Thursday, 18 June 2009

Thoughts on a Road Accident


As many of you will know my son, Carmi, took one look at a cat playing on the pavement and followed the cat into the road where he was hit by a passing, and thankfully not a speeding, car.


He’s fine, he’s broken his leg and is not sleeping so well.

But considering how much worse it could have been – we’ll take a broken leg and not sleeping so well.


Language, of course, reveals so much.

What do you say about a three year old who chases a cat into the road and breaks his leg, ‘thank God.’ ‘baruch hashem’?

Is it good news or bad news?

Is it a blessing from God, a curse or a stark warning? Or just chance.


And how do you handle sitting in a hospital chair at three in the morning looking around the scarily named ‘paediatric high-dependency ward,’ knowing that, in the other three beds and on the other chairs, are three sicker kids and three more desperate parents.


I know only too well that we are a community with a member who was hit in a road traffic accident over a year ago, whose recovery is proving far, far more painful and troubling than Carmi’s green-stick fracture and a loss of sleep.


Odd really that this is community founded around a theological alleged blasphemy on the subject of how the Torah came to be written. All the words and all the pages and all the sermons stack up no taller than a pin on whose head some vague number of angels may or may not dance when you come face-to-face with this questions on the nature of pain and suffering.


It’s not an easy thing to speak about, but I want today, to share three reflections on this subject with you.


The first clear response finds it’s origins in the Talmudic tractate Brachot.[1]

There is, we are told, a blessing to be said on hearing bad news. And a different blessing to be said on hearing good news.

How do you bless, asks the Talmud, if a flood sweeps across your land destroying all in its path. The good news is that the flood will bring increased fertility to the soil in the years to come, the bad news is that right now there has been destruction.

The answer is that you bless the blessing on hearing bad news.

As Jews we are not supposed to transcend the sufferings of the moment.

There is a Buddist notion that perceived suffering, perceived bad news need to be sublimated away into nothingness.

That’s not Jewish. We are allowed to weep, to cry, to cry out, to be scared, to feel loss. We are allowed, even more than this, we are commanded to experience suffering as suffering.


Again, in Talmud Brachot, we are told the Rabbis asked, what is suffering?

They said, losing the life of a child during the life of a parent. They agreed this was suffering.

They said, suffering from an illness. They agreed this was suffering.

They said putting your hand in your pocket expecting to find two coins and only finding one coin, They agreed this was suffering.


It’s a provocative text. How can one possibly equate the loss of a child in the life of a parent with putting your hand into a pocket to find less money there than one might expect?


The point, I think, is this; there is no experience of loss that the Rabbis are prepared to deny. None of us is, or should feel, commanded to get over our shock, our loss. None of us should feel we should, ‘get over it.’ This is a bold and quite counter-cultural Jewish insight. I’m not sure society at large allows for us to suffer unless some vague threshold of awfulness has been reached. I’m not sure the world out there allows us enough time to experience our individual suffering without chivvying us through our darker moments and dragging us from our experience of loss into normalcy.


I often feel this at funerals for those who have passed away at the end of a long life, perhaps a great life, a life full of achievement blighted only in its last years by illness or loss of faculties. So often I hear people expressing relief, which is of course understandable, but then, a month or so later they are in tears, they can’t work out why they are still in pain.  I often feel they’ve been dragged out of being allowed to suffer too quickly, dragged away from being able to be a mourner. We, those of us who suffer, shouldn’t be pulled out of our moments of darkness just because society might think we’ve probably cried enough because society moves too fast and cares too little for our private grief.


So this is the first Jewish insight into the nature of bad news.

Suffering and pain should be allowed to be bad, it should not be rushed into being deemed OK.


The second clear Jewish insight is this – we must reject the notion that our goodness is in anyway to be seen as cosmically significant in terms of the joys or pains we experience.

As we say in the morning service

Lo al tzidateinu anachnu mpalilim lifanecha – we don’t pray before you because of our righteousness dear God.

Who among us is worthy to suggest they are particularly blame-less, particularly worthy? Certainly not your Rabbi.

There is something in the way in which discourse on matters ecological connects to this idea. We are all, every time we flick on a lightswitch, get in a car, read a newspaper, eat or dress ourselves, chipping away at the resources of the planet. And no matter how hard we try to offset and recycle we are all making net debits.

This is the language, too, of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we don’t ask God to reward us according to our acts of decency and kindness. We ask God to carry away our transgressions, wipe away our sins, fix the scales – none of us could stand before the Great Throne of Justice proud of our successes – we all fail too frequently; Rabbi, congregant, Jew and non-Jew alike.

There is, of course, a blessing to be said when we survive an encounter with mortality – birkat hagomel

It’s an interesting response to being saved from disaster,

It is a blessing in which we thank God for saving us despite our failure to deserve being saved.


Carmi survived his run in with the car not because of his goodness, or mine, but because of a grace unknowable and unquantifiable and beyond.


Tell me oh God, asks Moses, in the minds of the Rabbis, why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.

And God dances away, refusing to be pinned down – like some kind of Victorian butterfly exhibit – by our desires to understand more precisely how the whole fabric of reward and punishment, cause and effect operates.

I will be gracious to those I chose to be gracious to, says God

You can see my back, but my face cannot be seen.[2]


Sure there are plenty of Biblical passages that suggest warn about impending disasters with a stark and simplistic ‘you had better do this or else’ kind of logic, but, and here I agree with my colleague, friend and teacher, Jonathan Wittenberg, these texts should be understood only as warnings before disasters occur. We are forbidden from using these texts, and the logic they might suggest, after a disaster to try and explain why one child or another did or did not survive, faculties intact. This is to claim a knowledge of the face of God that is beyond human grasp.


So this is the second clear Jewish insight into the nature of bad things.

We are to be inured against claiming an insight into why these things happen. We are to be prohibited from claiming that success is anything other than grace and we are to be prohibited from claiming that any suffering is deserved.


A third reflection – a reflection on our relationship with an unknowable and impossibly mysterious divinity

Dear God, it’s just not good enough.

I know all about the doctrine of freedom of choice and the Garden of Eden. And I know I, and the other 4.9something billion people on this planet need to take responsibility for our actions, we need to accept the responsibility for holding onto our kids so they don’t run into the road and other things too, but

Dear God, it’s just not good enough.

The doctrine of freedom of choice moves me not at all.

Not if I want to pray to a good and kind God.

A couple of years ago John Humphrys interviewed the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, as part of an short series.

Humphrys couldn’t get past the problem of the seemingly random nature of suffering and Sacks couldn’t find a way to justify a good and kind God and the sorts of experiences that haunted Humphrys.


Twenty years ago, [said Humphrys] I went up to Lockerbie on that terrible night when the Pan Am aircraft was blown up and the bits fell on Lockerbie, some bits fell on houses and some bits fell on fields, those people who were in the houses were killed. And the thing that struck you walking around that ghastly evening was the entirely arbitrary nature of it, number 17 survived, number 21 did not survive.


How could it be possible for a good and kind God to be behind such cruel randomness? And Sacks had no good answer, for he was not prepared to give the answer I feel compelled to give.

I don’t believe in a wholly good and kind God.

I believe in a God, if such human emotions can be ascribed to the God I believe in, who sometimes is good and kind, and sometimes is cruel, and sometimes is recklessly negligent in leaving us humans alone to do our worst. And sometimes walks away, and sometimes over-reacts, and sometimes is there for me and sometimes is not.

My images of God, drawn from throughout the massive, sprawling and uneven history of Jewish discourse can’t be subsumed into a single simplistic deity. There is too much variety in God’s behaviour, too much variety in the tales we tell of God.


But this theology prompts this problem – if I, if we, don’t believe in God as wholly good and wholly kind, what are we doing with our prayers?

Why bother with all this fulsome praise if a bit of a plane could fall on our house without warning, without reason, without justice?


I had an insight into the answer to this question while in Africa. I was spending six weeks in Ghana, in a very under-developed community with cockerels. And the cockerels crowed at 2am, 3am, 4am, 7am, 9am, midday…

It turns out that cockerels don’t only crow at dawn.

This came as a surprise to me, since the very first blessing we say as part of our Synagogue service is one praising God for giving the cockerel the ability to distinguish between day and night.

Now I might have been surprised, but the Rabbis wouldn’t have been. They would have known, far better than I, the nature of the cockerel.

So why would they institute a blessing, thanking God for giving the cockerel the ability to distinguish night from dawn when the cockerel crows all night and all day?

It must be that the Rabbis want us to pray, not for the world as it is, but for the world we want live in.

It must be that the Rabbis want us to pray, not about the God we experience, but the God we would wish to experience.

A God who orders the chaos of the world, waking us only at dawn with the crow of the cock, and rewarding our efforts and forgiving our trespasses.

It must be that the Rabbis want us to pray about a God who is good and kind in the hope that every time we open our lips and meditate on the praise of the Divine, we fill the earth and heavens with more praise, more kindness and decency and that this somehow helps.

Well I believe that.


How could it be, asks the great twentieth century theologian, Franz Rozensweig, that our pouring good and kindness into the world doesn’t result in the world being more full of good and kindness?

It’s difficult to understand Rozensweig on hearing him read, but so beautiful.


Love cannot be other than effective [says Rozensweig]. There is no act of neighbourly love that falls into the void. Just because the act is performed blindly, it must appear somewhere, [and this is the effectiveness of prayer]. Prayer, though it has no magic powers as such, nevertheless, by lighting the way for love, arrives at possibilities of magic effects. It can intervene in the divine system of the world. It can provide love with direction toward something not yet ready for love, not yet ripe for endowment with soul.  Thus the prayer … is always in danger of - tempting God.[3]


We pray in the direction we want the world to be.

Non-one could pray for the world in which we now live.

A world of comas and cancers, a breakages and loss.

We pray to tempt God and the world in which we live into becoming a more decent, kind and magical place.

Prayer works even if God doesn’t deserve every word of our unadulterated prayer.

Prayer works, as it were, even if it doesn’t snap us out of comas and cure us of cancers at that moment.


Three insights into a Jewish relationship with bad and scary news

The first truth is that suffering and pain should be allowed to be bad, it should not be rushed into being deemed OK.


The second is we are to be prohibited from claiming that success is anything other than grace and we are to be prohibited from claiming that any suffering is deserved.


And the third is that prayer works, even if God is not all good and all kind, even if we fear our words fall into the void.


So I should conclude these words with a prayer – the birkat hagomel I spoke of. The prayer to be said when a person has come into contact with the threat of great injury.

Siddur Page – response

Please rise



[1] 60a

[2] Ex 33

[3] Star of Redemption

1 comment:

john..... said...

that was an post i could never ever forget if i wished to, nice post nice emotions nice wording and author you too are nice. this post regarding thoughts on road accidents is very engulfing in nature and people should learn not only something but many things from it. your way of thinking impresses me and i will be looking forwrd to your other posts.

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