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CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL
ROSH HASHANAH II 5774

By Rabbi Gershom Barnard

I struggle with my ToDo list. This has been going on for years. A long time ago, a colleague made a presentation on time management to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, and he recommended, among other things, giving items on the list priorities: high, medium, and low, or 1, 2, and 3. I enthusiastically adopted that system, and, for the 13 years that I used Palm products, I duly prioritized all the items on my Task list.

However, the list was much too long. At the time when I switched phones recently, my Task list had 501 items on it. To be sure, some of them did not have to be done for several months, but it was still too long. Furthermore, I had trouble with prioritizing. I suspect that most things are supposed to have “Medium” priority, but I gave most things “High” priority. The few things that had “Low” priority would never get done, except that, every now and then, I would do one of them as a revolt against the tyranny of the system.

In July, for reasons which had nothing to so with the ToDo list, I switched from a Palm to an Android, and I now use Google Tasks and a compatible mobile Task app to manage my list. These products don’t prioritize tasks, and I was apprehensive about giving up that parameter, that element of apparent control, but it does not seem to have made any difference in my life. The list is still ridiculously long. On the day on which I started writing this sermon, my Task list had 47 items to be done that day. Realistically, taking into account appointments and things that just happen, I can do 4-6 items from the list in a day.

My problem with my ToDo list represents a bigger problem in the lives of many of us. We want to predict and control what is going to happen to us, and the reality is that we can’t do it. That point is underscored by two of the very compelling parts of the Rosh Hashanah service.  The first is the story of the Akedah, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Reading or hearing that story, we tend to focus, I think, on the apparent moral problems of human sacrifice and obedience to seemingly immoral commands.  That is one issue.

However, another issue in the story, and, I think, one which was more important in the earlier Jewish tradition, is that of the upsetting of well-grounded expectations. After all, God had promised Abraham, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” 

Now, the fulfillment of that promise was seriously called into question.  In the Midrash Tanhuma, we read of this powerful confrontation between Abraham and God. This is at the point when the angel tells Abraham not to slaughter Isaac. Abraham retorts that it was God Himself who had told him to make the sacrifice, and he wanted to speak to God. God promptly appears and says, “By Myself I swear . . .” 

However, Abraham interrupts God and says, “You swear? I swear that I will not leave this altar until I have said what I need to say.” 

God tells Abraham to continue. Abraham says, “Didn’t You tell me that my descendants would fill the world?”

God says, “Yes.” Abraham asks, “From whom will they descend?” God says, “From Isaac”. Abraham drives home the point: “Then you told me to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. I could have thrown Your previous words back at You, but I resisted my own inclination and didn’t do that.” 

The dialogue goes on for a bit, and concludes with the institution of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as a way of reminding God what he owes the Jewish people. I refer to this story, however, in order to make the point that, in the earliest layers of our tradition, what was shocking about the Akedah was not the idea of human sacrifice but the apparent overturning of God’s promise. One day, God says one thing, and, another day, He apparently says something else.

The second piece of High Holiday liturgy which reminds us of our limits is the poem Unetaneh Tokef which we include in our Musaf services. We say, “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: Who will pass on, and who will be born,  who will live, and who will die, who will live a long life, and who will come to an untimely end,” etc., in very great detail. All of these things may be written, but we don’t know which ones apply to us.

In a teleconference on this poem given a few years ago, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach of Bridgehampton, NY, pointed out that part of the poem focuses on things that are not in our control, and part of it focuses on things that are in our control: “Repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds cancel an evil decree.” Focusing on what we can do is generally a good strategy, but, today, I want to do justice to the first part of the poem and the feelings which it calls forth in us, as well as to the Akedah before the happy ending. We would like to predict what is going to happen and to control what is going to happen, but we can’t do it, at least not all the time.

How do we live in such a situation? That gets complicated. First, we have to ask, if we are not in control, then who is?  From a traditional Jewish point of view, the obvious answer is that God is in control. In Avot, we read that Rabbi Akiva said that, “Everything is foreseen by God, although we have free will.”

In the same vein, we find in Tractate Berakhot that Rabbi Hanina said that “everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”  It is significant that both of these sayings avoid a totally deterministic view, by insisting on our free will. However, it is understood that we act on a stage which is really controlled by God. The prevailing traditional view is that we are to carry out the mitzvot of the Torah, and then to accept whatever happens. To use current language, we are in a guaranteed contribution plan, not a guaranteed benefit plan. 

We read, again in Tractate Berakhot, “Everything that God does is for the best,” and a characteristic Talmudic figure was Nah?um, the man of Gamzu.  Here is a story about him, from Tractate Taanit:

It is related of Nahum of Gamzu that he was blind in both his eyes, his two hands and legs were amputated — and his whole body was covered with boils and he was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water in order to prevent the ants from crawling on to him... His disciples said to him, "Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you?"

He replied, "I have brought it all upon myself. Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three asses,  laden with [provisions], when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, 'Master, give me something to eat'. I replied to him, "'Wait until I have unloaded something from the ass.' I had hardly managed to unload something from the ass when the man died [from hunger]. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, "May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated, and my mind was not at rest until I added, may my whole body be covered with boils… "

Why was he called Nahum of Gamzu? — Because whatever befell him he would declare, “This also is for the best (Gam zu l’tovah)

If some of you can approach life in that way, if you can simply accept whatever happens as the will of God, then you are in accord with the mainstream of historical Judaism. I cannot believe that God determines every single thing that happens in the world, and I find the attitude of Nahum of Gamzu extremely unappealing.

At the other extreme is the view that everything is random.  That view is mentioned in the rabbinic literature; the expression is “let din v’let dayan” (There is no judgment, and no judge), but the rabbis, of course, reject it. In our time, Rabbis Harold Kushner and Brad Artson have advanced the position that whatever happens in the world is random, or controlled by impersonal forces. They believe in God, of course, but they do not see God as working actively in the world to make things happen. If you hold this view, then how will you deal with the absurdity of life?

I see two main possibilities. First, one can be a nihilist. One can say, like Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no God, then everything is permitted,” and draw the appropriate conclusions. Second, one can do the right, according to one’s own best lights, despite the indifference of the Universe. I associate that view with Dr. Rieux in Camus’ novel The Plague. He worked to alleviate people’s suffering, without the expectation of any Divine help, approval, or reward.

I am closer to the moderns than to the rabbis of the Talmud, but I cannot bring myself to say that the universe runs by blind chance or blind force. I very much believe that there is a Judge, and there is a Judgment.  I also believe that it is all right to try to predict things and to make plans. Imagine what our High Holiday services would be like if we didn’t plan them and try to take into account different eventualities! However, we have to admit that, in the synagogue and in life generally, we cannot plan, predict, or control everything.  In such a world, I believe that we need flexibility, we need depth, and we need grounding. We need flexibility, because not everything will go according to plan.

I am a firm believer in Plan B and in Plan C. However, my point is that you can go all the way through the alphabet and still not have covered every possibility. My high school math teacher served in the Marines in World War II. He used to tell us that the difference between German soldiers and American soldiers was that German soldiers simply followed orders, and, if things didn’t go according to plan, they didn’t know what to do. American soldiers could think for themselves and improvise if necessary. I don’t know if what my teacher said was accurate military history, but his lesson was correct.

Our flexibility should be based on depth. The rules that we follow – and traditional Jews certainly follow a lot of rules – should be based on principles, and the principles should be based on values.  This nesting of rules, principles, and values applies in all areas of life. (For example, it applies to writing sermons. After I wrote what I wrote for today, I ran Spelling and Grammar Check. When the checker stopped, I often clicked on “Ignore Rule,” because I knew what I wanted to say, and that was more important than the computer’s rules). The example which comes first to my mind now has to do with the observance of Rosh Hashanah. 

The Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, gives us rules, for example, concerning blowing the shofar. There are 54 rules, grouped into 6 sections, about the shofar. If, as I think of it, the rules are all the details of Jewish law, interpersonal as well as ritual matters, then the principles could be the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. In the case of the shofar, I would say that the principle behind the 54 rules is the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, as set out, for example, as Positive Commandment #170 in Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot: “[God] commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar on the first day of Tishri, as it is said in the Torah, ‘It shall be for you a day of sounding the horn.’"

Behind these principles are the basic values of the Torah, and the well-known saying, that the world is based on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness, gives us a good set of them. The mitzvah of hearing the shofar primarily advances the value of worship, I would say.

Our depth should be grounded in something solid. How are we to find our way between the extremes of the rigid application of rules, on the one hand, and an  unprincipled reactivity to each new thing that comes our way?  I believe that we can find our way if we, our personalities, our selves, are grounded in something, (and now I’ll give it away: in Someone) greater than ourselves and greater than anything in our everyday experience. In our daily prayers, we say, “What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness worth? …We are Your children, covenanted to You.”

Abraham, in his anguish and bewilderment, did not abandon his principles or his integrity; he confronted God  - he confronted God. We hope that the trials which we shall face in our lives will be less severe than those which our ancestor Abraham faced, but let us address them with the same flexibility, depth, and grounding which he displayed.

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