Yom Kippur Day 2023/5784: "Asking 'When' rather than 'Why'
If you’re going to invite a speaker to speak in your community, you probably want to make sure you know how to introduce them correctly - how to pronounce their name, what titles they prefer to be known by, and if you’re inviting someone who is known for having written a best selling book, you probably want to get the title of the book correct.
This year the world lost a great author of several wonderful books who was especially known throughout his life for one of those books in particular, and he had story after story about people getting the title of this most famous book wrong when they would meet him or introduce him. For many years this author was probably the most famous rabbi in the United States, and definitely the most famous Conservative rabbi. You may have guessed that I am referring to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who died this year at age 88. He was also known as a mentor to so many of my colleagues, and a person of outstanding intellect and also outstanding sensitivity.
Everyone seemed to remember that the title of his most famous book, published in the 1980s, had something to do with “Things,” and “People,” and “Good,” and “Bad,” but people would remember it with every possible permutation of these words. Sometimes people would meet him and say, “Aren’t you the person who wrote “Why good things happen to bad people?” Close, but not exactly. Yes, it’s very vexing when good things happen to bad people, but Rabbi Kushner wrote about a phenomenon that is arguably even more troubling.
But there was another error that people made all the time, as frequently he would be referred to as the author of the book “Why bad things happen to good people.”
In fact, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s obituary for him began by noting that this is often how people mis-remembered the title of the book. But Rabbi Kushner would note that he specifically avoided the word ‘why’ in the title of his book, which he very deliberately titled “When Bad things happen to good people.”
As we approach the Yizkor memorial prayers today, I wanted to make reference to Rabbi Kushner in part because of everything I have learned from him, from his books and from the many many times I met him and heard him speak, and the many many times we have learned from his words here. In addition to that most famous book of his, our synagogue makes use of the Humash Etz Hayim edition of the Torah every Shabbat, and he was the author of the commentary ‘below the line’ on every page of that massive book. And for many years, his book “To Life” served as the central book in our Introduction to Judaism program. But in addition to all this, there is some wisdom we can learn from Rabbi Kushner even from this detail regarding the title of his most well known book - wisdom that is deeply connected to the themes of this Yom Kippur day.
Rabbi Kushner’s story is probably well known to many of us, and I assume many of us have read the book in question. It was a book borne of tragedy - Rabbi Kushner and his wife Suzette had a son named Aaron, and when he was around age 1 they noticed that he did not seem to be growing. After multiple doctors visits and tests, they received a devastating diagnosis that Aaron had an extremely rare neurological disorder called progeria - a rapid aging syndrome that would mean he would never grow larger than a 3 year old, but that very quickly his body would start to go through all the stages of aging, until in his early teens he would die, essentially of old age. And because there is no cognitive impairment associated with this disorder, he would know and fully understand everything that was happening to him - both the fact that he looked unusual which would often prompt people to treat him differently, and and that his life would end much sooner than that of his peers.
The Kushner family did everything they could to give Aaron as wonderful and normal a life as possible, but as you can imagine, the experience for him and for the entire family was excruciating in numerous ways. It was shortly after their son Aaron died in 1978, Rabbi Kushner wrote this book “When bad things happen to good people.” He noted that of course he was motivated in part by struggling with the question of “Why” bad things happen to good people -- but he deliberately did not want that to be the title of the book, in part because he found so many people’s answers to that ‘why’ question to be terribly hurtful. In the face of terrible tragedy, people would often not know what to say, and they would often feel compelled to say something to fill the silence, and what they had to say was often unhelpful at best. And in particular, well-meaning people would sometimes offer comments clearly intended to strengthen them, comments that the speakers thought would be helpful and inspiring, but that Rabbi Kushner and his family emphatically did not interpret them this way. For example, people would remind them that “God only gives us what we can handle,” or “God works in mysterious ways and this is obviously part of God’s plan.”
For Rabbi Kushner, these statements were reminiscent of a painful theme in the Biblical book of Job, which became the most important book in the Bible for him. Job experiences a series of unspeakable tragedies, and Job’s three friends come over to sit on the floor with him and cry with him.These friends are a model of a supportive presence for Job at this difficult time. But then they start to speak - and it becomes clear that they were much more comforting when they were simply sitting and crying with him. Because, whether they realize it or not, the words of Job’s friends are not really for the purpose of helping Job, but rather their words are self-protective. The friends are terrified to live in such a precarious world where such tragedies could happen, and where what happened to Job could potentially happen to them. So they presume: there must be some good reason WHY this tragedy happened to Job and wouldn’t happen to them. They are saying things to protect themselves from the fear and pain of living in a world where such tragedies can happen seemingly randomly. (It’s no wonder that the experience of Job’s time of bereavement is the Biblical source for the Jewish teaching that we can be most helpful to those who are enduring a difficult time not with the content of our words, but simply by being present.)
Rabbi Kushner wrote that he and his family found that any time people gave them theological explanations for their family’s difficulties, it exacerbated their pain.
And especially, any time people suggested that God was the cause of their misfortune, he felt like -- not only did he have to deal with the difficulty of raising a beloved son under such tragic circumstances, but now he is being asked to accept that God to whom he looks for consolation and support is actually the architect of his suffering.
All this led Rabbi Kushner to his own theological understanding, which is that God may be supremely powerful but there are areas of the world over which God does not have dominion. For example, God does not overrule human decisions, no matter how heinous. So the Holocaust, or acts of terrorism, or whatever other tragedy perpetrated by a human being, he said, should be regarded as a consequence of the human exercise of free will. And according to Kushner, God does not reverse the processes of nature, which sometimes include terrible diseases and catastrophic weather that afflict people whether they are deserving or not.
But truly, if Rabbi Kushner believed the most important thing about his book was the theological explanation part, he would have called it ‘WHY bad things happen to good people.” But he called the book “When bad things happen to good people.’ First of all, he would say: when people are asking “why” questions at a time of anguish, they are often not really seeking a direct answer to that question.
Rabbi Kushner would sometimes tell the story that long before this tragedy befell his family, as a young rabbi in his first congregation, Rabbi Kushner was called to visit a family shortly after a devastating loss. And one of the shocked family members turned to Rabbi Kushner and said “I just don’t understand how this tragedy could have happened. Why us? Why would God have done such a thing to us? Why is God punishing us?”
And Rabbi Kushner says that in his naivete he thought: well this is a terrible situation, but at least they’re asking me about something I actually studied in rabbinical school. And so he shares some of the traditional Jewish explanations for why there is tragedy in the world. He notices that the family members’ eyes are glazing over, so he asks them: “You seem a little confused. Should I go over any of that again?”
And they say: “No thank you, Rabbi - we have suffered enough.”
Not every “why” question is really seeking an answer. That’s something that Jews have noticed since Biblical times. The Hebrew name for the Biblical book of Lamentations is Eicha,’ which means ‘how.’ because that’s the first word of the book -- ‘how can it be that this once proud city of Jerusalem is now bereaved and despondent?’ And the question never gets answered in the book because that’s not what the questioner is looking for. Like so many ‘why’ questions today, it’s not really a question in search of an answer. It’s a lament in search of a supportive and empathetic presence.
There are religious communities that see themselves as particularly good at answering the question ‘why.’ There are actually 12 books being sold by Amazon right now that are called ‘Why bad things happen to good people’ or some variation thereof. For example, there’s one called “21 reasons why bad things happen to good people,” and there’s one provocatively called “Why bad things DON'T happen to good people.’ Most of these books claim to be written from a religious perspective and purport to present ‘the’ religious answer, with abundant confidence.
Now there’s plenty of focus on theological belief in Judaism - and I am grateful that Judaism has plenty of writings about theodicy, efforts to come to terms with the pain and tragedy in our world. But I agree with Rabbi Kushner that the essential religious questions, in religion in general, and in Judaism in particular, are not the ‘why’ questions but the ‘when’ questions. “When” a tragedy happens, when a bad thing happens to good people, what happens next? How do individuals respond? How do communities respond? And Judaism is particularly good at answering the question ‘when’ -- as befits Judaism as a religion focused on action, that asserts that what God most wants from us is not belief but action.
Some of us in our community got to discuss this theme in the context of Jewish mysticism, on our synagogue’s trip to Israel this summer. Among so many places we visited in Israel, we visited the city of Tzfat, which was for centuries the worldwide center of Jewish mysticism. We visited the synagogue where Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, used to pray. Rabbi Luria was the dominant personality in the Tzfat community in the 16th century, though sadly he lived there for less than 3 years before his untimely death.
Rabbi Luria wrote almost nothing, but his disciples filled many books with his teachings, including his imaginative description of the story of creation and how the world came to be the way we experience it, with its mixture of joys and sorrows.
According to Rabbi Luria, before God created the world, God’s divine light filled the entire universe. Step One in creating the world is that God needed to make space for the world to come into being. God needed to withdraw some of God's essence so it would no longer fill up the entire universe. It has been suggested that you can picture this concept by imagining that it’s like God inhaled some of God's Divine material to make more space in the world. And thus the world came into being.
But there was a problem -- What was God supposed to do with this excess Divine material that God has inhaled? In this elaborate metaphor, Luria suggests that God created special jars to contain this Divine material, this Divine light. But somehow, something unexpected happened. The divine Light is just too powerful to be contained in the jars, so the jars explode and shatter. And bits of the shards of the shattered jars rain down onto the created world - but so do the sparks of divine light that adhere to the shards. (A commentator suggests that in order to picture this, you can imagine a glass jar of honey that falls and smashes, so that sweet honey adheres to every dangerous shard.) These dangerous shards are the sources of all the pain in our world. God then responds by creating human beings, and giving us the task throughout our lives to assist God in cleaning up, by collecting the divine light, while not getting too injured by the shards. Rabbi Luria referred to this clean-up process by a name that may be familiar to you: “Tikkun Olam,” the repair of the world.
Contemporary scholar of Jewish mysticism Shaul Magid says that Rabbi Luria “reads creation as an act of divine failure, of rupture and devastation that is our world.” Why did God put the divine light in jars that were going to break? Did God not see this coming? Rabbi Luria does not answer. Rabbi Luria’s vision does not have a great answer to the question of ‘why’. Why is there brokenness in the world? The answer is unclear. but Rabbi Luria’s vision has a very good answer to the question of “When’- When there is brokenness the world, how do we respond? - the answer is very clear. We respond by doing whatever we can to work together with God to heal and repair the world.
There are people who regard the essential task of any religion to give answers to the big “why” questions of the universe. And there are people who will judge the strength of that religion based on its answers to the ‘why’ answers - and sometimes not so much on the quality of those why answers, but on the assertiveness with which those answers are offered, because there are definitely religions that are very very confident that they’ve conclusively figured out the ‘why.’ And there are people who will reject a particular religious tradition because they reject its answers to the ‘why’ questions.
But I’ve never thought that Judaism specializes in ‘why.’ Rather, I think Judaism specializes in ‘when’:
When I wake up in the morning, what are some recommended thoughts to be going through my mind?
When I eat, when can I say or do to help me to express my gratitude?
When I have a new child in my family, or any other special life blessing, what can I do to recognize and express the significance of that moment?
When I hear about injustice in the world, how can I respond?
When I am faced with an ethical dilemma, what can help me to reach the best decision?
When I experience a tragedy, what steps can I take that can eventually help me to find wholeness?
And especially - when someone else experiences a tragedy, what can I do to support them and help them towards the path of wholeness?
From time to time Rabbi Kushner would meet people who would suggest, directly or indirectly, that the fact that he wrote a beautiful book that opened so many people’s hearts could maybe be understood as the reason for the terrible tragedy in their family. Of course Rabbi Kushner was gracious in his conversations with everyone, even when he emphatically disagreed. He did not disagree that his book brought comfort to many people, but he was adamant that his book was an answer to a “when” question rather than a “why” question. When tragedy happened, Jewish tradition had encouraged him to take his sorrow and channel it into a way to heal some of the world’s brokenness.
In our own way we are each called to do something similar. Yom Kippur encourages us to recommit ourselves to the When of Judaism, by examining our lives and our actions and planning for the most thoughtful and impactful future.
And the Yizkor memorial prayers we are about to recite also invite us to recommit ourselves to the When of Judaism. These prayers we are about to recite remind us to take note of our position in the flow of the generations and the flow of history, to recall that our time on this earth is more limited than we like to think, and to think of our loved ones who have died and their lives, their values, the lessons of their lives, and how we can perpetuate these in our world.