Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: The Limits of God’s Power

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: The Limits of God’s Power

Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5766, October 3, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef offered an explanation. Tragedy struck the United States because of our government’s support of Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip. Then, he added: “There are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study. . . . Black people reside [in New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said,] ‘Let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.’”

Rabbi Yosef is fortunate. He is confident that he fully comprehends God’s power. Chaos does not reign in his world. Ultimately, for Rabbi Yosef, life is without uncertainty. God is in charge, and Rabbi Yosef understands God’s reasoning. Rabbi Yosef believes that God set the world straight, balancing out the scales of Justice. God meted out a punishment that fit the “crimes” of Gaza withdrawal and the absence of Torah study, when God punished New Orleans with the winds and floods of Katrina. The eighteenth century philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, coined the term “theodicy,” meaning “God’s justice,” to describe beliefs such as Rabbi Yosef’s.

To us, words like Rabbi Yosef’s are hateful, misguided, and racist. Rabbi Yosef does not represent Judaism as we know it. We more readily expect to hear theodicy like that out of the mouths of the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world, proclaiming such idiocies as blaming the 9/11 attacks on homosexuality and abortion in America.

And yet, Rabbi Yosef’s theodicy may be supported by our very own High Holy Day prayer book. Tomorrow morning, and again on Yom Kippur, we shall read:

This is the Day of Judgment!
For even the hosts of heaven are judged,
as all who dwell on earth
stand arrayed before You. . . .On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
on Yom Kippur it is sealed: . . .
[W]ho shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water . . .

But repentance, prayer and charity
temper judgment’s sever decree.

Can we pray these words? Do repentance, prayer and charity change God’s plan? If so, this prayer suggests a theodicy, a belief that all tragedy is divine punishment to fit the crime. Do we believe that the victims of 9/11 perished by fire, at the decree of the Lord? Do we affirm that Katrina’s dead drowned at God’s command? Would they have been saved, had they been contrite, prayerful and charitable, or, in the words of Rabbi Yosef, had they studied Torah?

According to a legend, this famous prayer – “who by fire and who by water” – was first recited by Rabbi Amnon of Mayence. Rabbi Larry Hoffman describes the gruesome myth: “[Amnon] is said to have had his limbs hacked off by the gentile authorities for refusing to apostatize. Placed in a basket, just a bloody torso with limbs piled alongside, the dying Amnon was carried to the synagogue where he recited [these words].”

We have two problems with this prayer. First, Rabbi Amnon did not exist and his persecution never happened. Worse, though, is that the prayer slanders God. In Rabbi Hoffman’s words: “God hardly spends Yom Kippur manufacturing ways for us to die. Death remains as inexplicable to us as it was to Job. But when people told Job that suffering is inevitably deserved, God objected: ‘I do not work that way.’”

Judaism does not teach that God kills people for giving up real estate, even in the Holy Land, or for failing to study Torah.

We reject the notion that any human being, even a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, knows God’s ways in such detail.

The bigger question, and one that still nags at us, is about whether God has power at all. Is God in charge of what happens in this world, life and death, hurricane and wildfire? And if so, we ask the same question that Jeremiah asked over two and a half millennia ago: “Why do the wicked prosper?” Or, to paraphrase Rabbi Harold Kushner’s more recent, popular book title: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Since Rabbi Hoffman mentions Job, let’s look there. Job is an exceptionally good and righteous man. Yet he is afflicted with worse tsuris than any of us can imagine. Each and every one of his ten children dies, suddenly and tragically. He loses his immense wealth, and is instantly poverty-stricken. Finally, his health fails, as he is covered in boils. So-called “friends” come to visit him, telling him that he must have committed some sin, for which he is being punished. In their view, like Rabbi Yosef’s, no one suffers unless that person is guilty of sins. They promise Job that, if he repents, God will restore his blessings. Job doesn’t believe them. Finally, God tells Job that Divine ways are a complete mystery. They are totally unlike our own. God is in charge, but we mere mortals cannot expect to understand the reasons for God’s actions.

Indeed, assuming that God’s ways have anything to do with us is nothing short of narcissistic. God may act, and we may suffer, for reasons that have nothing to do with us, for purposes that go far beyond any human lifetime.

Job’s theodicy, while more acceptable to us than Rabbi Yosef’s, is still awfully hard to swallow. In the face of the six million, can we claim that God is in charge of everything that happens on Earth? In the wake of Katrina, do we imagine that all the death and suffering have a positive purpose? If God is so fully in charge, then everything that happens must, by definition, be good, no matter how wicked the tragedy seems to us. In the wake of Katrina, do we suppose that all the death and suffering have an overriding beneficial purpose? Remember, the purpose of believing in theodicy, in God’s justice, is so that we can maintain the faith that all is right with the world, that God will punish the wicked and reward the pious.

But all was not right with the world, while the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz were humming, day and night.

All was not right with the world on September 11, 2001.

All was not right with the world when the levee broke on the Orleans Parish side of the 17th Street Canal.

All is not right with the world when a young person dies of cancer or a child is born with a devastating birth defect, when an elderly person cannot afford her medications or a single mother can’t feed her family, when hopes are shattered, when dreams are lost.

Perhaps, we should not be daring enough to claim that God is omnipotent. God’s power is limited. God is not in charge, at least not on a daily basis.

Such a theology is not new, or even radical, in Judaism. As early as the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that God had to limit Divine power, in order to create the universe. God had to pull back, if God wished to create. God could not be all-powerful, if atoms and molecules, cells and organisms, mountains, seas and storms would follow their own patterns by conforming to the laws of nature. God could not be omnipotent, if human beings would exercise free will.

We cry out to God, as we seek to come to grips with the tragedies that befall us. And yet, we know that God is not to blame.

God did not decide to direct Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans, or to send Hurricane Rita to Beaumont, Port Arthur, and the Louisiana coast.

God does not send Down’s Syndrome to one womb and a healthy baby to another.

God does not decree who dies by fire, and who by water.

The most striking evidence of the limits on God’s power are found in human failings. Surely, we agree that the Holocaust was evil. God limited God’s own power by giving human beings free will to choose good over evil or evil over good. Yes, some good came out of the ashes of European Jewry, just as we experienced collateral benefits from the wicked attacks of 9/11. But let none claim that the Holocaust was God’s will.

Even in natural disasters, human failings can exacerbate the suffering, just as human heroism can save lives. God is not to blame for leaving thousands suffering for a week in the stinking cesspool of the Superdome. God is not responsible for a woefully inadequate response on every level of government. God did not fail to build sufficient levees. God did not decide that the poor and sick and elderly should be subject to the Katrina’s most devastating effects. God did not design a Texas evacuation plan that did not contemplate the need to run the southbound lanes of I-45 north or the eastbound lanes of I-10 west. If global warming is to blame for the increased number and intensity of hurricanes in recent years, and if excess use of fossil fuels led to that warming, then God is not at fault for that, either.

As he rejects the idea that God “spends Yom Kippur manufacturing ways for us to die,” Rabbi Larry Hoffman nevertheless embraces the conclusion of the same prayer that contains those haunting words, “who shall live and who shall die.” The prayer ends: “But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” No, neither Rabbi Hoffman nor I believe that a righteous city will escape an earthquake or that a person’s goodness will protect her from heart disease. “But,” Hoffman writes, “if the world is to last a few more millennia, it will be because with whatever power we have, we each admit how often we use it wrongly, pray that we treat people better, and deal charitably with those less powerful than we are.”

Repentance matters. If we will reconcile with God, admitting that our own deeds have harmed ourselves and others, we can prevent at least some future tragedies.

Prayer matters. If our worship on these High Holy Days sends us forth to care more lovingly for every one of God’s creatures, we can bring healing in the face of evil.

Tzedakah, righteous giving, matters. If this congregation will give as it has in the month since Katrina, and again in the wake of Rita, we will continue to bring the goodness God wants in this world.

Ultimately, God’s power in daily life comes from us. God did not decide to provide school uniforms to every child in need at Mark Twain Middle School, and for each and every evacuee child in the San Antonio Independent School District, Temple Beth-El, Louise Michelson, Susan Susser, Rosa Cavazos and Nancy Gerson acted on God’s behalf. When the call came out for specific new clothing items needed by evacuees, God did not scour the country for thousands of pairs of plus-size ladies’ undergarments; God sent Nancy Gerson and Beth Keough to do that. God didn’t pay for it, either. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Disaster Relief Fund, our own Temple’s Landsman Family Relief Fund, and the Jewish Federation of San Antonio paid the bill. When the Mayor of San Antonio, the Governor of Texas, the Mayor of Houston, and others like them opened up our State’s arms to receive tens of thousands of needy refugees, and to treat them like family, they worked worldly miracles that a self-limiting God cannot perform directly.

Rabbi Harold Kushner imagines that, in the face of tragedy, God sheds tears with us. God is our spiritual support, at our side, calling upon us to aid those in need, urging us to embrace life, even in the face of death and desolation. The faith that we are not alone, that God mourns with us, sustains us in a world that is often chaotic.

Let us conclude with a Rosh Hashanah prayer, which I offer in Rabbi Hoffman’s words and my own:

O God, at this High Holy Day season, let us acknowledge that penitence, prayer and charity may not help us live longer. Righteousness cannot ensure us of a “good death.” But let our confessions enrich the lives of our loved ones. May our worship send us forth to help people we hardly know. And let our tzedakah make a better world for men, women and children we will never meet. No matter how we die – by fire or by water, early or late – may we all be able to say that we did God’s work, all of our days on Earth.

Amen.