unfortunately, the child fell out of the tree and died. Elisha ben Abuya, understandably, was distraught. Not only at the loss of life, but he questioned both commandments, honoring one's parents and shooing a mother bird away, especially since they explicitly offer a long life as their reward. Here, a child, fulfilling two mitzvot with the promise of long life, died. When the child died, so, too, did Elisha ben Abuya's faith. (based on Kiddushin 39b) After this moment, the Talmud gave him a different name: "Acher" or the "Other." He became foreign, he became an other, he became an outsider who lost faith and, therefore, his connection with the Divine and the Jewish community.
In recent days, we have been confronted with nature's worst -- we have seen the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, we are fearful for our friends and family in Florida and the Caribbean as they deal with and prepare for Hurricane Irma, and our hearts are broken and as Californians empathetic to those in Mexico, Guatemala, and all of those affected by this morning's massive earthquake. And this is all on top of the grief shared by this community -- the grief we all share as husbands and fathers die too soon, wives and mothers receive heartbreaking diagnoses. We try to make sense of the onslaught of what's happening -- a thousand-year flood, an 8.0 earthquake, amongst others...It is natural for us to reflect on these incidents and ask why bad things happen to good people.
On its face, this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, presents a paradigm of blessings and curses, which attempt to address this question of "why." Moses teaches that if the Israelites listen to God, they will be blessed with fruits of the womb, soil, and livestock. But if they do not listen, the will be cursed and be chased by enemies.
This rationale for why bad things happen is quite frustrating because it implies that if you find yourself in the curses of life, it must be because you didn't listen to God, or you didn't follow a certain law, or you did something wrong. For too long, this paradigm has been used to blame natural disasters on humans who are on the margins of society, and disease as a reflection of moral behavior.
For most of us, talking about blessings and curses, reward and punishment, is strange, it's foreign, and to be honest, it's a turn-off. We conjure the image from our High Holiday liturgy: "All who come into the world pass before You (God) like sheep before their shepherd. As a shepherd considers the flock, when it passes beneath the staff, You count and consider every life. You set bounds; You decide destiny; You inscribe judgements. On Rosh Hashanah this is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: How many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it; who will live and who will die." (Trans. Mishkan Hanefesh)
However, as Rabbi Berk so beautifully articulated this morning, "Surely we stand at this moment on the very edge of faith. The answers for which we long, answers that could bring us comfort, must forever elude us. There is no good theology to make us feel better right now. We all know in our hearts that [there are those who were]too young; too vibrant; too important to [their] family and circle of friends to be taken from us. No cheap ideas can take away the sting of [their] death. So, we are left with a choice: to abandon our faith or to let our faith mature; for it takes maturity and wisdom to stand in awe before and accept the mysteries of life. In the final analysis, the tragedy of death and suffering ought not to detract from affirming the goodness of life."
Indeed, perhaps we can look at the relationship between blessings and curses not in direct relation, but as an agreement between us, God, and each other -- an agreement about how we want to express our love for each other. Perhaps when we examine the hurricanes and earthquakes and cancers of our bodies and our society, we should seek the blessings, seek the good deeds, seek the goodness and Godliness in the humanity of our response so that each of us can find a way to serve Adonai with joy.
I do not know why bad things happen to good people. I do not understand why there are massive injustices in the world; but when I try to blame God, or when I credit God for when bad things happen to bad people, my soul feels unsatisfied. I do not see God as a scapegoat. And I do not subscribe to the philosophy that everything happens for a reason in some great, divine plan. Some injustices in the world are brought about by natural things or human forces we do not yet, and may never, understand.
So this Shabbat, as you reflect on your week, I want to encourage you to change your approach - do t'shuvah, turn yourself and your thinking. When faced with the tragedies around us, do not ask, "Why do bad things happen?" Instead, say, "When bad things happen, I will remember to be kind; when bad things happen, I will remember to do good; when bad things happen, I will remember to support my loved ones and embrace those around me. When bad things happen, I will not be like Elisha ben Abuya, lose faith and in doing so lose those around me. When bad things happen, I will not ask, 'Why?' but rather 'What can I do?'" We, as humans and as Jews, engage directly with God when we treat other ethically, and care for others in goodness.
Those are the blessings we can live.
Those are the rewards we can reap.
That is the Shalom we can bring this Shabbat.