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Choose Life

04/06/2015 07:01:00 AM


Choose Life
Rosh Hashana 5770, 2009
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

In the second century, the Roman Empire decreed that the practice of Judaism was a political affront to the Caesar. They prohibited every Jewish practice, and most especially the teaching of Torah. For Rabbi Akiba, Torah was life itself. So he continued to teach Torah in public, until he was arrested by the Roman authorities. They decided to make an example of him. They compelled the Jewish community to gather in the arena, and before the eyes of his family, his students, his people, they brutally tortured Rabbi Akiba to death. 

According to the story told in Talmud Brachot, as the executioners began to tear the flesh from his body, Akiba looked up and saw the setting sun. He smiled. And he began to recite the Shema Yisrael for the evening prayers. 
His students were shocked and they exclaimed, “Rabbeinu, Ad kaan?” Our teacher, even now? Ever the teacher, Akiba instructed them: “I rejoice. For my whole life I have loved God with all my heart and all my might, and now I am able to love God with all my life.” He completed the Shema Yisrael, and died with the word Ehad on his lips. 

Akiba smiled! How does a person endure unimaginable agony, face imminent death, and yet still find joy and purpose in his life? Where does that courage come from? 

The answer would come eighteen centuries later in the wisdom of another Jew. Viktor Frankl was a brilliant young medical student in Vienna in the early decades of the 20th Century. He studied neurology and was attracted to the new field of psychiatry by Sigmund Freud took him as a protégé, and Alfred Adler, who mentored him. Upon graduation, Frankl was appointed director of a network of mental health clinics for young people in Vienna. Austrian state education mandated that students pass a rigorous set of matriculation exams to graduate high school and gain admission to university. The pressure surrounding these exams was so extreme, there was an epidemic of suicides among youngsters preparing for the exams. 

Frankl began working with suicidal kids, and he came to realize that his teachers, Freud and Adler, were wrong. These youngsters did not suffer ordinary neurosis. They suffered from a profound sense of meaninglessness. Classical psychoanalysis held that the dynamic force driving behavior is our striving to satisfy needs in order to maintain a sense of internal equilibrium. But these young people wanted more than equilibrium. And they weren’t focused on the self. They wanted to be attached to something bigger than the self; some transcendent meaning. They wanted something to live for, something to work for, to strive for. Frankl was successful in stopping the epidemic of suicides. In the process he came to believe that the fundamental dynamic of human life is not the satisfaction of needs, as Freud taught, nor the pursuit to pleasure or power, but a will to meaning. We seek meaning. With meaning, human life is worth living. With meaning, a human being can endure any hardship. 

Ironically, Frankl was forced to test his theory in history’s most difficult laboratory. When the Nazis came to power in Austria, Frankl was deported to Auschwitz. In the months before the deportation, he struggled to record his research and his theories in a book. The book was his life. It was just a type-written manuscript, when Frankl was taken to the camps, so he carefully sewed the pages into the lining of his overcoat. When he arrived in Auschwitz, he was ordered to remove and discard the coat. He begged the guards to allow him to keep it, but that only motivated them to tear the coat off his back and throw it into the fire. Everything Frankl valued, everything he’d worked for, everything that defined him, was gone. 

Instead, he was given a tattered old coat, taken from a Jew who had been sent to the gas chambers. As he put on this coat, he felt a page of paper in the pocket. He found a scrap of paper, a page torn from a prayer book, the Shema Yisrael. “How else could I interpret this coincidence,” he writes, “than as a challenge to live what I had written, to practice what I had preached?” That page stayed with him, in his pocket, all the days and months and years he was in Nazis captivity as a testimony to the unconditional meaning of existence. 

Eight years ago, in the shadow of crashing planes and falling towers, we gathered in this room to cry together, to renew courage and find peace. I think this year was worse. 

On 9/11, our catastrophe was a collective experience. We all felt assaulted. And we opened up to support one another. It was easy to strike up spontaneous conversations with strangers, in line at the bank or in the supermarket checkout or the dentist’s waiting room, because we felt bonded by our common tragedy. 

On 9/11, we had symbols of our shared anguish. We flew flags and sang “God Bless America” with full-throated sincerity. We applauded every heroic firefighter, every rescue worker. 

At least on 9/11, we had a visible enemy and he was undeniably evil. 

Not this time. This time, not planes but our dreams have been hijacked. Not towers, but our faith in the future has come crashing down. This crisis has unsettled us, robbed us of our security. But not collectively. This time, each of us suffers alone, individually, and in silence. There are no songs, no symbols, no heroes. And no clearly defined enemy. Who is responsible? Madoff? AIG? My broker? The truth is, we all prospered from the mad exuberance of the good years. We’ve met the enemy. It’s us. 

So we come to shul this Rosh Hashanah seeking help, comfort, renewal. And what do we find? This distressing prayer:

On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: 
Who will live and who will die, who in their time, and who before their time? 
Who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague? 
Who will be torn and who will be whole, who will wander and who will have peace?

My mother, whom some of you knew, hated this prayer. She would always find some excuse to be out of the synagogue whenever it was recited. And I know why. Because she knew a lot of pain in her life, and the prayer told her that all of it came from God. It was God’s judgment, God’s punishment, God’s decision. The pain, the struggles, the losses, the disease, the insecurity and fear and worry … it all came from on high. And therefore, it was deserved; the decree of a just and loving God. My mother, a faithful Jew, a loyal Jew, simply could not accept that. So she found a quiet, unobtrusive way to slip out before the prayer. 

I imagine a lot of us do the same. Perhaps we don’t leave physically, but we find some other way to absent ourselves. We read it as a poem by an author long dead, composed for time long past. Or we simply close the book and daydream for a while. Or we make it into a sing-along. After all, if you like the song, who needs pay attention to the words? 

I ask you to come back to this prayer with me. Because it’s too important to ignore. Because it teaches a wisdom you need to hear this year. It teaches the Jewish way to deal with suffering. 

The prayer asks a long series of questions. Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is: “Me.” 
Who will live and who will die? I will. 
Who in their time and who before their time? Me. Like every human being, when I die, it will be at the right time, and it will also be too soon. 
Fire, water, earthquake, plague? In my lifetime, I’ve been scorched and drowned, shaken and burdened, torn and made whole, wandering and at peace. That has been my life’s journey. 

Of course, I prefer to deflect this truth. I would much prefer to let the prayer talk about someone else, perhaps the fellow in the next row. It has taken a lifetime to realize that defense is a lie. The prayer is not about someone else. It’s about me. It is a statement of the truth of my existence. So now I read it again, but in the first person and it makes me shiver:  

I will live and I will die, at the right time, and before my time, 
I will be torn and I may achieve wholeness, I will wander and I might yet find peace.

This is the central truth of the High Holiday. This makes them Yamim Nora’im, days of terror. We are vulnerable. We are finite and fragile. The facts of human existence that matter most are out of our control. Not one of us decides when we will be born. Neither do we decide when we will die. Health and sickness, wellness and brokenness are not of our choosing. We invest ourselves in the lives of others, we love them and need them, but we cannot protect them from the world and its accidents. 

All year long we might pretend that we are in control. All year long, we might strut about surrounded by the tokens of our power and influence. Our wealth and possessions, our titles and uniforms, our credentials, provide an illusion of control. But the holiday skillfully strips us of all that. We stand shoeless, wrapped in a kittel, a death shroud, hungry, weary, dizzy. We feel viscerally the fragility, the limitations, of being human.

B'rosh Hashana yi'katayvu U'v'yom tzom Kipur y'chataymu. 
On Rosh Hashana the decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

What is this “decree?” 

The prayer imagines God as judge, auditor, grand inquisitor. The great book of life is opened, and our actions for the year are examined. God decides if this year we are worthy of a renewed grant of life. God decides if this will be a year of plenty or poverty, of sickness or health, of rest or toil. God decides and God’s decision is recorded. But before it is sealed, we have three appeals: Repentance, prayer, and righteousness. The decision can be litigated. Vigorous appeal just might change God’s mind. 

Most people read the prayer this way. Even those who have long abandoned traditional religion still harbor images of this fearsome, judging God. That’s not surprising, after all we were all once small children, completely dependent upon the good will of all-powerful adults. That sense of begin judged for life and death still lives deep within us. 

If this were the prayer’s only meaning, I would stop saying it, just as my mother did. Just as I’m sure many Jews have. But I choose to read differently. The “decree” is not my individual fate. The “decree” is not a judgment; its terms are not punishment. The decree is simply the human condition itself. It is the fragility, the vulnerability of being human: the blunt truth that we do not control the fundamental facts of our own existence. 

And this truth, as painful as it is to acknowledge, this truth is profoundly liberating. 

We maintain a myth in our culture, call it the “Myth of Prozac.” According to this myth, the normal state of human existence is happiness. Suffering is an aberration, an exception, a momentary crisis that interrupts the flow of normal life, until we can make things right again. Because life is happiness, we believe that maturity is marked by self-sufficiency. To be an adult is to be capable of handling life and its challenges, to take care of yourself. To be dependent is to sink into inferiority. Dependency is infantilizing. Asking for help is undignified. That why men never ask directions when we drive. We believe in putting on a good face. That’s the mandated public persona: We’re always shiney happy people. We’re the only culture in the world that demands that everyone smile when we take photographs. Look at old photos, look at photos from other culture, no one is smiling. But in America, everyone says, “Cheese!” Because we’re always happy. 

Because of this myth, when life turns difficult, we’re surprised. “How can this be happening?” We’re enraged – “How can this be happening to me?” We’re depressed, and we’re ashamed. We ashamed to admit we’re miserable. We’re ashamed to ask for help. We’re ashamed to share with one another how we feel. 

Look at how we greet one another: “How are you?” “Just fine, thanks. And you?” “Great, great.” 
Try this: next time someone asks you, “How are you?” Tell them. Tell them the truth. See what happens. You know what will happen if you tell the truth, they’ll never talk to you again. We don’t want to be around people who are hurting. Even when people are mourning; at the cemetery, at a shiva house. We ask them, “How are you?” They respond, “Holding up.” They’re not permitted reveal their agony. 

If we cry in public, we immediately apologize. Suffering denotes failure. Sharing suffering is an embarrassment. You’re supposed to get over it, or at least you’re supposed to bear it stoically. 

When people come to a funeral service to bury a mother or a father, when they come to shul to say Kaddish, they wear dark glasses. Inside the chapel, during the service, they’re wearing dark glasses. Mortuary chapels here in California have a special room for the grieving family, a room curtained off and blocked from the view of the rest of the community. We’re not allowed to cry in front of one another! Somehow it is a disgrace to reveal our tears, our pain, to lose control and composure. 

When Senator Kennedy died last month, it was touching to see his family’s tears. I’m old enough to remember when his brother, the president was murdered, and his wife and family stood in stoic resolve. No tears, no sobbing, no expression of emotion. And we were impressed by Mrs Kennedy’s poise and strength and her courage. Too bad. Mrs Kennedy should have cried. She should have sobbed, like all of us were sobbing. 

This prayer sees life differently. It offers the exact opposite gestalt. It says: the human condition is fragile. That’s the norm. When tragedy strikes, it is profoundly sad. But it’s no surprise. That’s part of being human. The surprise is that we enjoy so many, many days of sunshine. The surprise is that we get to see our kids grow up healthy and thriving. The surprise is that we have so few days of real sadness. Those are the gifts of life – undeserved, unearned, wondrous gifts of divine grace. 

Tragedy strikes is no judgment, it’s no punishment. You’re not singled out. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one. This is one thing a rabbi knows. You may hide from one another, but I look out from here and I see the many families I’ve shared tears with. We have stood over the open grave, or over the hospital bed. We have agonized over crumbling marriages, over children with challenges, over aging parents, over warring siblings, over failures of character, failing health, failed ambitions, spoiled dreams. Who will live and who will die? Everyone of us. Who suffers in life? Everyone of us. 

We have so little control over the conditions of our existence, but we have three tools for transcending the harsh facts of human life. Three divine gifts for making the human condition live-able and meaningful and bearable.

U'tshuva, U'tefila, U'tzedaka, ma'avirim et roah ha gezayrah. 
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

Tshuvah. “Repentance” 

I am a cancer patient. Twice I had to undergo an unpleasant course of chemotherapy. At Kaiser, I sat in the clinic and took my medicine. In the chair next to me was an older woman. She was taking a much more rigorous, painful course of treatment. In front of her, on the tray-table, were all these little plastic picture frames. So one day I asked her, “Florence, what are those?” She looked at me and sighed, and gathered herself and explained: 
“I’m 78 years old. I’ve lived a long and good life. I don’t need this. If this is my time, I’m satisfied with life. God has been good to me. But these are my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. They need their Grandma. So that’s why I’m going through this.” 
And then she asked me a startling question: “Who are you doing this for?” 

A slave laborer at Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl watched his fellow prisoners and wondered what it was that enabled certain inmates in the concentration camp to maintain a sense of hope and inner strength, while others lost their will to live. He discovered that those who were able to find some meaning in their suffering and some purpose to struggle for, survived. Those who accepted the meaninglessness of the Nazi terror as the measure of life, soon died. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written right after the war, Frankl argues that while we may not decide the conditions of our existence, we always possess the freedom to interpret those conditions and the freedom to choose our response. 

We all know people who melt at the slightest disappointment or setback. And we know those who have suffered immeasurably, and yet maintain an air of optimism and hope. Our response, our attitude, is not an autonomic reflex. It is freely chosen. We possess the freedom to shape the interpretation of our experience, to decide what it means to us, and to fashion a response. And we can always change our responses. Whatever might happen to us, we bear full responsibility for the kind of people we are. Even in a concentration camp, a human being maintained his humanity by sharing a crust of his tiny ration of bread with a starving comrade, by noticing a colorful sunset, by reciting a prayer at bedtime. The Nazis could steal everything from a human, but not that freedom. 

Freedom and responsibility are the very essence of being human. It is the dignity of being human. Even when life brings loss and pain, even when life is out of our control, we have choices. We can choose to sink into bitterness and rage and despair. Or we can choose to transcend the losses and rise to a life of purpose and hope. We can choose to live in self-absorption, nursing the resentments and bitterness. Or we can reach out to the other in love and caring. Who are you suffering for? For what ideals do you sacrifice what’s dear to you? This freedom lifts us above the precarious fragility of life and makes life ultimately meaningful. This is Tshuva. 

Tefila. “Prayer.” 

When I hurt, my world collapses into a tiny ball of grief and pain… 
“It’s just me.” “I’m the only one who knows this pain.” “No one understands, no one can help, no one can do anything, no one cares. I’m so alone. Leave me be.” 

They were still newcomers to our community when his father died suddenly. I officiated at the funeral. And afterwards, I asked him when I could come to the house to lead a minyan. 
“No, Rabbi, it’s not necessary. Nobody knows us, Rabbi, no one will come. Don’t bother.” 
“I think I can make it there by 6 PM. Is that ok?” I persisted. 
“Really, rabbi, no one will come. We’ll just get through this on our own.” 
“6 o’clock then, I see you then.” 
When I pulled up to the house that evening, more than a hundred people crowded his home. Families from his kids’ school, kids from the youth group, people they met during the High Holidays, all filled his home with prayers for comfort and healing and life renewed. He was waiting for me on the lawn, his eyes filled with tears. “You were right! How did you know they would come? This is wonderful.” 
“Good,” I responded, “now we pray.” 
We cannot alter the fundamental facts of the human condition. But we need not suffer them alone. We hold hands, we share tears, we lift our voices and cry together. And in so doing, we lift one another up, out of the darkness. In prayer, we transcend loneliness and alienation and discover the warm consolation of love, of connection, of solidarity, of community. This it Tefila. 

Tzedaka “Righteousness.” 

We cannot change the human condition, but we have the power to make our world a bit more gentle. We can smooth the sharp edges and blunt the corners. It is the fundamental faith of Judaism that each act of goodness counts. Our acts accumulate. Our acts have invisible resonance, echoes. An act of goodness might ripple across the world to heal and aching soul far beyond our horizon. And our acts touch us deeply within. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shner Zalman, taught that there are moments in every spiritual life when we lose faith, lose touch with the divine, lose hope. What does one do at such moments? Perform one selfless act of goodness, he taught. At that moment, you will feel the Presence of God in your fingers. In your act of caring, you will feel God’s caring. In your act of healing, you will feel God’s power to heal. This is Tzedaka. 

There is another myth popular in our culture, call it the “Myth of Viagra.” For every problem, there is a pill. For every dilemma, there is a quick, painless, technical solution. A drug, a therapy, a red string tied around the wrist, makes it all better. For many problems, that may be true. But not for the problem of life. The problem of life is simply stated: Either we live on purpose. Or we live by accident. If we live by accident, as I suspect most in this culture do; if we allow life to carry us along with no idea of why we live, no notion what we live for; if we live life as a endless string of episodes of fun, amusement, and entertainment, we will be totally unprepared to cope with tragedy when it comes. And it will come. And it will bring depression and despair and destruction. The only way to bear the human condition, with all its inevitable crises, taught Viktor Frankl, is to discover and affirm the purpose for which we live. If life is for something, then suffering is bearable. There is no pill. There is only the lifelong project of affirming the meaningfulness of life. 

At the end of the Torah, the people Israel come before Moses, now 120 years old, and soon to die. They come before him to hear one last word, one last summation of his wisdom and his truth. And he says to them: 
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” 

When I was young, I thought this to be nothing more than a shallow cliché. After all, who wouldn’t choose life. Life then was filled with nothing but light and possibilities. Now that I’ve lived and learned a bit, I realize: This is the hardest commandment in the entire Torah to fulfill. And it is the most important. 

There are times when life betrays and batters us. Times when life beats us down. Times when life steals all that is precious, and strips us of all that we cherish. And still, we are commanded to choose life. At these moments, we recognize these divine gifts: our power to resist despair, cynicism, bitterness and resentment; our power to assert meaning and purpose even in suffering itself; our power to reach one another and hold hands; our power to care and be cared for. We are commanded to live and love and work and create and laugh…and never never never give up. We are commanded to hold hands and never let go. To stand firm and testify, as Akiba did: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Ehad. At the edge of the darkness, there is purpose, there is meaning, there is joy, there is light. And like Akiba, to smile.

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Thu, July 29 2021 20 Av 5781