Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning
September 30, 2017
A couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"
I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control."
And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.
Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."
Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.
Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world.
And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.
Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.
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