For the past two weeks, as we navigated the peaks and valleys of the High Holidays, the cherished and time-sanctified liturgy of our tradition has relentlessly assaulted our senses with a consistent message. Our behaviors have consequences. Our lives are terribly flawed, often because of our own failures and shortcomings. The only hope that we have of achieving redemption is to return to the tried and true path of God, Torah, and fidelity to the ancient covenant that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved child in order to protect.
Both personally and as a professional whose work involves helping people appreciate the power and the promise of these holidays, I am endlessly fascinated by the feelings that our liturgy elicits. There are serious numbers of people who don’t understand more than a few words of the most famous prayers, and yet still they can be moved to tears by them. Just being in the synagogue when they’re recited and hearing the familiar melodies strikes some deeply resonant chord deep within them, and that resonance generates an authentic religious experience. Others are so alienated from the tradition that attending services is little more than an obligation rooted in guilt, and their resentment is almost palpable. You can see it in their body language, and in the number of times they look at their watches when the service is far from over.
Most people are somewhere in the middle. They struggle with the liturgy. And I have enormous respect for that spiritual posture.
I am, by nature, skeptical of a faith that doesn’t incorporate the reality of doubt. It is the dialectic between faith and doubt that creates the space within which God is more accessible to us. Struggling with God means acknowledging God. That is, I think, a crucially important piece of the process. For me, struggle has been an indispensable tool in my own spiritual growth. And I haven’t stopped struggling, even as I teach and preach faith.
Within the community of strugglers, there is a subset of people for whom I have special respect and affection. They are the ones whose struggles clearly fly in the face of the High Holidays’ relentless messages of cause and effect, and human failings. They have lived the good life, as parents, children, spouses, friends, and as Jews- but life has dealt them a painful and, frankly, inexplicably unfair hand. Things have broken badly for them, for no rhyme or reason.
A child has died. A spouse who was the primary breadwinner is suddenly laid off, and all that was secure the day before is now terrifyingly uncertain. How will we pay the rent this month, or the mortgage? Or, a brother, sister, husband or wife doesn’t feel well, and one trip to the doctor brings the words we all dread: “I need you to come back in for some more tests- I don’t like what I saw on your x-ray.” Everything that defined normalcy is suddenly and cruelly transformed. Prayers that were casual groups of words become frantic pleas for healing. I can see their faces when we sing Debbie Friedman’s haunting Mishebeirach- a prayer for solace and spiritual strength in the face of illness- every Shabbat and Festival day. They used to be able to talk while we were singing that prayer. Now they cry through it.
It takes a great deal of effort, and spiritual resilience, to maintain a prayerful posture when life is beating you up. As a rabbi, I try and teach people that prayer is an invaluable asset when it feels as if the world around you is collapsing. But that’s not a message that everyone wants or is able to hear. When you’re watching a loved one slip away, and you know that the writing is on the wall and no amount or prayer or medical treatment will change that reality, it can feel as if God is mocking you. “Here I am, praying for a recovery that will never come, and You, God, are mute! I sing, I chant, I close my eyes and pray with every fiber of my being, but for what?” It’s hard not to become cynical… and many do.
And who can blame them?
One of the hardest parts of developing a mature and resilient faith structure is coming to terms with the fact that prayer, no matter how earnest or heartfelt, is not always answered as we would want it to be. Those same laws of nature that we depend on for the predictable orderliness of life have, within them, the potential for chaos. A pleasant breeze cools us on a summer day; a hurricane force wind destroys. The waves of the ocean are the very picture of the joys of summer; a tsunami makes of a wave a killing machine. Our bodies routinely perform hundreds if not thousands of miraculous acts each and every day. Our brains have more RAM than the best computer, and the capacity to create art, literature, music – so much! But one brief bleed in the brain can end all that- and that’s part of nature, too…
As we age and experience the trials and tribulations that life throws at us, if we are to remain people of faith, we have no choice but to regroup, and rearticulate that faith. Saying “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” as we do during this penitential period, or “though my parents abandon me, You, God, gather me up” provides the spiritual space for God to sustain us when we are at our lowest, and to nurse our broken hearts. God can’t always solve our problems. We cannot ransom those we love from the ravages of the same natural order that makes all life possible. It’s just not the way the world works.
But prayer is never a bad thing, and praying for a recovery, even in the midst of a situation that in all likeliness is hopeless, can nonetheless be a source of strength. What matters most is cultivating the ability to keep praying even when we don’t get what we want. That’s the hardest part of all. But without cultivating that kind of faith, the world can be an even colder and lonelier place. Faith and doubt … somewhere between them, God is there to give comfort.