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Shaken to our core:

A Jewish ethic for rebuilding the core

2014/5775 – Rabbi Lee Bycel

For most of you, it had probably been a normal night of sleep – for some, you might have been sleeping peacefully, for some a restless night - but all in all it was another normal night.  That is until 3:21 am on August 24th when a violent earthquake hit Napa, shaking us to our core.  Having lived through the Northridge quake in 1994, I know how terrifying it is.  People have shared with me some of their feelings during the quake:  Frightened, Terrified, Confused, Angry as well as their thoughts and questions: Am I going to die?  Are my loved ones safe?  Will this ever end?  Is it going to get worse?  And then the 20 seconds of horror, which seemed like an eternity, ended and each of you was faced with a different challenge – get the kids, get out from under the bed, move away from windows, turn off the gas, make sure my neighbors are safe – pull myself together.  And then just as we start to assess the situation, the aftershocks begin to start, again shaking us to our core.  Is this one going to be bigger?  What do I do?  Why did I not better prepare for an earthquake?  And again, will this ever end?  Then the process begins of evaluating the damage, for so many of you -tremendous breakage, for some of you structural damage, for some of you many cracks in your house.  Then as day breaks we start to hear about our loved ones, friends and neighbors.  This family is out of their home, these people lost their business, and how in the world am I ever going to clean up this mess?   I doubt that many of you found comfort in this statement from the USGS’s Earthquake Science Center:   “In less than a day we made tremendous strides in understanding what happened and have crews of scientists continuing to investigate this event.”  They are trying to understand the event scientifically – but it is clear that we are decades away from really being able to predict – and what would we actually do with 30 seconds to prepare?

The Scientists may be able to explain but they will never be able to change the reality that living here means we are living in earthquake country.  In the midst of all this we did have to find some humor to help with our shattered nerves.  I found it on the news and constantly seeing that same smashed in car in the parking garage – I kept wondering is that the only car that was damaged?

Indeed we were shaken to our core – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Many of you have talked to me about the emotional trauma of the quake and how it continues to impact you in a variety of ways. In a world filled with such uncertainty and violence, the least we can expect is the ground that our houses are built on will remain solid.  Yet it does not.  The piercing questions for each of us when shaken to our core, is what in fact does hold my core together, where do I get the strength to go on, can I really live with this uncertainty, do I have the resilience to really handle emotional trauma?  

Here we are welcoming in a New Year, and really when one examines the liturgy of the services, which is designed with questions to shake us to our core.  Services in the contemporary world have become sanitized events designed more for our comfort.  Many religious leaders try their best to take the discomfort out of the experience.  Welcoming in the New Year should give us comfort that there is hope, that we can change, that there is good in the world and it should also shake us to our spiritual and existential core asking each of us – Where do you stand in your journey through life?  Are you living the life you wish to be living?  How do you wish to change in the year ahead?

There is one prayer in particular that raises these questions.  It is theUnetaneh Tokef prayer that begins:  “Let us acclaim this day’s pure sanctity, its awesome power. “ It is the prayer that we will recite tomorrow morning and most of you are familiar with it because of the lines:  “Who shall live, Who shall die.  And the lines that really hit home this year are:  Who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake?”   This ancient prayer had great insight into the natural events take place in the world and ultimately provides us with a way to respond to this unsettling world.

What I have heard people talking about is both how frightened they were during the earthquake and also how grateful they are for the miraculous events of nature like sunsets and sunrises, rainbows and magical blue skies.  Actually, in an ancient text we find that the rabbis offer a blessing not just for the spectacular events of nature but also for the most ravaging ones – including earthquakes.   Blessings in Jewish life are a strategy for acknowledging, for responding to an unfolding moment.

It seems to be part of human nature that we want to control our immediate world – and most of the time we manage to do just that.  Daily life seems relatively predictable except when the unexpected befalls us.  We live in a world filled with technology – we create lives that give us a sense of stability and comfort and when something breaks we call someone to come out and repair it.  However, for the shattering disturbance of the earthquake there is really no repair person to call out and repair the shattering of our nerves.  There is no service line for being shaken to the core and lasting emotional trauma.  There is no warranty to purchase for ensuring that life will be under our control. There is no App to press that will give us stability and perspective.  Even the I-Phone 6 does not have this feature.

However, there is a Jewish tradition that helps us to respond to moments when we are shaken to our core and speaks to our lives in the world of 2014.  It is right here in the Unetanah Tokef prayer (translation by Rabbi Steven Sager):

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on the day of the atonement fast it is sealed
how many shall pass, how many be born
who will live and who will die
who in proper end and who not
who by water and who by fire
who by blade and who by beast
who by hunger and who by thirst
who by quake and who by plague...
who will be settled and who will be shaken
who will be tranquil and who will be troubled
who will be soothed and who will be scourged
who impoverished and who enriched
who brought low and who raised up
but teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah
remove the sting of the decree

I doubt there are many of you here tonight who fully accept the theology that there is a God in Heaven who is writing each of our names in the Book of Life.  You might relate better to the Leonard Cohen refrain:  “And who, shall I say is calling?”  However, what we do accept is the existential reality of this prayer and that is that tragic misfortune will strike people in the world, even our loved ones and maybe ourselves.  This prayer describes the world we live in – in contemporary terms  - who will get heart disease or cancer, who will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose life will be torn asunder by an earthquake – and who will be fortunate enough to have a good and healthy year. 

There is a remarkable piece of music that emerged from Israel about this prayer and from the most unlikely of places – a secular Kibbutz.  It did in Israel what Leonard Cohen’s compelling and modernized  version did here in the states in 1974 with his song, Who by Fire?  The Israeli version was inspired by the events at Kibbutz Beit Hashitah, when they lost more soldiers proportionally to its population in the 1973 Yom Kippur war when 11 of its members (out of 300 members) died in defending Israel. Many years later, Yaer Rosenblum was serving as the musical director for the Kibbutz.  He composed a new setting for the Un’netanah Tokef prayer that eventually spread throughout Israel.  On secular kibbutzim there is really no High Holy Day observance.  However, when infused with new life the prayer became part of the Yom Kippur Memorial held every year for the fallen Kibbutz members.  It is played on Israeli radio and has really served as a bridge between the secular and the observant.  This remarkable story helps us to understand that this ancient prayer is not an out of date lesson in theology but rather a prayer that speaks to human beings in the contemporary world whatever their beliefs might be.  It goes to the core of our fears and our expectations.  It transcends time and space.  It is particular and universal.  It is for the community and it is personal.

Just like we keep having new building codes each year, Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to strengthen our spiritual, our emotional, our moral codes that will guide us in the near to come.  What worked last year is probably not the right code for this year.  How do we strengthen what we might call the Code of our Core – that is the Core that defines the essence of who each of us is?  

Civil Engineers have a term they call “structural deficiency” – you may recall that from the 2007 collapse of the I35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis when 13 people died.  These structural deficiencies are most commonly caused by steel corrosion and a flaw in design; bridges that are out dated and overburdened. Approximately one quarter of our bridges in the States are structurally deficient.  I wonder if this image of Structural deficiency is applicable to our spiritual and emotional lives.  How often we hear from people that they are overburdened and stressed – and that the coping mechanisms that they had developed no longer seem to work.  Can it be that after years or after a trauma that we discover that the anchors that keep us afloat have started to corrode or that we find the flaws in our own approach to life and realize that it needs a total overhaul?

The last line of the prayer offers a profound Jewish insight into how we shall live in a meaningful way even in a turbulent, shaking world – even with our own deficiencies which is part of the human design.   It provides us with three ways: Teshuvah – change or return; Tefillah – prayer or meditation and Tzadakah – pursuing justice. These do not prevent turmoil or tragedy but what they do is really strengthen our core.

Teshuvah is a concept that addresses our commitment to first acknowledging our mistakes, learning from them, resolving to change; and returning or finding what are the core principle that guide each of our lives.  Judaism takes this process very seriously.  If we hurt someone, we need to go directly to the person and genuinely apologize.   We need to do that with humility and honesty.  And if we hurt ourselves through destructive behaviors, we also need to acknowledge and make amends with ourselves.  Owning the hurts we caused or the mistakes we made is no easy task.  It takes a real commitment that this process matters.  When we decide to try and change  and grow – which I think is at the core of this journey of life, it is really saying that as life changes as I age – I need to reexamine my core values and how I am living so as to make my life more meaningful.

Tefillah – traditionally defined as prayer but it is much more than that.  I find that prayer is a word that gets in the way of what the real intent of the process itself is.  To me it is acknowledging through meditation, reflection, hiking in nature, listening to beautiful music and singing, to name but just a few of the many activities which  I call soul and heart stimulators.  These are the experiences that connect us with the grandeur and mystery of life, with all that is transcendent, with all that is inexplicable – love, awe, compassion, respect and empathy.  It is easy to say that I am alienated from prayer.  Yet can any of really say when walking on the ocean front or the heights of the mountains that there is not something way beyond our control in life, that has been here way before us and will be around long after our span of life is complete.   It is taking time for this endeavor on an ongoing basis -  not just during these ten days – although they are a good start.  How do each us find time in our daily live for things that nurture our souls?

Tzadakah – pursing justice in our own unique ways.  What is Tzadakah – it is an acknowledgment that at times is a hurting and broken world that needs each of us to do our best to make it more just and more humane.  We do that in small daily acts and we do that in acts that take real courage.  Tzadakah is the opposite of indifference.  It is the antithesis of standing idly by.  At times it means speaking up when people use negative stereotypes about any group of people; or at times it means saying that those here in Napa who refuse to build or repair their buildings to standard earthquake code are wrong;  it means defending the poor, the innocent, the vulnerable; it means using our voices for those who have no voice in society.  It is a way of life not a particular action.

So at the end of this powerful prayer what is offered is not meant as an antidote to the events that might take place in the natural world or the accidents that may occur – but they are designed to strengthen the Code of Our Core – so that when crises does strike we can respond out of strength of character.  They are an anchor for living life – making sense of all that is good and helping us to respond to all that is problematic.  

A few weeks ago a number of us gathered to talk about the quake, its impact on us, and what we found were the best ways of coping and moving ahead.  One woman, with tears running down her face, said what the quake really did was to make her realize, just how alone she feels in the world.  Many people resonated with her, expressing that they felt the trauma of the quake had brought out their deepest feelings, insecurities, fears and strengths.

This conversation gave me a lot to think about.  Do we, all too often, get shaken to our core by the petty things in life – the rude salesman, someone forgetting to call us back, or when the driver in front of us put on the turn signal at the last moment?  If our core is strong, we can put the petty in perspective and have the resilience for those events that truly shake us to our core.

Thus, as the structural engineers work on new building codes we are here working on our Core spiritual and ethical Codes.   In Jewish life, when we live by the values of TeshuvahTefillah and Tzadakah we are not promised a problem free life.  However, we are given insight into how to avoid the worst decree of all – living a life that lacks meaning, purpose, joy and love.  

On the eve of this New Year I am grateful that everyone survived the devastating earthquake.  I am grateful for all those who helped others.  I am grateful of the power of community.   I am grateful that with all the adversity that we find in this journey through life that Judaism provides an important perspective – that life is sacred, fragile, unpredictable and all that we can really control are our own actions.  I am grateful that Judaism provides us with a powerful formula in which  we can anchor our approach to life:  Teshuvah, Tefilliah and Tzadakah.

 Ultimately as we know the question is not whether life was good to each of us, but whether we were good to life.  I pray that in the year to come that each of us can deepen our resolve to be good to life, to our loved ones, to our friends, to our community and to all of humanity.  I know that deep down in that core is a tremendous amount of kindness, empathy, compassion and humanity.  Who Shall Live is not the question rather How shall I live is a poignant question that tests each of us, especially when shaken to our core.

Tonight as we enter the New Year 5775 with awe and somewhat shaken, let us resolve to daily remind ourselves that life is sacred, that life is a gift, that life is a blessing.


Rabbi Lee Bycel, September 24, 2014

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784