A Reflection on Current Challenges
By Rav Natan
And Avraham was ready to go out with his servant Eliezer and his son Itzhak.
Since Eliezer was traveling recently for his master, he had to quarantine, get a PCR test, and this delayed the start of their journey for a few days.
They packed cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, pre-packaged food, masks, many masks, water bottles, and a face shield, just in case.
This could be a funny way to retell a famous story of our tradition. But unfortunately, this is not the moment for joking about a serious challenge we have ahead of us.
COVID 19 and global warming are changing our lives forever. There is no way back. The damaged caused and the lives lost are not coming back .
Right now, it feels like the world is out of control. COVID, climate change and its devastating consequences, terrorism, religious extremism, democracies being challenged. Despite the scientific developments of our generation, our lack of certainty about our lives in this world is higher than ever.
We cannot even plan our own birthdays, weddings, b’nai mitzvah, trips, in the near future.
This sermon is a reflection on our current and future challenges and how we can approach what probably is the hardest challenge of our lives.
In every morning service, we recite two blessings before the Shema Israel.
The first one says:
Yotzer Or uVoreh Choshech, Oseh Shalom uVoreh et haKol. Blessed are you Adonai our God, who creates light and darkness, makes peace and creates everything.
Interestingly, this is not the original verse, as we find it in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible.
It comes from a verse in the book of Isaiah. Instead of saying that God creates everything, the original verse says: “I am Adonai and there are no other Gods. I form light and create darkness; I make peace and I create evil, I am Adonai maker of all these things.” (Isaiah 45:6-7)
אֲנִי יי וְאֵין עוֹד׃ יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יי עֹשֶׂה כׇל־אֵלֶּה׃
Our sages felt some lack of comfort in including in our prayers the idea that God creates evil, and changed it to a broader understanding, where God creates everything, which by necessity, includes evil.
Our liturgy is, among many other things, a source for teaching theology. Through the prayers established by our ancestors we learn their various beliefs and how they articulated them. The fact that they decided to change a verse from the Tanach shows their chutzpah while also showing their commitment to our tradition. They renewed something old and that new prayer, became holy.
This was not an easy year. It is impossible for a religious person to avoid questioning God in the face of so much loss and pain. This loss and pain we feel is also known as evil, or just bad things that happen to good and bad people.
There are two kinds of evil in the world.
One is created by humanity with bad choices, moving away from God, like wars and crime. The second understanding of evil is not necessarily evil, but we feel pain when facing these challenges. Incurable diseases, a hurricane, a tsunami, a sudden malfunction of our bodies. There are natural rules in the universe happening in a way that we can’t understand WHY. What we do know is that HOW we face them can significantly change the outcome.
As it is impossible to know God fully, anything that we say about the ultimate source of evil is also just mere speculation. For that, I want to focus on what is known and what we have a tangible way of dealing with in our hands.
In dealing with the first kind of evil, that is caused by human beings, we have to honor the free will we have and take responsibility for the consequences.
This kind of evil I see as the lack of God’s presence. These behaviors are not considered divine. It is hard to know God’s will, maybe even impossible. What I know, is that I cannot relate to love and justice being divine values and behaviors and still find the corruption of justice and the perpetration of hate as divine values and behaviors as well.
According to Ibn Ezra, medieval Torah scholar, the darkness created by God is not a creation in itself, but the absence of light. The darkness created by the bad choices we make, is the absence of the divine presence, guiding us to do the right thing.
The second kind of Evil – natural disasters, incurable diseases – is part of the natural consequences of the ultra-complex system in which we live in, called the Universe. There are many ways to study these phenomena finding ways to minimize the suffering that they cause or even fixing them. Many different sciences have been trying to answer these questions for a long time. To learn science and find out how to cure diseases or prevent natural disasters, is a holy act of understanding the divine ways in which the world works.
The Talmud teaches “עולם כמנהגו נוהג” – the World follows its course. There are things beyond our control, that are part of a natural divine system. That same system of rules allows us to plant a tree and eat its fruits. It gives us the capacity to create and give life. It permits us to fall in love and feel joy. “עולם כמנהגו נוהג”. This is the way of the world.
While many of the issues we are facing right now might be seen as belonging to the second category, we, human beings, have a significant role in their development through the choices we make.
While there are natural rules that dictate how a virus spreads and mutates, the way we react to these natural rules can change the natural outcome. While there is a natural process that makes this planet hotter over centuries, there is an increase of that process done by human behavior.
We cannot blame God or nature for our own mistakes. We must take responsibility and do our part to minimize the pain and suffering that our own actions are causing.
I think that the second blessing before the Shema Israel can shed some light to our conversation.
After acknowledging God as the creator of all – including darkness and evil – our liturgy takes us to a blessing for love and wisdom.
Ahava raba ahavtanu Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai our God loves us a lot.
In order to confront darkness, or the lack of God’s presence, we must remember that God loves us and we have the opportunity to make good choices, following the values that we called divine.
God is not a bully in the sky, nor a micro manager of our lives.
God is the force for good in the world.
Bringing the divine light to fight darkness is to transform these values into behavior, into action.
The blessing for love and wisdom gives us the next step to fight darkness and evil.
We say to God: “Veten belibenu lehavin ulehaskil – lishmoa lilmod ulelamed; lishmor vela’asot ulekayiem et kol divrei Talmud Toratecha beahava”.
Open our hearts so that we may understand and discern, hear, learn, and teach, observe, perform, and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah with love.
As we face so many challenges today and in the near future, we must face them with love and compassion. While we are all suffering, we must always remember that in an unjust society like ours, some suffer more than others. We must open our hearts with love and compassion in order to feel their pain and do what we can to heal.
We must bring love and compassion to our relationships, to the multiple ways we interact with each other. I know you are suffering because we are all suffering together.
We must understand and discern; hear and learn; how we must change in order to do our part in this society. We are not necessarily guilty for what has been done; still, we are all responsible for the choices we make and for the future ahead of us.
5781 was not easy. There is no magic to guarantee that 5782 will be better.
There is a lot of work to do. And we must start doing it now.
May we find the strength we need to face these significant challenges ahead of us.
May we open our hearts so that we may understand and discern, hear and learn.
May we bring light in 5782 to fight all the darkness that surround us.