Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why I'm Shaving

It's here. After so many months, so many Facebook status updates, so many laughs and quite a few tears, the day of the Big Shave is finally here. Tonight, I'll sit along with 60 or so other Rabbis, and we'll shave our heads. We'll shave our heads to honor the commitment and support that so many of you have shown us. We'll shave our heads to show our love and support to Michael and Phyllis. And, of course, we'll shave our heads to honor the memory of Sam, along with countless others who have been lost to cancer.

Many of my friends and colleagues have been writing about why they're doing this, and I want to add my voice to that. I talked about this on Friday, but I wanted to share it with more people, as well. My apologies if it's a bit long, but I hope you'll take the time to read it.

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's the eternal religious question. If there is a benevolent God, why would that God allow terrible things to happen to people who don't deserve them? Why isn't the world fair? Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the most famous book on the subject (well, 2nd most famous ) calls it the only religious question.

My own understanding about this comes from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the intellectual giants of 20th century Judaism. In a powerful (although difficult) book called "Fate and Destiny," the Rav (as he was known) explains that, in reality, "why?" is the wrong question. In fact, it's not just wrong--it's immoral. In some ways, amoral.

Asking "why" something happened implies that there is a reason. And, if that reason comes from God, then, by definition, it's a good reason. And, if there's a good, God-approved reason for something bad happening to us, then that implies that, in the big picture, it isn't bad at all. Sure, from our limited, myopic, selfish point of view it seems bad. But, it's not really bad.

It's like when I take my kids to get an immunization shot. They think it's awful. But, what do they know? The doctors and parents know that this is actually a good. A bit of pain for a larger benefit. "Why did they stick a needle in my arm?" "To save you."

The Rav rejects this kind of thinking about tragedies in our world. Because, he says, they deny the existence of bad and evil. When something bad happens, trying to find the reason for it implies that it wasn't really bad at all. It only seemed bad to us; but, from God's point of view, it was actually a good thing, like that shot. But, part of what it means to be human (maybe the biggest part) is our ability to tell the difference between good and bad. We, human beings, are the ones who can look at a natural disaster and say "that shouldn't be." We can look at acts of human evil and say "that's evil. That's wrong. I reject that, and I'll fight against it." Trying to turn every seemingly awful thing into something good is a repudiation of our God-given sense of right and wrong. Tsunamis that kill thousands are not good. Wars which kill millions are not good. Cancer which kills children (or anyone else) is not good. These are awful, and no amount of theological gymnastics will change that.

The real question, he teaches it not "why?" but "what now?" We can't explain what happened. We certainly can't undo it. But, we can decide to act in its wake. That's the meaning of his title, "Fate and Destiny." Fate is what happens to us, and it just happens. There are no reasons (or, at least, none that we'll ever understand). But, Destiny is what we do with our Fate. It is precisely how we react to our fate which, potentially, redeems it. It doesn't make it good, but it makes something good come out of it.

I've been talking about this for years. And, invariably, at this point I give an example, and I've been using the same one for as long as I can remember. As painful as it is to share now, here it is:

Imagine a child dies of cancer. Is there any reason for that horrible death which will be adequate? Is there any Divine Plan which, if we were to learn it, would make us satisfied with the trade off? Is there any plan which, if offered to us in advance, we would say, "I'll take that"? Of course not. Nothing you can ever say or explain will make a single parent satisfied with the death of their child. To even suggest it is a monstrosity.

But, my example always continues, children do die of cancer. Reason or not, they do. And, it's always a tragedy, on every level. But, if in the wake of that tragedy, what if a parent is driven to raise money to support cancer research, and through that research, actually does cure cancer? Will I accept that God made that child die of cancer, specifically so that the parents would raise this money? No--I won't accept that. It's illogical (an all-powerful God has better options at hand) and it's immoral (solving problems by killing children isn't right, and I can't believe that anyone will try to justify it, although they surely will). But, we weren't offered that deal. We weren't given a choice. The child died, and that's wrong in every way, but now what? Can we do something in the wake of the tragedy? Can we make something positive come out of something merit-less? Can we redeem that evil and, while we can never make it good, at all, can we make something good emerge from it? 

Yes. We can. 

That's what we're doing tonight. That's what we've been doing for months. The death of Samuel Sommer (and Sam Jeffers, and so many others) is not good. It is wrong. It is wrong on every single level. It should not be. But it is. It happened. We can't change that (and, my God, how I want to change that). All we can ask is "what now?" 

Every one, especially every grieving parent, has a different answer to that question., I don't think that it's incumbent upon all of them to raise a half-million dollars for cancer research. For some, just surviving another day, another second of the day, is enough. But, for Mike and Phyllis, this is their response. This is their "what now?" Through their unfathomable courage, grace and love, they brought dozens of Rabbis, and hundreds and thousands of others, along on a journey to do something. To make something. To redeem something. They are making something holy out of the least holy thing my mind can fathom.

And, in the end, that may be the whole of religion. Making something holy out of something which isn't. Making order out of the chaos. I think that's what Kushner meant when he said that "why do bad things happen?" is the only religious question. Ultimately, religion is about finding order in the chaos, about finding meaning in the void. Our first story--the story of creation--is about God making order out of chaos. The origin of religion itself may have been about the attempt to find order in a chaotic world--patterns in the stars, and patterns in our behavior. And, god damn it, if those patterns aren't there, then we're going to make them, because that's all that we can do. We'll draw pictures over the heavenly chaos. We'll make rituals to order an unordered life. We'll make something good come out of a place where there is no good. 

I would give anything to bring Sam back for my dear friends. I would give anything to make right what is wrong. But, I can't. We can't. Tonight--tonight is the best that we can do. Tonight, I will be honored beyond my ability to share to stand with friends and colleagues, with so many people whom I love and respect, and try to create the smallest spark out of the deepest darkness.

Zichrono Livracha -- may Sam's memory always be a blessing.