This was a sermon I gave recently.

By Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Recently, a prominent Israeli rabbi was quoted as saying, “Is it a wonder that soldiers who don’t observe the Torah, don’t pray every day and don’t put on tefilin every day are killed in war? It is no wonder.” God, he seemed to be saying, killed Israeli soldiers—mostly 18 to 21 year-old kids—because they weren’t religious. Live a bad life in this world, and be punished, accordingly, in this world.

His comments sparked outrage among Israelis—not a few of them parents of kids who had been killed in Lebanon last summer, some of them religious, even. It’s since been suggested that the comments have been taken out of context, and that this rabbi didn’t intend what it sounded like he intended. But his comments—whatever intended—most certainly touched a raw nerve.

Many of us who are troubled by these sorts of claims are also troubled by a lot of what we find in the prayerbook—or at least, a lot of what we seem to be finding at first blush. Take the Unetane Tokef, for example—the prayer asks, “How many shall leave this world, how many shall be born? Who shall live, and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before?” and answers, “but tshuvah—repentance—tefillah—prayer—and tzedekah—acts of righteousness—can avert the severity of the decree.”

Can individual acts of piety save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? We know that lots of very good people suffer every day, and that many people who do horrible things prosper. For many of us, the plain meaning of this prayer feels… counterintuitive.

The fact of the matter is, we’re trained to regard this prayer as an individual exhortion to shift our individual fates. Individual liberty and the pursuit of individual happiness are principles on which America was founded, and, indeed, these ideas have given us many gifts—freedom to dissent, for example, a wide berth for creativity, and the possibility of forging lives other than the ones into which we were born. But relentless individualism has its limits.

In the early days of the Indian resistance to British rule, Gandhi would board the trains of colonial India and hold up his hand to its hardly well-off, hardly privileged, riders. He’d raise a finger and tell them that it represented the disenfranchisement and marginalization of members of the Untouchable caste, and the moral imperative to treat them as full members of society. He’d raise another finger—this, he would say, is our economic dependence on the British and the need to begin wearing only homespun clothes. A third: addiction to alcohol and opium. Number four was the Hindu-Muslim conflict, and five, the status of women.

This was the hand, Gandhi told his passengers, with which they could together defeat the British. A meaningful victory could only come once India had faced all of the ways in which the country was weak, all of the ways in which the dignity of every human being was compromised. They would all be saved when—and only when—each individual transformed him or herself to become a member of a larger whole, when the personal spiritual work of every Indian bore fruit in the broader society. Liberation depended on just treatment for the marginalized, on the cessation of conflict between opposing groups. It was all interconnected, Gandhi understood.

I wonder if we should regard the Une Tane Tokef as a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.

What if what was at stake weren’t about my individual repentance as it affects my individual fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate?
Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad are tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people. For better or for worse, we’re all in this together, and it’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being—and to not pass the theological buck to a Deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will, the power to heal or to hurt, to recycle or to not even buy in the first place, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them… or to stand idly by and do nothing.

Who shall live, and who shall die? What if the reason that a person gets cancer is not because he or she personally has done something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water, and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? Who by fire, and who by water—is the unusual force and number of hurricanes and tsunamis of the last few years a sign that entire sections of the world were filled with sinners, or a tragic by-product of global warming? Who by strangling, and who by stoning—women today, all around the world, are still being stoned to death—in “honor killings” when there are rumors that they have been out unchaperoned or, perhaps, raped, even by the brothers who eventually take her life. Are these women guilty of insufficient prayer, or should we assign responsibility to everyone who perpetuates a culture in which this is considered acceptable? Who by sword, and who by wild beast—are the war refugees (like those fleeing the brutally violent genocide in Darfur or the Lost Boys of Sudan) who are, sometimes—still, yes, today—ravaged by wild beasts—are they personally responsible for their situation, their fate? Of course not.

Obviously, not everything that happens in this world is the fault of mere mortals. Nature has her part, and unfortunately, terrible tragedies happen every day that defy our ability to wrap up every “why?” in neat, tightly-ordered packages.
Unfortunately, we only have so much control. The Une Tane Tokef cries:

“The human’s origin is dust and his end is dust, at the risk of his life he earns his bread, he is like a broken vessel of clay, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream…. None can conceive Thee, nor fathom Thy mysteries.”

I don’t know if we can change our individual decrees. But our work can impact the severity with which evil besets us all. This prayer is telling us that we have a tremendous amount of power, and the obligation to use that power.

We need teshuvah–literally, “returning”,–to face the reality of who we are, how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship both to God and other people, to see where we have been inert, choosing complacency and the easy path. We need tefillah (prayer) to align our wills with the Divine will, to remember that we are on this Earth to serve, to give over of ourselves. We need tzedekah (charity, righteousness) to enact, in part, this service–by caring for others we care for God.

The more we begin to tune into the Divine, the deeper we get into prayer, returning, righteousness, the more we begin to understand that Gandhi’s right, that our every action is—rather than being isolated and individual—intertwined with the wellbeing of our culture as a whole. We begin to understand that true transformation will only come when we become committed to bringing all the aspects of our sick culture back to health, to uniting all of the fingers that help our arm do what is right. The more we incline our hearts to God, the more we try to bring our actions in alignment with our greatest spiritual ideals, the more we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted. It gets harder to walk past a homeless person and not look her in the eye, see that she is human and, perhaps, hungry. It gets harder not to realize that every purchase has a potentially global impact, that it may support a local artisan or a corporation that trades in sweatshop labor. It gets harder to read newspaper stories about war or capital punishment casually, as though they weren’t happening to real people, causing real suffering. It gets harder to be oblivious to the fact that the person cleaning your office is a person, and the reason that she’s so tired might have something to do both with you, and with the way labor and value are structured in our culture. It gets harder to forget that 28 million people in America are classified as “working poor” or that 46.6 million people in America go without heath insurance. It gets harder to forget that individuals can come together to change a community, and that communities can come together to make change that’s even farther-reaching than that.
The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that “Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is considered liable for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is considered liable for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is considered liable for [the sins of] the whole world.” It’s not enough simply not to sin. We must take active steps in preventing others from causing harm–else, their transgression becomes our own.

There are local direct service organizations that need volunteers. Nonprofits doing everything from genocide prevention to homeless advocacy are always looking for help. There are many worthwhile candidates and policies that need energy and support. There are a myriad of ways to invest in the wellbeing of our community, country and world. Your task, today, is to pick one, and to figure out how to invest the resources you have into helping with one of the fingers on our collective hand. What are you going to help heal? And, starting Sunday, begin to do that work in the world.

The task begins—today, right now—with tshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah. Where it ends, how far it extends, is up to us.

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