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Why!?: A Meditation on the Meaning of Religion

I was recently reading the Iceland Times.  Or is it the Times of Iceland?  (Ok I just had to begin with that.)  My Icelandic is of course very rusty.  Still I was able to make out the following.  Thank you Google Translate.  Thank you Facebook friends for sharing.  The story began on Saturday, August 25th, when a woman who was described as "Asian, about 160 cm (5 ft-3), wearing dark clothing and speaking English well" was declared missing somewhere in the vicinity of southern Iceland.  The search went on throughout the better part of the weekend, with no sign of the woman to be found. However, on Sunday evening, she was reported alive and well.  In fact she had no idea she was missing in the first place.  This was apparently the result of a misunderstanding regarding her appearance. While it was initially reported that she had stepped off her tour bus and never returned, in fact she had changed clothing before getting back on the bus, hence the confusion.  To make matters even more unbelievable, given the good-natured person that she is, she had joined the weekend search party.  She had spent 24 hours searching for herself.  Eventually, it occurred to her that she could very well be the "missing person" and reported the matter to the police. The search was called off.  Much to her delight, she was declared found.  Can you imagine this?  She spent a full day looking for herself.  I imagine her talking with her fellow searchers as they walked through southern Iceland.  I imagine her saying things like, “I hope the poor woman is ok.  I really hope we find her.”

All kidding aside, this true story, at least as much as my limited Icelandic is able to verify, serves as a metaphor for our own search.  People often come to me with painful stories.  They ask me, “Why?”  They ask me why is this happening?  Why did my mother die so young?  Why did my father suffer for so long?  They come with questions of pain.  They come searching for answers.  These questions are unanswerable.  I do not have answers.  I refuse to offer clichés.  I refuse to offer theologies that suggest concise answers to life’s most vexing and troubling questions.   People think that religion is about answers.  It is not.  Perhaps the fundamentalist varieties are.  Perhaps they offer exactitudes.  But they also require suspending all doubt and complexities.  They require the rejection of independent thought.  One’s own thinking becomes a slave to that of a master.  Want to know what to do, what to believe?  Ask your rebbe.  Ask your imam.  Ask your minister.   Google it. I come offering no simple answers.  I am on the same search as everyone else.  I ask the same questions.  I arrive at partial answers, temporary consolations.  Spend a day searching for yourself!  I try to spend many such days. 

The Torah of course offers the greatest lesson.  Here is our greatest book yet it concludes unfulfilled, with our dream unrealized and our questions unanswered.  Here are the Five Books of Moses yet Moses dies at its conclusion.  His dream of leading the people into the Promised Land is unfulfilled.  That is left to his successor Joshua.   We are left to wonder why God would be so harsh to the most trusted servant.  Why would God not allow Moses to take the people that final mile across the Jordan?  He had faithfully spoken to Pharaoh demanding that God’s people be set free.  He had led the people through the wilderness for forty years.  He had spent sleepless days and nights, without food and drink, communing with God on Mount Sinai and then delivering the Torah to the people.  All because of one moment of anger he is punished.  That is what we are left to believe.  Here is that instance.  The people were grumbling and complaining yet one more time.  There was not enough water in the wilderness, they cried to Moses.  God instructs Moses to command the rock to give water.  Instead Moses hits the rock and screams at the people.  Ok, so he gets angry.  He yells at the rock. He yells at the people.  Maybe he even gives too little credit to God for the miracle.  It was hot.  He was tired.  He was maybe even hungry.  He was certainly thirsty.  He probably needed a new pair of sandals.  But God says, “Now you can’t go into the land with the people.”  Why? 

Moses’s life is filled with questions.  When God first calls him, he asks, “Why me?”  He does not want the job.  Who would?  One of the common threads that unite all prophets is that they don’t want the job.  Look at Jonah, this afternoon’s Haftarah reading.  God says, “Go to Nineveh.”  And he runs.  God has to send a big fish to swallow him.  It is as if to say, “Beware of those who want to be great leaders, who want to stand in front of large groups of people and command them their words.”  That is what makes Harry Truman so compelling.  He was called to greatness, an ordinary man who did not want the job but who rose to the occasion and led a nation through crisis and war.  He was a hat salesman who led a nation.  God does not call Moses until he becomes an ordinary shepherd.  A prince of Egypt was not good enough!  He was an ordinary man, tending to his father in law’s flock.  That is when he was called.  He achieved greatness.  History forever remembers the name Moses.  But he died with questions on his lips.  He begs God, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 6:25)  God will not relent.

And we are left wondering.  We are left asking, “Does not a life of virtue merit reward?  Does not a life lived in obedience to God’s will deserve blessing?”  Moses gets many years but not his greatest dream.  The Torah offers only partial answers.  And we are left forever asking.  Why? 

We learn that the written Torah is completed in the oral Torah.  The discussion continues.  Although the oral Torah is now found in books such as the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, it is never completed.  When God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the rabbis teach us, God also provided us with the means of interpreting these stories and laws and even the very crowns adorning the letters.  We continue to ask.  We continue to argue.  We continue to search for answers.  The oral Torah is never completed.  Each generation adds its questions.  Each generation contributes its search for answers. 

According to the Torah we are commanded to say a blessing after eating each and every meal.  After eating our fill we are to give thanks.  The rabbis then ask, but what constitutes a meal?  How much food makes a meal?  How many courses? For one person it might need to include steak.  For another it could be tofu stir-fry.  For me there is nothing quite like a veggie burger with soy cheese on gluten free bread.  Yum.  For others if there is no dessert it cannot be called a meal.  So what is the rabbis’ answer?   How much food must we eat before we are required to say a blessing?  K’zayit is the answer.  An olive’s size.  An olive?  Who in the world is satisfied after eating an olive?  Or even a handful of olives?  Is there anyone for whom an olive would constitute a meal?  The answer is of course no.   No one is sated after eating an olive.  Even though the Torah says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied give thanks to the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 8:10) our tradition has decided that we give thanks even when we have not really had a meal.   We say a blessing even though we are not satisfied.  Here is the theory.  It is one that I learned from my rabbi, David Hartman.

Judaism is about how to live with imperfections, how to live with questions, how to live when dreams and desires go unfulfilled.  We say a blessing even when it is an imperfect meal.   We don’t say, “You’re chopped.”  Instead we say, “Thank you.  Thank you God.  Baruch HaShem.”  Granted the saying of blessings, or any religious ritual, can become obsessive.  You could be running around saying blessings after eating every morsel and crumb.  Nonetheless the overall point is the same.  We say a blessing.  This is Judaism’s most important response to life’s difficulties and imperfections. 

Say a blessing.  Sing a song.  Rebbe Nachman said: “Even if you can’t sing well, sing.  Sing to yourself.  Or sing in the privacy of your own home.  But sing.”  Nachman of Bratslav was fond of singing and dancing.  “Get into the habit of singing a tune,” he said.  “It will give you new life and fill you with joy.  Get into the habit of dancing.  It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”  He is known for such statements.  His Judaism was particularly infused with joy.  His dancing surpassed my own.

Say a blessing.  Sing a song.  What are we required to say when staring at death?  “Baruch dayan ha-emet.   Blessed is the judge of truth.”  Is this a theological statement?  Do we believe that this death is a righteous judgment?  Do we not grieve for our loss?  Who would not want more time with their loved one?  Even given 120 years who would not want one more moment with their mother or father, husband or wife, brother or sister or even child?  All would say that 120 years is more than a full life, but still we want more.  Even with so many years would we be satisfied?  Of course not.  Yet we say, Baruch dayan ha-emet.  Blessed is the judge of truth.  Shout blessings at imperfections.  Shout songs at too few years.  But sing.  That is our secret.  It is not so much about the theology or our acceptance of divine judgment.  It is instead about the music. 

The strangest and most wonderful lesson about the kaddish is that very few if any understand the meaning of its words.  Perhaps that is because it is written in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, and not even Hebrew, the language of most of our other prayers.  It is even unclear when the prayer became associated with mourning.  The legend is that when Rabbi Akiva died his students were grappling with how best to mark their teacher’s death.  They decided to recite the prayer that he taught them to say when they gathered to study.  During those years the kaddish marked the completion of study.  It was a song of praise to God.  “Yitgadal v’yitkadash… Magnified and sanctified is His great name….   Blessed, praised, glorified, raised, exalted, honored, uplifted and lauded be the Name of the Holy One Blessed above He, above all blessings and songs, praises and consolations that could be uttered in this world.”  This is what they said when they sat at the table learning with their teacher.  This is what they began to slowly utter following his death.  And thus our custom was born.  Is it theology?  Is it a remembrance of a great teacher?  Or is it the music of its words? 

Life is imperfect.  Life is filled with questions and uncertainties.  Accidents happen.  Tragedies occur.  We sing.  We bless.  These acts allow us to live with imperfections.  There are no answers.  There is only one response.  Stand in awe before the majesty, and mystery, of creation.  We find a morsel for which to give thanks.  We wrest this from among the questions.  We pull this from the fire and say, “Baruch Ata Adonai…”  We add music and song.  We dance.  That is all we can do at times.  It is less well known that Nachman of Bratslav battled depression and despair.  He was at times given to dark thoughts.  What was the medicine he prescribed?  Sing.  Dance.  Pray.  Say blessings.  Shout with joy, even at the imperfections of the world.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not suggesting that we throw our hands up to destiny.  I am not suggesting that when you are sick you should not go to a doctor.  I have little patience for religious leaders who suggest that faith must replace science.  Find the best doctor. 

Still, now matter how well you eat and exercise it is not entirely in our hands.  Does that mean, Well then give up.  Eat whatever you want.  Feast on Big Macs everyday.  Shmirat haguf, the care of our bodies is not simply about prolonging our lives but the responsibility to care for the divine image shrouded in the body’s vessel.  That is Judaism’s second response to the imperfections that surround us.   There are responsibilities that go beyond our own needs and desires.  Each of us is created in God’s image.  We care for ourselves as if our bodies are holy.  It is not the same as the Greek vision that our bodies are temples.  It is not the worship of body.  It is instead that the bodies are vessels of the holy.  We care for ourselves not so much out of fear, and especially the fear of illness and death, but out of a sense of responsibility and awe.

Science and medicine are therefore sacred pursuits.  It was once that rabbi and doctor were often combined in the same person.  Maimonides was such a person.  There was not then the division between faith and science, medicine and religion.  The two served each other.  Their goal was the same.  Refuat haguf and refuat hanefesh, healing of the body and healing of the soul, were not opposite pursuits.  They were both spiritual pursuits.  Today we appear to say, See the best doctor first.  If that fails, pray.  It is as if prayer is a last resort.  It is as if faith is the final measure.  Is it only when there is a mere morsel of life that we turn to the words of our tradition?  It should never be faith instead of medicine.  It should never be just have some chicken soup and say some psalms. Nourish the body and the soul.  They are one. 

Then again there will be times when science becomes stumped.  There will be moments when medicines cannot cure.  That is especially when we reach for the olive’s worth.  That is when we say, “K’zayit can sustain me.”  Baruch. Here is the secret.  Most refuse to say it out loud.  Faith is stumped as well.  It is filled with questions.  It too does not have answers to all of life’s questions.  It is instead an attitude.  It is a perspective of yirah, of awe.  It is about looking at the world for that sliver of a blessing, a song, a prayer.  Even now?  Rabbi Akiva’s students asked their teacher at the moment he was martyred by the Romans.  Yes, especially now, he answered.

Faith is not simply about prayer.  It is also about what we do, how we behave.  On these days especially we affirm that we can change.  We have the chutzpah to believe that we can fix the world.  We do not accept judgments as fated.  We work to right them.  We work to repair them.  We proclaim the power of repentance.  We can turn.  We can make amends.  We can change ourselves and our world.  People sometimes, and perhaps too often, make terrible choices.  They cause pain to others.  Need we recite examples?  They are too many to enumerate.  This is our faith as well.  We believe in the capacity for human beings to do better, to rescue the glimmer of good that is within each and every soul.  We refuse to accept pronouncements, “He will never change.  She will never say she is sorry.”  This is our response when people say, “Look at all the problems religion causes.  Look at the terrorism.  Take note of the millions of lives slaughtered in God’s name.”  We stand in defiance of such pronouncements.  We declare that our faith demands of us to do better, to repair this broken the world.  We do not deny the pain and sorrow.  We also do not look away from it.  We say that it can be fixed, and that we are the ones who can do so.  We refuse to give up. We challenge those who speak of destiny and fate.

We come not offering answers.  Those are for fundamentalists.  We come to repair, to care and to bless.  We come to journey together.  We come to search. When we search we discover new truths.

Recently in Israel they made an astonishing discovery.  It was not as one might expect a great archaeological find.  It was instead a discovery found in an elderly woman’s drawer.  There her daughter discovered a poem by Hannah Senesh.  Hannah Senesh was of course the extraordinarily brave Hungarian Jew who parachuted behind enemy lines to help rescue her fellow Jews from the Nazis before being executed.  She was a fervent Zionist and her poems, especially Eli Eli, my God my God, are sung to this day.  She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly by the Nazis.  From her British training base in Cairo she wrote letters to friends.  To her friend Miriam Yasur, living at Kibbutz Hatzor, she sent a poem.  This poem was only discovered a few months ago by Miriam’s daughter, Hannah, who I suspect was named for her mother’s cherished friend.  Sometimes the greatest of discoveries are found in the ordinary.  We need not unearth mountains of dirt.  We need not summit Everest.  We need only look with new eyes.  Here in a drawer, a truth was uncovered.  Hannah Senesh wrote:  
A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation…

Hail to the future, indeed!  The funny thing about that 160 cm tall woman who we laughed at in the beginning, the woman who wandered through southern Iceland searching for herself is that she actually had it right.  We are supposed to search for ourselves.  That is the quest.  It is not about the answers.  It is not about what Google tells us.  It is instead about the search and the unintended discoveries.  It is all about the questions.  That is the essence of our faith.

Religion is not about answers.  It is instead how to live with these troubling questions, how to live with the litany of imperfections that are our world and our bodies.  It is how to live with uncertainty.  The answer is not the answers.  The answer is keep looking.  The answer is walk together.  Keep singing and blessing, even if it is only a morsel.  Work to fix the world and care for the spark of the divine in each of us.  Most of all walk with others.  Religion is about summoning the strength to live with such unresolved questions, imperfections and inconsistencies.

Eventually the meandering search will become a wordless prayer.  Eventually the questioning will form a hora.  The questions, the uncertainties, the imperfections never disappear.  They don’t feel as burdensome when you are singing and dancing, arm in arm.