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Rosh Hashanah - 2005 / 5766

09/01/2005 09:00:12 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

An ABC News/Washington Post Poll reported that 23% of respondents see the recent hurricanes as a deliberate act of God. The percentage of those between the ages of 18 and 34 who said this was even higher: 32 %. Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin recently called Hurricane Katrina a punishment from God, saying New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast "have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God."

I am immediately reminded of similar statements regarding gay men who contracted AIDS at an alarmingly high rate - that this, too, was God's punishment. The corollary, which was rarely mentioned, is striking: if that is so, then God must especially love lesbians, who have a much lower incidence of AIDS than heterosexuals. So if Senator Erwin is correct, we need only look to those places free of natural disaster and copy their lifestyles to know God's favor. Las Vegas comes to mind, amongst other places.

Given the opportunity, I would like to ask him, at what point does the scale tip over and an entire populace is condemned? God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if just ten righteous people were found there - surely there must have been at least a minyan's worth of righteous souls along the Gulf Coast. And why is God not more surgical in these strikes? Why not see to it that only the wicked are punished, and the righteous are rewarded? Or is there a collective responsibility, and so, collective punishment here? If so, what constitutes the collective - those who live within a certain physical distance of the offending behavior? All Americans? What about the Asian Tsunami last December - was that a judgment from God, too?

We can swipe away this kind of response as if flicking away a bug. And yet ………something of the question resonates with us. If we are going to talk about God at all, what do we make of a God who allows these things to happen?

We are getting used to dealing with that question. Four years ago, we gathered on Rosh Hashanah knowing that days earlier, we had entered a new era. We lost our collective innocence that day, and we have been grieving it ever since. The way we see our world is perceptibly different from what it was before, and the way we live our lives is different from the way we lived them before.

We always knew that a natural disaster might hit, and we believed that if it did, we would be as prepared for it as humanly possible. We even knew and saw what a hurricane could do to New Orleans. Surprisingly little has been said about Hurricane Betsy, a 1965 storm that flooded parts of that city, including the Ninth Ward. We may or may not have been able to construct a system of defense against the rising waters in time to prevent the disaster that is still unfolding. The jury is still out on that question. But as we well know, we surely could have constructed a better response. It needs to be said: our government - forty years worth of government, at least - failed us. And yet again, a measure of our collective innocence, our belief in those in whom we put our trust and our faith to protect us, has been lost.

But has God failed us as well?

If 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina cost us our innocence, there is, at least, a benefit that comes for that price - a more mature faith, the kind of faith that grows from challenge, the kind of faith that is unknowable to the innocent, the kind of faith that can help us face our fears. It comes from wisdom and experience, and enables us to approach the world with greater depth and sophistication, with more room for nuance and even dissonance. In the words of my colleague, Rabbi Janet Marder: "Mature faith understands that thoughtful people have doubts and must live with uncertainty………. It does not make grandiose pronouncements or give absolute assurances. Mature faith respects the world's complexity; it acknowledges that there are many paths to truth; it does not seek to denigrate or dominate others through dogma."

And mature faith, particularly mature Jewish faith, requires, in the words of Edmond Fleg, "no abdication of the mind." We need not suspend our critical faculties in order to sit comfortably with faith - in fact, we need to sharpen them. But we need to distinguish between belief and faith. Belief is intellectual, about accepting a matter as factually true. Faith is about placing one's trust and confidence. One can have faith without belief, and vice-versa. Of the two, faith matters more, because it leads to action. Judaism is faith and action based. Belief is assumed, but the Torah offers no articulated theology, and there is no declaration of belief ever required or even expected in Judaism.

Our subsequent sacred texts are not catechisms and doctrines, but collections of parables and legal arguments. What we call Jewish theology is the extraction from those parables and legal discussions of a set of coherent ideas that reflect the understanding of God that is encoded within them. It points out a direction and establishes a framework.

Like you, I struggle with faith and belief. If I did not, I would have little to say to you. My faith has grown and matured and been battered and bruised and chastened over the years, yet it is stronger, if less certain and less elegant than it might have been at one time. Getting to where I am has not been easy, and it has required a constant re-evaluation and reconsideration of what I do believe. I cannot promise that next year or even next week I will be in the same place. I can promise to share my struggle with you. It is how I make sense of the world in which we live, and how I can respond to the question: Has God failed us?

There are two names by which God is most commonly known in the Torah: Adonai and Elohim. These are the two names we invoke every time we say the words of the Shma - Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad - and every time we say a blessing, a bracha: Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu - Blessed are you, Adonai, our Elohim.

Obviously, this refers to one and the same God, but by two different names, reflecting the two different aspects of the one God. Jewish tradition has long understood that duality - not dualism, but duality- as the tension between Din, judgment, and Rachamim, mercy. Elohim is associated with the aspect of strict judgment, and Adonai with the aspect of Rachamim, mercy and compassion. But this tension is not competition - again, duality, not dualism - not competition, but different emanations from the same source.

Elohim is the power of God's natural law, the way that things are and must be. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this and accepted it. Nature is morally neutral. Elohim is the Creator of mountains and valleys, sunshine and darkness, earthquakes and droughts and floods and, yes, hurricanes. Nature is amoral - not immoral, but amoral.

There is a wonderful passage in the Talmud that speaks to this (Avodah Zarah 54b): the rabbis posit, "Olam k'minhago noheg - nature pursues its normal course." "If a man stole a measure of wheat and sowed it in the ground, it would be right that the wheat not grow. After all, it is stolen." But, say the rabbis, the world pursues its normal course, follows the laws of nature. Further, the rabbis observe, "If a man have intercourse with his neighbor's wife, it would be right that she should not conceive. But nature pursues its own course." And even out of an adulterous relationship a child is born. "Nature pursues its normal course -- olam k'minhago noheg." A bowl shaped city is built below sea level, with insufficient protection from rising waters, and when a hurricane hits, there is devastation. Olam k'minhago noheg - nature pursues its normal course.

And God help us all if it did not, if there was no order, natural or societal. We saw it too closely as we watched in horror and read about the looting, the roving gangs, the sheer desperation that characterized New Orleans during those worst few days of lawlessness immediately following the hurricane. The same is true for natural law. As challenging as it can be to live with the natural laws we have, imagine what life would be like if there was no discernible natural order, if we could not count on rocks being hard and ice being cold, or seed, soil, sun, and water combining to yield produce to feed us. We may not always like or agree with a given law, set of laws, or legal system, but the alternative is chaos. Olam k'minhago noheg - nature pursues its normal course. Thank God.

And yet…..and yet……… God is more than a natural order. Yes, God is Elohim, but God is also Adonai, the aspect of rachamim, the aspect of mercy. Linguists point out that the root of rachamim, of rachamnut (perhaps you know the Yiddish term, rachmanus) is rechem, the word for womb. Rachamim suggests love, family feeling, the tenderness a mother feels for the baby she carries within her, and an aching desire to help that child become everything that he or she can become. To talk about God's rachamim gives us a very different understanding of God, more than that God is merciful, but that God cares deeply for us and about us.

And while the womb is not where creation takes place, it is where creation materializes. Adonai then, represents not only God's compassion, but the incorporeal womb where we participate in creation. If Elohim represents the aspect of din, the way things are, Adonai represents not only the way things should be, but with our participation - and only with our participation - the way that things can be.

A famous passage in the Midrash Tanchuma relates a debate between Rabi Akiba and Tinneus Rufus, the Roman governor. Rufus, the pagan, asks of Akiba, "Which is greater, the work of God or the work of man?" Akiba brings a sheaf of wheat and a loaf of challah before Tinneus Rufus. "Clearly", says Akiba, "Challah, the work of man, is greater."

Could Akiba possibly be saying that he holds the work of man above the work of God? Hardly. Akiba is rejecting the kind of either/or thinking characteristic of simplistic thinking and theology. Both God and man are involved in creation. The raw sheaf of wheat is inedible. We need to actualize the potential that is in the wheat, using our God-given capacities to transform it into what it can be. We say motzi over bread, not wheat. We say Kiddush over wine, not grapes - because the blessing associated with celebration of simchas and holidays requires the transaction between physical nature and human nature, between Elohim and Adonai.

In the story of creation, the word Elohim appears exclusively until after the creation of human beings, the one creation in whom, it is said, God's image is reflected. Only then does the Torah speak of Adonai, only then is the aspect of rachamim revealed. At that moment, the relationship between God and human beings is established and launched along an unchanged trajectory.

Before this morning’s Torah reading, I asked you to listen for the words Elohim and Adonai. You might have noticed that for the first ten verses, when it is announced that God decided to test Abraham, when God calls out to Abraham, instructs him to take his son to the mountain, up to the point that Abraham's hand is finally stayed, it is the voice of Elohim, and only at the moment of salvation, when Abraham hears a voice telling him to stop, is the name of Adonai invoked, the aspect of rachamim brought to bear- and the world is as it should be.

Like Abraham, when we hear the voice of Adonai, when we feel the challenge of Adonai, and respond as we know we should - we make the world as it can be, as it should be.

Adonai is crying out in a loud voice these days.

Adonai is crying out that we need to continue to raise funds to respond to the immediate humanitarian needs created by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, and to be prepared to respond to more and more need in the months and even years ahead.

Adonai is crying to us, demanding that we not let challenges of safety and security brought before us be waylaid by special interests or our own unwillingness to sacrifice.

And Adonai is crying out to us to correct the systemic injustices that Hurricane Katrina laid bare for all the world to see. Elohim cannot make America fulfill its promise of being a land of equality and justice, but if we live up to our responsibility, Adonai will help us do just do just that. Otherwise - Olam k'minhago noheg - nature will pursue its own course.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Melech Haolam, shenatan mechochmato l'vasar va-dam - Blessed are you, Adonai, our Elohim, who has imparted a measure of your wisdom to flesh and blood - and established us as your partners in creation.

I am indebted to Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whose teaching about the duality of God formed the basis for this sermon.

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Sh'vat 5781