Temple Adat Elohim
You are here:Home > About Us > Our Clergy > High Holiday Sermon Archive > Rosh Hashanah, 1 Tishrei 5772

Are There Answers To Such Difficult Questions?

By Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe, Rosh Hashanah Day September 29, 2011 ~ 1 Tishrei 5772
Listen to this haunting melody…(Choir singing first refrain of Unetaneh Tokef) “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die? Who at a ripe age and who before their time?” Why must we hear these somber words of Unetaneh Tokef? Why must we ask these questions in the midst of our celebration of the New Year? Why must we face more questions than answers throughout our lives?
These are such thought provoking questions for us to consider- let’s hold on to these for a moment while we recall that our Jewish tradition is deeply ingrained with the art of asking questions. It is common knowledge that through questions we understand how our world functions in the midst of chaos and order, it is through questions that guide us with values as to how we should live with one another and it is through questions that allow us to discover, to grow and learn as to who we are as imperfect human beings.
We actually have thousands of volumes of questions and answers related to Jewish living that is called Responsa. It is a major section of rabbinic literature developed in the beginning of the second century of the Common Era. These books are commentaries devoted to the interpretations of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Codes of Jewish religious law. Even to this present day, within each of the movements- Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist- there are groups of scholars and rabbis that devote their time and expertise to provide possible answers to questions about Jewish living. In Reform Judaism, Responsa provides guidance, not governance. The Responsa offers a general understanding of mainstream Reform Jewish thinking on important issues facing contemporary Judaism. As rabbis and as spiritual leaders of Jewish communities throughout the world, every day we are faced with questions and the first place we would check would be the Responsa with the hope that there is a satisfactory answer for such questions.
However, the Responsa, does not have answers to some of the most ancient and compelling questions that people have asked since the days of Creation. Questions such as why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people die before their prime? Why do people suffer? If the Responsa does not have the answers, then where do we find them?
Are there answers to such difficult questions? Usually, we ask such questions when we – ourselves -are hurting physically, emotionally, or feeling helpless, out of control, and lost when we see others suffer and die for reasons that do not make sense. There is this sense of urgency to get answers because naturally we feel that if there is a problem then we need to solve it. And when we can’t solve it, we need to determine the cause of the problem or more likely we want to point fingers at something, someone or even to God that would explain as to why such bad things happen in our world.
Frequently, people would approach me as their rabbi and some would assume that because I am a religious leader that I am the closest to God and that I can offer an answer that would be acceptable to them. The questions that some may ask …where is God in the midst of my suffering? Why is this happening to me? I have attended services in the synagogue, my children has had a bar or bat mitzvah, I gave tzedekah and I offered support to the Land of Israel! What more must I do to get God to answer my prayers?
One might think that…
“…God is like a giant vending machine: put in the right change and you get the right result. Say the right prayers and God will respond in the appropriate way…Prayer is a kind of magic, a way that we can control the universe. So many of us believe that by saying the right words, we can control God or anything in our world…” (Rabbi Michael Gold)
Let the truth be told and I respond by saying: I do acknowledge your pain, our pain, your anger, our anger, your suffering and our suffering but the God that I know is not a God who pulls our strings as if we are puppets in this world. Rather the God that I know is constantly encouraging us with his presence to seek love, healing and comfort among each other as we face the harsh reality of life as mortal human beings.
I also want to say that we have every right to be angry with God, with doctors or with our loved ones when we are hurting or in pain but blaming God or others for suffering and pain will lead us to nowhere.
In 1981, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, wrote the acclaimed national bestseller book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, based on his own personal loss of his son due to illness. As we know this book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for many months and it was translated into a dozen of other languages over the years and it is found in many of our personal libraries.
Rabbi Kushner asked “…that universal “Why?” for ten long years as he lived with the knowledge that his son was doomed by a disease so rare that most people have never heard of it. Through his family’s shared ordeal, this rabbi came to see God as he never had seen before – a God who does weep with us, won’t abandon us, and can fill the deepest needs of an anguished heart.” (Back of book cover)
By asking such profound questions, through his own journey of pain and suffering, Rabbi Kushner found the answer as he said: “Bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly…”
An anonymous blogger further explains this teaching:
…there is this image of pain, death and suffering bouncing around the universe like ping pong balls. You see one coming at you, and the temptation is to push it away. But doing so often makes it hit someone else and hurt him or her too. So they pick it up and angrily throw it back at you. Or maybe they miss and hit someone else…”
There is no good answer as to why there is suffering in this world and more so as to how we as humans do not want to accept it because it is painful and yet we must. Life works in mysterious ways and events randomly happen in people’s lives for no reason. Since there is suffering in this world, Rabbi Kushner challenges the notion as to whether or not we are asking the right questions?
“…The question we should be asking is not, ”Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be, “Now that this has happened to me what am I going to do about it?” (Rabbi Harold Kushner)
In other words, we must be willing to catch those ping-pong balls if they are thrown to us. That is what we need to do.
“…To end suffering within is to catch the ping pong ball and paint it pretty colors and hang it in the window and show it off to your friends. It really is possible to stop and hold your pain, suffering and grief instead of flinging it back on others-it is possible to rework it in ways that make us better people: stronger, more insightful, more compassionate. We are artists, creators…the material we have to work with is our life experience -just because we may not like some of the colors we are given does not mean that we cannot mix those colors with others to create beautiful art. That beautiful art is called life.” (Understanding World Religions -anonymous blogger)
We are the creators of our own life experiences. As we return to the service this morning and listen to the somber questions of Unetaneh Tokef – Who shall live and who shall die? Who at a ripe age and who before their time? Rather than facing these questions with apprehension and fear, perhaps it is best for us to be honest. We are only here for a brief time on earth and we need to decide if we are willing to be unafraid – to take hold of anything that may happen to us. And how do we do that? We accept the profound tradition that we begin the High Holy Days by acknowledging death and suffering in our world. As a result, we are given this period of introspection, a time of reflection and a chance for us with intention to make every day of our lives - a sacred blessing.
Throughout our journey of life, we will continue to encounter difficult questions. There will always be bumps and curves on the roads we travel. I believe that there is an eternal answer that we can all hold on to and that is Hope. Hope gives us a reason to live. Hope gives us directions as how to make our lives a blessing. We may feel helpless at times but hope pushes us to make our lives worthy. Hope motivates us to act- to speak, to stand, to move, to try and help us to embrace life as it is.
Where do we find hope? Let me tell you this story.
A group of students wanted to drive out the darkness of suffering and pain in the world. They went to their Rabbi for advice…
Take a broom, “ he suggested, “and sweep the darkness from a basement.”
It did no good.
“Then take sticks,” advised the Rabbi, “ and beat out the darkness.”
That did no good either.
“Shout and yell at the darkness,” said the Rabbi, “and order it to leave at once.”
That, too, was unsuccessful.
“And now,” he said, “Light a candle.”
And the darkness was swept away. (Jewish folktale)
You see, light as the opposite of darkness, is the symbol of hope. It is through light, through hope that helps us to see
  • that we are not alone in the midst of our pain and grief. As much as we would like to take suffering and death away from this world, at least, we know how easy it is to light a candle as it only takes one candle to light so many others. It only takes one person to believe in hope to give hope to others. Now- I would like for us to do this. Please offer your hand to the person sitting next to you so that everyone has a hand to hold on to. Look around. Now that is hope. Do not let go.
  • Listen to these questions. Can we fill our days with warmth and compassion? Can we fill our days with kindness and support? Can we fill our days with strength and courage? Can we fill our days with love, gratitude and blessings? Can we fill our days with light and hope? Yes. I truly believe that we can. No answers are needed. It is all there in our hearts- we just need to share it with others.
    s we approach the New Year of 5772, may our hearts be open to discover the true meaning of life so that we can come closer to one another, to ourselves and to God. May we all remember that life is a journey and that on this day we are given a chance to renew our sense of commitment to live our lives to the fullest. May we all be blessed with good health, contentment and peace as we pray to be inscribed into the Book of Life.
    May it be God’s will. AMEN
    (Your shopping cart is empty)