“Nevertheless, I Will Praise”, Rabbi Roger C. Klein, Yom Kippur 5776/2015

“Nevertheless, I Will Praise”

Rabbi Roger C. Klein

The Temple-Tifereth Israel

Yom Kippur – 5776/2015


            A dear friend of mine, the minister son of a minister father, once told me about a sermon that his father gave many years ago. The sermon was entitled, “Humility and How I Achieved It.” My friend’s mother was at church that day and, when he was finished speaking, she leaned over to her son, my friend, and whispered, “the hard way.” Now, I don’t intend to talk with you this evening about humility, though I must say that I am regularly humbled by the wonderful work I am privileged to engage in as your rabbi.  Rather, I want to draw inspiration from my friend’s mother’s comment: “the hard way.” And so, this evening I will describe for you something of the “hard way,” the perplexing and thorny road that I have travelled … and continue to travel … through confusion and even anguish … but sometimes into the light … during my years as a rabbi.

            I am challenged and exhilarated by the work I do … preparing 13-year olds for their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and couples for their weddings, listening and responding to individuals and families who come to me in search of some help about their personal anxieties or their relationships; working with the Temple groups that I advise, preparing for the classes I teach to our teenagers and adults; the services I conduct with my cherished colleagues; the lectures I give at The Temple and in the community. All this stimulates me and gives me great satisfaction. Yet, nothing challenges me more than the funerals I prepare for and conduct. The awesome responsibility of being present to mourners during the days immediately following their loss. Helping them cope with the disequilibrium and loneliness … and sometimes the shock and anger … they are experiencing; the challenge of celebrating, while also realistically describing, the life of the deceased in my eulogy. I feel challenged at these times to be caring and emotionally involved while at the same time maintaining enough distance to be helpful to the mourners. This is not an easy balance to maintain and we do our best to do both. Intimacy and perspective, compassion and equanimity – both are required and in a combination that each situation suggests but which cannot be decided upon in advance. These are the challenges that we clergy face when working with families that have suffered a loss.

            But there is a particular issue that I want to discuss with you this evening … and it is an issue that haunts me. It grabs me in my gut most acutely when the death is sudden or tragic, when a young life or a healthy father or mother is snatched away, when the randomness and injustice of life are laid bare before us. And for me, the most searing moment is when I am standing next to the family at the cemetery over the open grave, the casket poised above it, and when, at this very moment, I read certain prayers. It is just at this time that I find myself struggling to come to terms with what I am reading.

            Here is one of the prayers that I commonly read at grave side, a prayer intended to comfort, but which has always struck me as mocking the suffering of the sorrowing family. Here is that prayer:

Eternal is Your might, O God; all life is Your gift; great is Your power to save! With love You sustain the living, and with great compassion You give life to all. You send help to the falling and healing to the sick; You bring freedom to the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. (Rabbi’s Manual, p. 155)

          And so often, while I am reading these words aloud, I am having a conversation with myself, silently challenging what I am reading: “great is Your power to save”? “with great compassion you give life to all”? “You send help to the falling and healing to the sick?” At this particular moment, surrounded as I am by weeping, often trembling family members and friends, I ask myself: are these really the right words? Are these the appropriate sentiments for this awful moment? And I have a lot of trouble believing that they are because they seem empty and false and wholly remote from the horrific reality that we are enduring. Of course, I do not and cannot convey these thoughts, these doubts during the service itself for my primary role now … and to which I am deeply committed … is to comfort the family, to commiserate with them, to display what I feel … the solidarity of our common humanity. It is not my role at this moment to be a philosopher or a theologian. And it is certainly not my role to put my qualms out in the open.

            It is at moments like these that I think about something the poet Emily Dickinson  wrote to her paramour Judge Otis Lord: “…we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour … which keeps believing nimble.” Indeed, doubting has its role in keeping faith honest, in keeping it real and relevant and appropriate. In this regard, Emily Dickinson might very well have quoted the biblical prophet Jeremiah when he exclaims, “G-d is a G-d of truth.” (Jeremiah 10:10). In our religion, as in Emily’s, G-d insists … and Judaism insists … on truth telling. And so, in search of insight, I have doubted the appropriateness of these prayers. But I have also doubted my doubt. Have I assumed their inappropriateness based upon my discomfort at the moment … or on a narrow view of the prayer’s purpose? Doesn’t the fact that our tradition places that prayer at that altogether raw moment warrant at least a second look?

            And so, over the years, I have forced myself to reflect on prayers like these in contexts like those; and I have tried to make sense of them. And I want to tell you how, at this point in my life, I have come to understand them. But before I do, I want to suggest to you that this is not just a problem for rabbis or other clergy. It is, rather, a problem for us all. And for the simple reason that life has assaulted, or will assault, all of us at one time or another and in one way or another … and that we will be better off if we have a view about the meaning of those assaults … what we should think and how we should act when they happen. Because if we don’t, we may be defeated by the adversity that life throws at us. What we make of what happens to us, the good and the bad, will have everything to do with how we will conduct ourselves in their wake. And so, I am now going to describe for you what I take to the Jewish view of the most significant realities of our lives, a view that I consider courageously healthy and deeply practical.

            Now, so much of our lives are filled with blessing. Health, if we are fortunate to have it. Our capacities to see and hear, to speak and think and feel … capacities which allow us to make our way in the world and interact with each other. We have family and friends and work and play and food and drink. Our tradition urges us not to take these blessings for granted, not to let them go unnoticed and unacknowledged, not to sleepwalk through our days. And so we say blessings of praise and thanks. Blessings are “strings around our fingers” … reminders; and the habit of reciting blessings puts a glow into our lives. “Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life, Source of our health and our strength, we give You thanks and praise.” “Modeh ani L’fanecha … I thank You, G-d, for allowing me to wake up this day.” “Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.” … for bread, for our bounty.” “… she-he-che-yanu v’kee-ye-manu v’higee-yanu laz’man ha-zeh” … thank you for this special moment.” “Life is good, we are fortunate, thank You.”

Now, just at this point, I think I hear what some of you are saying to yourselves: “O, these utterances are all well and good for those who believe in G-d; but I simply don’t believe in a G-d who acts in our lives, who listens to and responds to prayer, who wakes us up in the morning, the G-d of miracles, large and small. The personal G-d? No, I can’t believe it.” You dismiss prayers like these because you can’t believe in the giving, acting, providing personal G-d. And so, since you don’t accept this literal view of G-d, you find that you can’t take seriously the whole world view implicit in these blessings. The personal G-d is for you a stumbling block.

Now, certainly, our tradition has long embraced this picture of the personal G-d who is active in our lives. Bible stories, Talmudic assertions, prayer book assumptions have taken this view for granted. And this approach is deeply comforting for those who embrace it. But there is another way of looking at this … a way that is non-literal and metaphorical. Now, what is a metaphor? It’s a statement that is literally false but non-literally true. And metaphor is a way of dramatizing that truth, making it real to us, stunning us into recognition. When the poet Goethe claims that “Architecture is frozen music,” he surely didn’t mean that buildings are literally made of musical notes or that they are actually cold. What he means is that great buildings have harmony and rhythm, counterpoint and dissonance, power and beauty. If one insists on taking this idea literally, one will quickly dismiss it as so much nonsense. But who in his or her right mind would take this literally? And so with so many metaphorical claims: “Duty calls,” … no, not literally … duty does not have a voice; but figuratively, yes … we do feel pressed to live up to our responsibilities. How about these assertions: “Numbers are the marionettes of ideologues,” “Education is the seed corn for the future,” “Politics is an indiscriminate blade that eventually cuts everyone down to size,” Or these imperatives: “keep the inning alive,” “listen with the ear of the heart.” Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver once wrote that “The 23rd Psalm breathes a pastoral air.” Does a great poem literally breathe? No one thinks so and yet we are persuaded by Rabbi Silver’s metaphor. “April is the cruelest month,” intones T.S Eliot in the opening line of The Waste Land. Months are cruel? Of course not. But, yes!! And here is one of my favorites, uttered by sports commentator Stephen A. Smith just before the crucial Game 4 of last spring’s Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors championship series. Here is what Smith said: “Game 4 is Game 7.” Really? Yes!

            And so we all understand very well the power of metaphor … a problematic, sometimes downright false claim on the literal level … Game 4 is emphatically NOT Game 7 … but powerful and revealing nonetheless.

            And if we can understand and accept the workings of the metaphors I have just discussed … and we do completely understand and accept them, don’t we? … why can’t we take seriously the deeper meanings about life which are compressed in the G-d metaphor? And so I say to those who cannot accept the literal, traditional view of G-d: “Okay, throw out the literal … G-d does not really have a right arm, G-d does not really feel anger … throw out the literal … but don’t throw out the wisdom about life that the literal houses beneath its exterior.

 And so those blessings of praise mean essentially that life is good … full of bounty, full of possibility … and we utter these blessings, using the literal language of the personal G-d … because we know that we are not the creators of much of that makes life good. And the important thing here is that Judaism is fundamentally a “because of” religion: I live my life in gratitude because I am so richly endowed. And I acknowledge this gratitude verbally, actively so as not to become indifferent and so that I am reminded that my blessings call me to my responsibilities.

But what about those rough and raw parts of our lives … the painful moments, the premature or protracted illnesses, the untimely and sometimes tragic deaths of loved ones? What about these? It is just here that a “because of” religion does not work. But Judaism is not only a “because of” religion since it also boldly faces, and then refuses to paper over, the tragic and inexplicable aspects of our lives. “G-d is a G-d of truth” and a G-d of truth insists on truth-telling. So what is the truth behind the prayer that I read at grave side next to grieving and stunned families? And here is my claim: though this prayer … “great is your power to save,” “with love you sustain the living” … looks like a “because of” prayer … and in some contexts it is a “because of” prayer … in this context it is really the opposite … it is an “in spite of” prayer. And here is the meaning of an “in spite of” prayer in circumstances like this: in spite of the fact that this calamity has struck my loved ones and me, in spite of this, I will insist on praising G-d. Why? Why should I utter this upbeat prayer at the very moment that the world seems so meaningless, so opposed to human flourishing, so awful? And here’s the reason: because if I don’t affirm something like this, I risk sinking into despair, lapsing into a pervasive and lasting anger, succumbing to the view that nothing makes sense. But I cannot and will not allow this to happen to me. Other people need me … and I need me. And so, I utter this prayer with clenched teeth and with a fist … a metaphorical fist … thrust into the air. But I do say it.

And so, “because of” prayers are the result of celebrating the impact of what I experience; “in spite of” prayers are the result of resisting the impact of what I experience. … and saying “no” to nihilism and despair. I insist on optimism “in spite of” what has happened and what is happening to me. I say “With love You sustain the living, and with great compassion You give life to all. You send help to the falling and healing to the sick ….” I say these things, not because they are or seem true at this moment; but because I cannot live a full life in my heart and in the presence of others without saying them. Life beckons me and I must go out and meet it. Optimism is an achievement, not an endowment. “V’af al pi chen,” nevertheless, I will believe. Nevertheless, I will thank. Nevertheless, I will praise.