Two Ways to Understand Our Tzuris

Two Ways to Understand Our Tzuris

Yizkor, Yom Kippur, 5770

Delivered at Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach


Thanks to friend and colleague, Rabbi Donniel Hartman for many of the ideas in this sermon. 


Yizkor is such a hard time during the service.  It guides us back to our losses, and summons our tears.  It is the appointment with our suffering. Yizkor is the screening of our memories of those we loved and lost.   No wonder many of us stubbornly hold onto the practice, opposed by the rabbis, of sending our children untouched by loss from the sanctuary. 


All religions attempt to give meaning to suffering.  Yizkor is a Jewish ritual shaped to channel our pain.   But it is also a ritual that conveys the message that God hears our suffering.  Moreover, the prayers of Yizkor put into words our hope that God takes care of our loved ones who have passed into the next world.  Yizkor proclaims that God does not abandon them and by inference, God does not abandon us.  The memorial service conveys a certain cosmic stability in which God remembers as we take pains to remember.   We hold onto Yizkor because of this convergence of remembering.  Yizkor gives us relief and a sense of stability in the face of our loss.


We crave stability.    This past year has been anything but stable.  Last year, before the economic chaos hit, we thought our jobs were secure; we were confident that our retirement savings would be there for our golden years.  We had worked hard to secure a college education for our children. We were confident that our children could easily launch their careers when they finished their studies.    A lot of things we could assume about our lives last year are no longer true.  Perhaps we should add a Yizkor for the world we knew a year ago.


In America we have been brought up on the myth of stability.  Decades of prosperity combined with great abundance, and never ending innovation created an illusion of continuous progress.    America had gone through its depression 80 years ago and we had developed antibodies to fend it off.     We have come to expect stability. In fact, we may feel entitled to it. 


In the West, especially, stability has become our God.  We crave it. We work like crazy to restore it when it falls apart.  Even as terrorists toppled our greatest skyscrapers, the president told us to go shopping to restore our sense of normalcy.    But September 15, 2008 did more to shatter our stability than September 11, 2001.  The stress and anxiety that we have experienced over the last year has been to many so difficult and unnerving.  Our world has really changed. 


What do we do when we experience pain, anxiety, and stress as we have this past year?  What happens when our world changes, shattering the illusion of stability we held so dear?


Today, I offer two explanations from our tradition that attempt to make sense  of sudden chaos and instability.

The first explanation is:  Our actions are the cause of instability. We, therefore, need to make up with God to restore stability to our world.

The second explanation is:  The loss of stability gives us an opportunity to change our lives.

 Let me explore with you these two responses in an effort to help us face our current situation.


In last week’s portion we find a classic formulation of an explanation of chaos.  The poem, Haazinu, describes God’s early relationship to the Jewish people. 

“He found Israel in a desert region…. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.  Like an eagle that rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young.”  Deut. 32: 10-11


This great biblical poem describes God’s love for us, His saving us from destruction, and His parental protection when we could not protect ourselves.     


But the poem then describes our ingratitude and rebellion.


“So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked-You grew fat and gross and coarse. He forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of His Support.”  (Deut. 32: 15)

 The Divine reaction is described in powerful terms in the Torah (Deut 32:19-20)

“The Lord saw and was vexed

And spurned His sons and His daughters.  And he said,

I will hide My Face from them.

And see how they fare in the end. 


 אסתירה פני  מהם

אראה מה אחריתם


What is the meaning of God’s hiding His face?  The classic reading is that our suffering and the chaos we experience is God’s withdrawal from us, His removal of Divine protection because of our rebellion.  Since you sinned, God says,   ‘I won’t pay attention to you. You will be left unprotected.’


Suffering and chaos happen, according to the classic view, because we have disobeyed God.  When we do wrong, God who once looked over us like a protective parent turns His back on us.   This explanation of suffering sees it as a consequence of disobedience.  


The origin of this view of suffering is found in the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis in chapter 2 and 3.  The Garden of Eden story is the template for a very old way of interpreting the times in our lives when instability overwhelms us. 


In Genesis Chapter 2 God plants a garden and gives it to us to till and to tend.  As long as we respect one basic commandment, we will live in happiness forever.  But alas, we break that one rule to not eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. For this disobedience we are driven out of the garden, burdened with a new awareness that we will eventually die, and that our lives will be accompanied by hardship and suffering.   


This view of suffering is built on the Bible’s description of a God who really cares about human beings.  But with that care comes expectations.  If we are loyal to God we can expect prosperity and stability.   But the story of the Bible is also about a God whose expectations are constantly disappointed.   God is frustrated by our disobedience, our lack of covenantal loyalty.  We pay the price for our sins and our rebellions.  In order to regain God’s favor and the stability that comes with it, we must restore our relationship with God.   


Thus deeply ingrained in us is an explanation of instability.  You are suffering because you ate from the forbidden fruit.   While we may reject this idea, it still resides deep within our outlook, not only in regards to our own experiences, but certainly in regards to the instability we see in other people’s lives.  Did you ever notice how quick we are to come up with judgments about why someone else is going through tzuris?


The assumption of this view is that we have some control over what happens to us.  Thus the response that this view suggests is to fix our relationship with God.  If we succeed, like Job, our household stability will be restored.  We will once again live in God’s good graces.  God will no longer hide his face. 


This view of suffering, however, is not the only one offered by Jewish tradition, although on so many levels it is the one that most of us learn.  This view, while an authentic view in our tradition, is a source of difficulty for many modern Jews who like Job, struggle with its inadequacy of giving meaning to our suffering.   Like Job, we fall silent, or we rebel, or we reject God in our lives.


But there is another view of suffering. Let’s return to the verse I cited earlier.

And He said,

I will hide My Face from them.

And see how they fare in the end. 

 אסתירה פני  מהם

אראה מה אחריתם


The second view of suffering focuses on the second clause of the verse.  “I will see how they fare in the end.”   God hides His face to enable human beings to become responsible for their future.  God’s hiding of His face is not a punishment of human beings, but a divine awareness that human beings need to take charge of their lives. 


This is not a God who over-parents, who spoils us with gardens and then waits to see if we will behave.  This is the God of Chapter 1 of Genesis, which offers an entirely different description of God.  This is the God who says,”Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea; the birds of the sky, the cattle, and the whole earth…Fill the earth and master it.”  


The God of Genesis Chapter 1 gives human beings responsibility.  He creates the world, the laws of its nature, and then places human beings in charge of it.  By entrusting his creation to human beings, God does not put Himself in the position of making us overly dependent on God.   As many commentators of the Torah have noted Genesis Chapter 1 presents us with a very different picture of God.  It is a God who says, I will not micromanage my creation.  You will live in this world and make it the best that you can make it. 


This second way of viewing God leaves us with a profound alternative to the Garden of Eden story.  God did not create the world with human beings on a short leash.  We live as mortals within nature and endure its limits including our finite lives.  We all will suffer because suffering is built into nature.  Suffering happens. The key question for this biblical view of suffering is how we handle it, how we deal with it.



So when God says “I will Hide My Face and see how they fare”, this means ‘I will not run the world in such a way that the only way to live is to come scurrying back to me when you fail, oh human being.   I have not put you in a garden, rather I have put you in the world in all its complexity and you have to find a way to understand it, master it, live and thrive in it.’

The key insight of this second view is how to understand instability and the suffering that results from it.  In the classic view of Genesis 2, we can only see our tzuris as a result of our sinfulness.  Instability is a sign that God is mad at us.  The cause of our instability is our own actions.  God punishes us in order to spur us to come back to God to restore the stability we lost.


But in the alternative view, God does not expect this. The world behaves according to the way God created it. Instability is part of its protocol. Therefore, when we suffer it is not because God is punishing us.  If we are appointed masters of the world by God, then our response to the instability we experience is to see it as an opportunity to change, to grow. What do we do when we encounter suffering?   Does suffering spur us to grow, to change, to become better?  


The problem with human beings is our craving for the status quo. The core challenge of living a moral and purposeful life is to know the distinction between is and ought.  To live a moral life is to know that being satisfied with what is, is not sufficient.  A morally inspired person strives for what ought to be.  If God entrusts to us the world, then we must imitate God in pursuing the ought and not be satisfied by what is. The instability and the suffering we experience is a goad to change, to face the reality with the conviction that this is an opportunity not to squander.


Teshuvah- repentance- according the second view is not reconciliation with God.  It is the act of awakening to our full potential as human beings which God has implanted within us.  We find ourselves in chaos, in pain, in suffering.  Teshuvah is the opportunity to awaken to the possibility of change, to overcome the fear of the change of the status quo, to shake off the restraint of low expectations. 

It has been taught by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings.  These are the Torah, the land of Israel, and the world to come.  (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 5a) 


“Shalosh Matanot Tovot natan Hakodesh Baruch Hu l’Yisrael. V’kulan lo natanan eleh al ydei  yisurin. Elu hen, Torah, Eretz Yisrael, v’Ha’olam Haba.” 


This Talmudic teaching embraces the second view, that suffering and instability presents us an opportunity to refocus our lives on more worthy goals, to become unstuck, to overcome the fear of change. 




In this year of so much change and instability, of personal tzuris and stress, we have been given an opportunity to elevate our lives.  I cannot accept the suggestion that what many of us have gone through is some form of punishment. Nor do I suggest that a return to whatever we lost is the answer.  God does not want us to wallow in our suffering or to search for blame in ourselves, but rather to apply our spiritual strength to utilize the opportunity to live more purposefully, more mindfully, more lovingly, more ethically, and more humanely.


I heard a story of a college student who prepared to enter the world of finance to make bundles of money. But when the world of finance fell apart, there were no jobs to be found.  This young woman decided to change direction.


She went abroad to work with a nonprofit that provides micro loans to poor women in third world countries.  This young college graduate found purpose and meaning in her life through working with these poor, illiterate, but highly industrious women.   She was greatly inspired by her work and changed her life to commit herself to serve this great cause discovered in the chaos of her changing life, of our changing world.


God does Hide His Face. That is the way God made the world.  It is not easy to apprehend God’s Face or God’s ways.  His inscrutability will not be overcome in the course of our lives except for rare glimpses and hard won wisdom of life experience. 

But God wants to know how we will fare.  I believe that God desires us to take the chaos and instability that collides with our effort to live orderly lives and to use them to live with greater awareness and purpose. God, I believe, has faith in us.  Do we have faith in ourselves?

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