Let me tell you about the sermon I was going to give today. It was about the book and movie The Perfect Storm . It was about how we often bring tragedy upon ourselves by our own actions, the way that the crew of that fishing boat The Andrea Gail did, through denial, pride, and our misplaced priority on money. I was looking forward to giving that sermon. But it went out the window, like most of my sermons for these High Holidays, because of the events that have rocked our country. And it went out the window because the hard truth is that, in our lives, we don’t get killed by perfect storms. We don’t get killed by romantic waves that are ten stories high. We get killed by dehumanizing diseases, and by losing our immune systems, and by hardening in our arteries, and by strokes and heart attacks, and we lose our minds and our identities step by step down a horrible slope into a dependent infancy. And now, we have to add terrorism to that list.
It seems to me that on this Yom Kippur, this Day of Judgment, this Day when we wonder “Who shall live and who shall die?” my most important task, as a rabbi, is to talk about G-d. You might think that at a time like this, I would be hesitant to talk about this. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that my faith is stronger than it has ever been in my whole life, stronger than when I was a kid being raised in a rabbi’s home.
Today I want to talk about the way I believe in G-d. For some of you, what I’m going to say will sound heretical and very different than anything you’ve ever heard. I hope it will not sound harsh to say that it will be new to many of you who have been stuck in what I like to call Pediatric Judaism. Pediatric Judaism is the philosophy of G-d that some unsophisticated teacher taught you decades ago when you were a child. But now we’re adults, and we should talk about G-d as adults.
So today, I’m going to talk about the question, “Where was G-d at the World Trade Center?” which is really just an example of the most difficult religious question there is, “Why do bad things happen to innocent people?” It will take me a little while to get to the answers, because I need to teach you something about what adult Judaism is.
I’ll start, literally, at the beginning. I’ll read you the first three verses of Genesis Chapter I:
In the beginning, G-d created the world. The world was complete chaos, and the darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.
If you’re listening carefully, you’ll notice that before G-d had created anything, chaos was already there. Chaos existed before creation began.
What was this chaos? It wasn’t another god or another force. It was just nature and chance and luck and things moving around in a haphazard fashion. The definition of chaos is that there is no power guiding it. So in this picture, there is chaos, and G-d is trying to create order in it and out of it.
The way that you were taught, G-d created the universe out of nothing. But if we think again about what the Torah actually says, you see that G-d creates something out of something, that G-d struggles with the forces of chaos, the forces of nature, and tries to order the world out of the very stuff of chaos. The question is whether chaos will rule or G-d will rule. It is an ongoing struggle, as we know from the nature of our own lives.
Judaism says: “There are forces in the world and even in our bodies that work toward chaos and sickness and death.” And who fights against these forces? G-d, and those who follow Him.
Step One, for G-d, is creating the world. He pushes the forces of chaos higher than the sky and lower than the sea. But He doesn’t destroy those forces. They’re still there. They’re waiting to break through again. G-d combats them, restricts them, but they’re still there.
Step Two. G-d decides to create beings that will rule the world. They will have complete freedom. They can listen to Him and be good, or they can be disobedient and listen to the sounds of chaos. So what happens? They are disobedient; they give into the sounds of chaos.
Think about the earth as G-d’s lab. He has created this huge universe. He creates life in this one place we call earth as an experiment. He wants to know if these human beings, given the choice between order and chaos, good and evil, will choose good. And guess what? They make the wrong choice.
So G-d says, “You want chaos? I’ll show you chaos.” And so there is a Flood, in which the waters of Chaos flood the world. But G-d can’t stand that destruction and He says, “I’ll never do that again. OK humans, you’re on your own. I’ll give you lots of rules, I’ll tell you how to have a wonderful world. But now things will be up to you
Parents understand all this. You raise these little children. They need you. You teach them every bit of wisdom you know. You teach them about right and wrong. But then too quickly they’re grown up, and you send them out into the world. And you hope that they remember what you taught them. You still communicate, but what the kids do is their choice. You have to pull back and let them run their own lives. That’s the way of the world.
That is the way of the whole world. That’s how G-d operates in this world. When we were young, in Biblical times, He saved us and punished us like parents do with their kids. But then, as time passed, we were on our own. It was all up to us.
Let me tell you two quick stories from my own life to illustrate what I mean. When I was four and five years old, my parents would take me for vacations at a state park that had a beach on a lake. It was a great spot and we were very happy and comfortable there. One afternoon, I wandered out into the lake beyond the shallow end, and all of a sudden, I was in way over my head and I couldn’t breathe. And just as suddenly, there were these strong hands lifting me out of the water and carrying me gasping to the sand, laying me down and pushing the water out of me. It was my father. He had been watching me and he came and saved me when I got into trouble. All these years later, I can still remember those big strong hands lifting me out of the water.
Decades later, I was at a beach in New Jersey and my son Danny and I went out too far. The waves were crashing and the undertow was strong. I shouted to Danny to make for a sandbar, and I saw that he was safe. But I was in trouble, and I couldn’t seem to swim or get out of it. And this time, there were no big strong hands to save me. I was on my own. I was plenty scared. I didn’t think I was going to make it. But then there was something, some calm, some confidence, that came over me. And somehow, everything that I knew, and everything I’d ever done, informed that moment. I struggled and worked until I started making progress toward the shore. I saw the lifeguard running toward me, shouting encouragement. When I finally got back to the sand, gasping and heaving, the lifeguard came and said, with a southern drawl, “Are you all right there, pardner?” I could only nod my head. I didn’t get the message.
Did G-d save me like my father had saved me when I was a kid? No. I was an adult, and it was my responsibility. If I had drowned, it wouldn’t have been the lifeguard’s fault; it wouldn’t have been G-d’s fault; it would have been bad luck or my fault. But if I would have drowned, a lot of people who are sitting here would have shaken their heads and wondered, “How could G-d let the rabbi drown? Where was G-d when the rabbi drowned?”
I’ll tell you where G-d was in that incident. G-d was in me, fighting the undertow. G-d was with me all right. G-d was that something that came over me.
Who by water? It could have been me by water that year. It wasn’t pre-determined that I would be saved or that I would drown. In my mind, those waves symbolized the chaos of creation. I escaped, not by a miracle, but by working against those forces, by joining with G-d in striving for life.
Whether things are predetermined is one of the key questions religion tries to deal with. Let’s be even more basic about Judaism. Why do we worship One G-d? This seems like an idiotic question. Everyone knows that the contribution of Judaism was to give the world One G-d. Christianity and Islam, to this day, see Judaism as the original, authentic monotheistic religion, the religion that gave us One G-d.
But who cares? Why is it significant that we worship one G-d and not three or six or nine?
Before Judaism, everyone believed in many gods. Each god had limited powers, limited by the powers of the other gods. Actually, their powers were seen to be limited in a much bigger way. The gods did not control the world – the Fates did. The Fates really controlled everything. In The Iliad, Homer presents a Trojan War in which some gods are for the Greeks and some are for the Trojans. But none of their efforts can determine the outcome of the war. The Fates have already decreed that the Greeks will win. Everything is predetermined. The gods, like the people involved, play their parts, but the script has already been written by other, higher powers. Everything in our lives, says pagan religion and mythology, is predetermined.
The genius of Judaism was not to subtract numbers of gods to get to the number one. The genius was to say, “That’s not how the world works. Things are not predetermined. We believe not only that there is one overarching force in the universe but also that that force is not some blind ladies sewing tapestries. We believe in G-d who is not blind, who sees us, who judges us, who encourages us to do right. Even if G-d has decided something, our deeds can change what He has decreed.
That is the glory of Judaism, that it rejected the idea of pre-determinism. And yet, that is also the problem of Judaism, because we have to explain an unfair world where G-d often does not seem to judge us correctly. And if there is no one else to blame, no Devil as in Catholicism, whom can we blame but G-d? We can blame ourselves, but sometimes, it’s just not our fault. Innocent people do suffer, the good, alas, often do die young.
Judaism, as we usually think about it, believes that G-d controls everything. But there is a more sophisticated Judaism that says, “Look, there is something called chance or fate or luck. Can G-d reverse these things? Absolutely. Will He change these things? We don’t know, but we pray that He will .
When we say the Untane Tokef , and we say, “Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water?” each of us shakes in fear. Those who don’t worry about themselves, whether because of denial or unselfishness, at least fear for their loved ones. We shake because we know that anything can happen, that bad luck can overtake us and knock us down.
Having said all this, I will tell you that Judaism places very strong demands on G-d. Abraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, asks, “Shall not the Judge of the world do justly?” The great prophets Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel all questions G-d’s justice.
Do you know what the name Israel means? It means the one who struggles with G-d. Why is this our name? Because we’re the ones who take G-d on. We struggle with G-d. We are the G-d-wrestlers.
Here’s Job, who was a better person than anyone here and who had more bad things happen to him than anyone here. He wasn’t patient, the way our Christian friends say he was. He screamed and yelled at G-d in one angry speech after another, decrying G-d’s absence and injustice. That’s Jewish. The Book of Job is a book of the Bible. This is acceptable Jewish practice. We wrestle with G-d. We struggle with G-d.
We want G-d to get more involved, to leave less to chance, to save our loved ones in the nick of time, protect us from disease, stop planes from going into buildings.
We pray for G-d’s involvement.
We have the right to say, “G-d, we know that You have a system of letting us work it out. But couldn’t You just save my loved one? Couldn’t you keep those evil men off that plane?”
There’s a system, by which G-d uses us to carry out His Will. But we’re not happy with this system. We want G-d to be more involved. And since so many of us have felt G-d working in our lives, since so many of us feel G-d in the so-called coincidences of our lives, since so many of us have indeed experienced absolute miracles, we are encouraged to ask G-d for more and more such involvement. And we feel that prayer is powerful.
I don’t know what you pray for on the High Holidays. As a rabbi, I do not only pray for my loved ones and myself, but also for all of you. I pray that G-d will protect us from accidents and tragedies.
And if some of our bad luck is in our genes, I hope that G-d will protect us from those genes.
And I pray that lightning shouldn’t strike us. And for those of us that have already been struck by lightning once, I pray that G-d won’t let us be struck by lightning again.
You see: prayer is not a bunch of innocuous words. Prayer is a way of thinking about the world. Prayer is not giving into the idea that there is nothing you can do, that everything is predetermined. Prayer is saying, “G-d can help us battle with the chaos in this world, in our lives and in our bodies.”
On this Yom Kippur, I have never felt so close to the fight in which G-d is engaged. I have never felt so threatened by the forces of chaos.
One of the big cultural events of this year is going to be the premiere of a new movie, called The Fellowship of the Ring . It’s based on the first book of the classic trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings . Since I was a kid, I have been thrilled by the idea of an ultimate battle between good and evil. I have always been charmed by how these little people called Hobbits help save the world from the evil ones. There is an evil Lord of the Rings who wants to bring darkness into Middle Earth. But various kingdoms and peoples of Middle Earth join together in the fight against evil, and prevail. This series, written in the context of World War II by a genius English professor, was really about the reality of the evil of Nazi Germany and the terrifying struggle against it. If you lived through World War II, or you know something about it, you know how frightening it was.
We now live in another, very difficult time. But if you believe in G-d, you believe that He will join with us in the struggle against the forces of evil and chaos, as He did in World War II, and that we will prevail.
G-d created this world as an experiment so that He could learn about human beings. But He won’t let the world be conquered by evil.
And we may just be hobbits, but I know that we will all have our part to play.
With all of this as background, we can think about what happened on Sept. 11. On that day, chaos came crashing into our lives.
Where was G-d on Sept. 11? He was in the hearts and minds of those firemen who looked up, saw exactly what they were going into and still went in to save lives. If that’s not G-d, I don’t know what is.
Where was G-d on Sept. 11? I’ll tell you where G-d wasn’t: G-d was not in the frenzied minds of the suicide bombers, the immoral violent men to whom human life means nothing.
You want to know where G-d was at the World Trade Center? There are 25,000 to 28,000 people walking around alive that might have died.
I can’t play the games that people play about whom lived and died at the World Trade Center. I can only feel grief that so many died and be thankful that so many lived. I also can’t play the game that says that these attacks were a blessing in disguise. This line says: People died, but in the long run, the world was saved because of this wake-up call.
I’m not wise enough to make such conclusions. I do know that G-d is with us as we begin this struggle.