When High Holy Days become low

How I wish I just knew in the deepest part of my being that everyone dies for a reason and that someone on high is looking out for us all.

Shofar with sticker 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shofar with sticker 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
As the holiest days of the Jewish year roll around once again, I find that I have a rocky relationship with God. He and I are going through a rough patch. I’m not quite sure how I will handle all the magnifieds and sanctifieds of His great Name this year. It’s not so easy for me to bless, praise, glorify, exalt, extol, honor, adore and laud the Lord of the Universe at this time.
Last year was bad enough: sitting in shul and reading over and over and over again about the Holy One, Blessed be He, deciding who will live and who will die and how Penitence, Prayer and Charity can avert the severe decree. I was taking no chances, though. Boy, did I pray! I beat my breast in penitence for the sins of eating and drinking (not waiting long enough for my Cadbury’s after my chicken) and for my foolish speech and any inadvertent wantonness. I couldn’t repent being rude to my parents; God decided that they should die decades ago – both young, both in their prime, both cut down by cancer. Charity was easy: Martin and I always gave to causes close to our heart. We did so again as Yom Kippur loomed, hoping God would do some averting for a family that had already been hit too hard.
Apparently He was not in listening mode.
It’s a funny business, this belief in God’s mercy. As I type, there is a program on TV about sad young women sitting mesmerized while a modestly dressed, sweet tzadika (righteous female), complete with head scarf and microphone, demonstrates dough-making for the Friday night halla, while encouraging her rapt audience to connect with their Maker. One young girl, desperate for her ill father to recover, vowed to cut up all her shorts and wear only sweeping skirts from now on. Another, trying fruitlessly to have babies, eschewed sleeveless blouses in an attempt to placate the Name. No one questioned why oncology wards in the Holy Land are bursting with black-coated devout right alongside pork eaters or that fertility clinics are not exclusively for the bikini-wearing secular. Keeping Shabbat and not showing skin, it seems, does not necessarily keep you healthy or functioning on all fronts.
Even more outrageous is that ill health can be big business for those in the God business. In hospitals, the pious, in skirts or black trousers, trawl waiting rooms preying on people like me. I was approached countless times to give money to gain salvation; feed someone’s children, and they’ll put in a prayer through their Hot Line to Heaven. Without a receipt. Just today I heard from my tennis teacher that when a family member of his lay dying, the desperate wife approached a rabbanit.
Under her instructions, the closest female members of the family gathered in a room, where the rabbi’s wife took money from each one (no receipt). Then she mumbled a prayer and announced that their loved one would rise the next day, become a believer and be healed.
Actually, he died. There was no refund.
But outcome doesn’t matter to this mind-set. It’s a win-win situation for believers: If things go well, it’s because God answered your prayers; when things go badly, it’s His will. The whys and wherefores are beyond the simple comprehension of mere mortals.
I recently got the sad news that a young family member had died. Her heartbroken daughter thanked everyone for their davening, which she believed had lengthened her mother’s life. And then I wondered, what happened? Did God get bored, hearing the same prayers over and over again, and say ‘Enough is enough’? Myself, I’m more inclined to go along with Edgar’s philosophy in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the Gods / They kill us for their sport.”
But who knows? Much cleverer people than I have grappled with these questions and philosophized at length about why bad things happen to good people. And even I can see that a belief in an overall Plan, a meaning that is hidden from the eye but plainly there to keep the world turning just as it should, is oh so helpful. How I wish I just knew in the deepest part of my being that everyone dies for a reason and that someone on high is looking out for us all. How lovely that certainty must be.
What to do, as one of my daughters says, it doesn’t cut it for me. And here’s another thing that doesn’t comfort my distress: hearing from others that it’s all min hashamayim (from the sky, where God, I suppose, has His Situations Room). I’d go further than that. I’d say that statements like “Trust in God” and “Everything comes from Above” are actually cruel. I’ll tell you why. While we might not be the most perfect people, my family and I, we are probably among the good guys when push comes to shove. We don’t steal. We don’t abuse. We don’t pay traffic fines because we never get traffic fines. We might well be the most law-abiding citizens in the world. We even keep kosher, in a symbolic kind of way. And we don’t covet our neighbor’s ass. So why would the Holy One, Blessed be He, have an ongoing plan to keep hitting us with cancer – I don’t want to hear that God has it in for us. I’d prefer that there was no plan there on high, that it’s just random bad luck – asbestos on building sites, too much second-hand smoke as babies – that is doing us in … and God is too busy dealing with peace on Earth to worry about killing off my loved ones.
When my husband, Martin, was really very ill, we got an email from a friend whose yeshiva student son was dreadfully upset about our situation. He had some advice: My husband should go into a small room, on hag, and tell God (in a loud voice) what he had done for the country. Now, Martin loved God and shul and all manner of tradition; he sang hazanut in the shower and could daven anyone under the table. But even he was somewhat shocked. “How small must the small room be?” he wondered aloud. “The toilet, perhaps?” And how loudly does a person have to shout so that God will hear … and doesn’t He know what Martin did for the country?! We gave that suggestion a miss.
And now the High Holy Days are upon us again and making us feel a little low.
In a few days, I suppose I’ll get myself in gear to make my kichel and herring again for the breaking of the fast, and I suppose we’ll sing the songs and build the succa and pray to God for a healthy and peaceful and good New Year. Because, what else to do? Martin would have wanted us to be festive, of that I am sure. And if, Mart, after all, you are there on high in the sky, or wherever the soul goes as part of the Plan, celebrating the holidays with those who departed before you, shana tova, my darling.
May this year be a good, healthy, happy and peaceful year for the House of Israel and all the other Houses on God’s planet.
The writer is a lecturer at Beit Berl College and the IDC. She collaboratively runs MaP workshops to discover one’s authentic voice through art and writing. peledpam@gmail.com When High Holy Days become low Is God always listening? (Marc Israel Sellem)