Rosh Hashanah - Day 2 - 2020/5781 - God in a Time of Crisis

Every week for the past 26 years I have been privileged to be the study partner - known in Hebrew/Aramaic as the chevruta - of my good friend Rabbi Ethan Seidel. We spend an hour every week catching up with each other’s lives and engaging in this centuries old practice of studying Torah (really any book of Jewish tradition) with a study partner. Most of our study has focused on different sections of the Talmud but sometimes we veer off into other rabbinic works. A few weeks ago we began studying a book known as the Esh Kodesh - The Holy Fire - by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro.
Though you may not have heard of him, frankly I hadn’t heard of him until I read an article about his life in the on-line Tablet magazine over a year ago, Rabbi Shapiro’s book is an amazing work of faith. Rabbi Shapiro was born in 1889 and was killed by the Nazis in 1943, at the age of 54, at the Trawniki work camp outside of Lublin in Poland . He was a Hassidic rabbi from a line of revered Hassidic rabbis and his collection of sermons - Esh Kodesh - are remarkable. This collection, which spans nearly 3 years, were hidden in a canister only to be discovered by a construction worker after the war. Apparently Rabbi Shapiro gave these sermons in Yiddish and then at the conclusion of Shabbat he transcribed them in rabbinic Hebrew.
On Rosh Hashanah in 1940 he gave a sermon based on a couple of verses found in the prayer in the shofar service that we recited just a few moments ago. On page 119 in our machzor we recited these two verses: מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָֽאתִי יָהּ עָנָֽנִי בַּמֶּרְחַב יָהּ: קוֹלִי שָׁמָֽעְתָּ אַל תַּעְלֵּם אָזְנְךָ לְרַוְחָתִי לְשַׁוְעָתִי - “Out of narrow straits, I’ve called out to God; God answered me with abundance. Hear my voice, do not close Your ear to my cry, my plea.” According to the rabbis who edited our machzor centuries ago, we - each of us individually - are supposed to respond to the shofar blasts in a deeply personal way. The shofar sounds are supposed to enter our souls and move us to change. We are supposed to acknowledge how God has heard our prayers in the past and recognize that God will listen to us again. Our prayers of contrition and repentance - our pleas - we hope will be heeded by God as the shofar blasts ascend to heaven.
In 1940, as the Jews of Poland were being herded into labor camps, concentration camps and ghettos by the Nazis, Rabbi Shapiro needed to comfort his congregation. Their very lives were at risk and Rabbi Shapiro knew that the moment required him to be stalwart and true to Jewish faith and tradition. In the face of Nazi atrocities and terror he knew he needed to be a model of conviction and strength. Rabbi Shapiro took these verses that convey personal crying out to God and he used them to teach a message of inspiration. He shared a parable of a prince who was taken captive. He knew that his father the king would find him and one day the prince felt that his father was close by. So the prince began to scream loudly “save me my Father, save me my King.” Why would the prince need to scream, Rabbi Shapiro asked, if his father was so close? Shapiro answers that is why we scream these lines - “Hear my voice, do not close Your ear to my cry, my plea.” Like the prince, we should know that God is close by and should be comforted knowing that God will hear our prayers and save us from the Nazis. God is at hand Rabbi Shapiro comforted his people, and God will intervene at any moment, have no fear.
Rabbi Shapiro’s strength and conviction gave hope and faith to his congregation. In the midst of despair and death Shapiro provided love and life. In the midst of the worst horror ever experienced in the history of the Jewish people, when people were no longer seeing evidence of God’s presence, Shapiro comforted them and encouraged their faith.
Over the past several months as we have suffered through the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic people have asked me about it. They want to know how I would respond to this event, to this crisis. Do I feel, they have asked, that God brought this virus upon us? Did God cause it to happen? And if so how can I justify it or what spiritual meaning can I find in it?
I must admit that Rabbi Shapiro’s undying faith and his community’s faith in him are truly inspirational. In the midst of great suffering the people in the ghetto could gain a reprieve through prayer, tradition and words of comfort. In the midst of unspeakable horrors, the people found strength with each other and solace through the performance of ancient rituals and practice. Reading Rabbi Shapiro’s words can’t help but to amaze me.
Rabbi Shapiro’s undying faith in the face of such horror and persecution is part of a long history of traditional Jewish responses to crisis. For many rabbis over the centuries, not just Shapiro 80 years ago, Abraham and Isaac in this morning’s Torah portion served as the ultimate model of undying faith. The very first sentence of the portion sets the stage for us: וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ - Some time afterward God put Abraham to the test. God said to him Abraham and he answered, “Here I am.” Two very important lessons are understood from this sentence. First, according to the author of the Torah and according to traditional Jewish belief, God causes events to occur. The narrator understood the ensuing story to be God’s doing. That was the only way he knew how to explain it. The event is called a test from God. In other words, lesson number one, God causes events in our lives to happen.
The understanding that events around us and that happen to us are caused by God is coupled with Abraham’s response to that knowledge - “here I am”. Abraham is ready to confront the crisis, the decision, the event head on with full faith and trust in God. Faith in God doing the right thing leads at the end of the portion this morning to the angel stopping Abraham’s hand from harming Isaac. Abraham’s trust in God in the midst of great adversity was rewarded with Isaac being spared.
For centuries then, just as God answered Abraham’s prayer and saved Isaac from being slaughtered, so too Jews who were tortured, persecuted and exiled hoped and prayed for salvation as well. As Rabbi Shapiro preached to his community in the ghetto in Poland, God is near at hand. Have faith dear Jews, we will be saved. Have faith dear Jews today suffering from the ravages of the virus, don’t despair, God will save us.
This theology, the traditional rabbinic theology and focus on prayer, does not inspire me. Rabbi Shapiro’s theology that God is close at hand, that God will answer our prayers, that everything is part of God’s plan, does not inspire me to believe in God let alone provide a sensible answer for why the crisis is happening. Just as I don’t believe that God caused the Holocaust to happen, I don’t believe that God caused COVID-19. I don’t believe that all we have to do is pray for everything to be ok. Because clearly, people have been praying for several months and the virus is still here.
Yet I need to clarify. My answer to the questions about the cause of the virus and how we need to respond are really two different responses. I can be heartened and moved to tears by the faith of the Jews of Poland and I can still disagree with the theology expressed. How we respond to a crisis doesn’t necessarily have to be the same approach as how we understand who caused the crisis. Just because the traditional explanation is God caused the crisis, doesn’t mean we have to respond in a traditional way - by praying and acting like traditionally observant Jew. A traditional theology doesn’t necessarily require a traditional response. The two don’t need to go hand in hand.
I’ll get to the response in a moment but allow me to spend a moment reminding you of my theology. I firmly believe in a God that created the universe. I believe in a God that created the forces of nature and created our world with the right mix of chemicals and gases to allow life to develop. I believe that God created human beings with intellect and emotion. I believe that God is out there and that God wants us to spiritually search for God. We are meant to understand that God exists and we are meant to live our lives exhibiting this belief by behaving in a God-like way. God isn’t right next to us, God didn’t directly create the virus, but God did create the intellect that will find the vaccine. God did create the ability in us to show compassion to others and to be good people. When we live up to our potential for good, then we are expressing our belief in God.
The belief in a God that is distant and not involved directly in human events is a non-traditional theology. It is a theology that has been expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel for example in his book Man is Not Alone and by Harold Kushner in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People among others.
But just because I have a non-traditional theology doesn’t mean I have a non-traditional approach to Jewish ritual and practice. I, like Rabbi Shapiro, firmly believe in the power of prayer. Though I don’t pray for God to intervene and stop this pandemic, I do pray for the power in me to advocate for good. I pray that those on the front lines - EMTs, doctors and nurses - continue to stay safe and healthy and continue to have the strength and compassion to deal with the patients they encounter. I pray that our political leaders always have our best interests at heart and that they work to support us and keep us safe. I pray that each one of us has the strength and compassion to reach out to those in need, to help each other, support one another, and provide a virtual shoulder to cry on and a virtual hug.
I believe that prayer can help us through this crisis. I look forward to my daily routine of prayer, for the moments of escape it provides me and for the moments of connection created when we have minyan together on ZOOM. Prayer as a source of community has been empowering and helpful.
And there have been other ways our community has given us strength. Our Chesed and Membership committees and other volunteers have done so many mitzvahs - by delivering food to those in need, by delivering the holiday gift bags, by calling and maintaining connections by simply reminding everyone that we are not alone. It makes me proud that we have so many people in our shul who are so dedicated and who glady and happily give of themselves so that others can be happy.
Prayer and community have helped us regain our equilibrium. This pandemic has brought chaos to the world and has upended our lives. When that happens we feel lost. We feel as if we have no control. We feel as if there is no hope. Prayer and community bring back love, bring back hope, bring back stability that we so desperately seek.
The pandemic also reminds us that we need to continue to be on a spiritual search. When Rabbi Shapiro spoke to his community they were already strict adherents of traditional, Orthodox Jewish practice. They already were all on the same page concerning their belief in God and their Jewish observance. They needed comfort and support. They needed to be reminded that God was there for them.
We, however, may not be all on the same page. We come from different backgrounds and we all have different understandings of God. Some of us may be comfortable with our theology and may be able to use that to help navigate these troubled times. But others may not be so confident. We need to ask questions. We need to know that God is out there. We need to feel the comfort that belief in God provides us - a God to cry out to, a God to be angry at, a God to motivate us to rise up above the chaos and try to do some acts of kindness.
Our haftorah this morning was taken from the prophet Jeremiah (chapter 31) and it included his prophecy to a community that was about to be conquered by the Babylonians. He tries to comfort the people by reminding them of their youth. Remember when God felt close to you, Jeremiah says, try to relive those days. The last line of the haftorah says, הֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם אִ֚ם יֶ֣לֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִ֔ים כִּֽי־מִדֵּ֤י דַבְּרִי֙ בּ֔וֹ זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֤וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ רַחֵ֥ם אֲ‍ֽרַחֲמֶ֖נּוּ נְאֻם־יְהוָֽה׃ - Is not Ephraim My precious son, My darling child? Even when I speak against him I remember him with affection. Therefore My heart yearns for him. Surely I will show him compassion, says the Lord.”
Jeremiah lived about 2500 years ago yet his words still ring true today. The Babylonians are at the door - the pandemic is in our midst - yet we shouldn’t fear. God is there and wants us to reach out. God wants us to feel compassion and love just as our ancestors did in their youth. As the year 5781 begins let Rabbi Shapiro’s words inspire us. May our prayers and our community comfort us. May we be emboldened to continue to seek, to continue to be forces for good, to continue to be sources of compassion. May this year then be one of peace, of love and health. Amen.