Thursday, 1 October 2009

On Balance - the power of good and evil, A Yizkor Sermon

[I opened the sermon talking about walking through the cemetery and wondering whether the forces of death are indeed stronger than the forces of life, or indeed if the forces of good, in the world, are indeed stronger than the forces of darkness.]


After all it’s not even so clear to us down here that there is a heavenly court.

It’s not so clear that there is anything beyond the maggots that are the eventual fate of all mortal flesh, even back in Biblical times .


It’s an argument our tradition has engaged in over time and across distance.


When Jacob hears that his favoured son, Joseph has been devoured by wild animals he is bereft.

He speaks of his death, he speaks of going down to Sheol.

It’s the first time the Bible has spoken of what happens in the death, the first time this word has appeared in the Bible, and it prompts rabbinic comment.

Rashi says – Sheol is a grave – dark, closed, over.

Ibn Ezra castigates one of the great early translations of the Bible into Aramaic for suggesting Sheol could be understood as some kind of after-life.

He cites a verse from Isaiah[1]


For Sheol cannot praise you, death can not celebrate you; they who go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth.


This is death as a pit, dark, hopeless, beyond the reach of life and of love.

The end.


But there are whispers of something other than the utter bleakness of Sheol that begin to emerge in the prophetic books – elsewhere in Isaiah the prophet suggests,


Thy dead shall live, awake and sing you who dwell in the dust, for your dew is as the dew of light and the earth shall bring to life the shades.[2]


By the time of the Talmud, a panoply of differing views present themselves. At one point the Rabbis paint a picture of a great feast in the world to come where King David himself will take the cup of wine for grace.[3]


Elsewhere more rational voices have articulated less corporeal images.

Maimonides, basing himself on a different section of the Talmud, suggests the world to come will be marked by the righteous basking in the radiance of the divine presence, void of body with [nothing surviving death but] the disembodied souls of the righteous, just like ministering angels.[4]


Through time and space we Jews have argued about whether, after our death, we are to be involved a physical resurrection or just a survival of the spirit,[5] whether any resurrection will be permanent or temporary,[6] whether we have but this life in which to perfect ourselves or whether we will be granted with, or punished by another gilgul ­– reincarnation.[7] We have argued about the nature of Heaven and about whether there will indeed be a hell with punishments or merely the deprivations of the heavenly.[8]


Maimonides suggests that our ability to understand what happens after death can be compared to a blind person’s ability to appreciate colour,[9] it’s perhaps his only non-controversial utterance on the whole subject of what happens after we die.


But for all the argument, and disagreement it wouldn’t be correct to say that Judaism just throws up her hands and shrugs in the face of this unknowable beyond. Modern Jews of every theological and denominational hue have largely divested ourselves of what Will Herberg called the ‘pseudo-biological fantasies’ of some of our earlier and more graphic predecessors, but we can’t let go of a belief in something that conquers death, something that stands on the other side of the end of our mortal reach.


We refuse to allow this world, these lives, the lives we remember, most especially on this day

We refuse to allow their deaths to be The End.

We refuse to give up on those who have passed away.

We refuse to let go when we stand and commemorate, when we light candles, when we give tzedakah, when we cry, when we call our loved ones zichrono l’vracha – may their memory by a blessing.

We refuse to let death conquer life.

What is it that binds us so tightly to this refusal to give the death the last laugh?

I think it is a position we take as a matter of faith.


This is our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, in his tour-de-force survey of Principles of The Jewish Faith,


The strongest argument for [something existing beyond death] is that God is good and will not allow His creatures to spend their lives in efforts at attaining goodness and perfection only to be snuffed out like a candle. Men may work at improving the conditions of life here on earth and earn the blessings of posterity, but posterity itself will die. The earth itself will one day become inhospitable to life and all man’s dreams and achievements will vanish like smoke. Shakespeare’s vision of the ‘cloud-capped towers’ is true. Of what use is man’s elevated soul if this life is all there is? For all Judaism’s teachings on the values of this life can we believe that God, who created this wonderful world, will allow man to die forever with his spiritual powers at the best only just beginning to develop? Judaism never tires of assures us of the justice of God, but how can this justice be realised unless all who have striven for the good eventually find it?[10]


For Rabbi Jacobs this conviction that something outlasts death is predicated on the belief that God is indeed good and kind.

If God is indeed ultimate good then, indeed, there must be something other than Sheol and its attendant maggots.

But we should be brave enough to ask the question that Louis’ articulation begs.

But who is to say God is good, who is to say that justice will, in the end, win out over the powers of chaos or destruction? Looking at the devastation and the heartbreak, the loss and the fear, bearing the memories we bear on a day like this, it’s not so clear cut.


And this brings me to where I left off last night.

Last night I spoke about faith – I spoke about what a person can rely upon when there is no material, corporeal substance on which to lean.

And I think we are in the same place today.

When faced with the question of what is there that is capable of competing with death we ultimately come back to a question of belief not so much in the precise nature of an afterlife we can never see, but rather a belief in the nature of the Divine.


I suggested that faith whispers its truths to us in a place beyond the material.

And I shared two of faith’s whispers with those who were able to join us last night.

And this is the third whisper, the third credo of my belief.


Hodu ladonai Ki tov, ki leolam hasdo

Praise God for God is good, God’s loving kindness is eternal.


The verse appears a number of times in the Book of Psalms, but I have in mind its appearance as the first and last lines in Psalm 136. Indeed the second half of the verse – the piece about God’s eternal loving kindness appears in every line of the Psalm. Every line adumbrates one great success of God or another and then in comes the chorus ki leolam hasdo.


For God brought Israel out of Egypt; ki leolam hasdo;

With a strong hand, and an outstretched arm; ki leolam hasdo

For God who parted the Red Sea ki leolam hasdo;

And lead Israel through it; ki leolam hasdo.

And on we go until we end were we began

Praise God for God is good, ki leolam hasdo


I don’t think it is supposed to be theologically complicated. I don’t think this is a Psalm forged in the furnace of the attempt to square a belief in a good, just and kind God with our experience of death, brokenness and loss.

But, nebach, I encounter this Psalm torn. Because too often when I sing it, or hear it, there is another psalm ringing around inside my mind; an unwritten Psalm –heretical, dark and desperately sad.


Hodu L’Adonai ki tov Ki leolam hasdo

For all the parents who passed away before their children were ready to let go

For all the loved ones who passed away leaving their lovers behind


And the worst line of all


For all the children who passed away in the lives of their parents.


And it’s hard, bitterly irreducible hard, to end this unwritten psalm


Hodu L’Adonai ki tov Ki leolam hasdo

Praise God for God is good, God’s loving kindness is eternal.


And I’m scared to measure up the respective load-weights of good and bad in this world.

I’m scared to put on one side of the scale all the miracles and goodness which the Lord my God has performed for my ancestors and I, and then set on the opposing scale all the loss and the heartbreak.

I can’t sing Psalm 136 as a function of my experience of the material world.

And so I don’t.

I sing the Psalm as an act of faith.

As an act of faith I proclaim that God is good and just and fair and all the rest of it.

And as an act of faith I refuse to believe that this world is the only stage on which our lives, our essence, will be played out.

This third whisper of faith provides something on which I can build not only a relationship with God, but also a relationship with my own life – and its aftermath, as well as a relationship with the lives of those I have loved and lost.


Again, it’s not a claim that bears proof.

But in a world of faith the belief in the power of the good and the kind in the face of the experience of loss and destruction underpins the belief in a world to come – a life beyond. It underpins a notion that some things are indeed more powerful than death.

It’s possible, I suppose, to believe in the power of good above experience of destruction without giving the label of ‘God’ to that belief, but I think that is merely semantic. To believe in the power of goodness and meaning over the power of death is, I think, to believe in the goodness of the Holy Blessed One.


I don’t know what happens when we die, when I will die.

I can’t count the number of angels on the pin, or the levels of heaven or hell.

I can only lean on a belief that there is something beyond this.

I can only have faith in the notion that despite all the loss, the power of good, and decency, the power of love and kindness are stronger.

Even despite all this, I believe.

[1] 38:18

[2] 26:19

[3] Pes 119b

[4] MT Tesh 8, based on Ber 17a

[5] Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith suggests that Maimonedes, Seliger (with an approbation of Rav Kook) and Hertz can be counted among those who, at the very east, are deeply uncomfortable with notions of physical resurrection, preferring instead the Aristotelian notion of spiritual immortality. Hertz suggests that Ha-Levi can be counted in this group too, though Jacobs isn’t convinced.

[6] Maimonedes Maamar Tehiyat HaMaetim vs Nachmanides Shaar Ha Gemul

[7] Luria, see Vital Shaar Ha-Gilgul

[8] Nachmanides Shaar Ha Gemul vs Maimonedes Maamar Tehiyat HaMaetim. See also Jacobs’ discussion of Dessler’s use of images of hellish flame and fury. (loc cit p.431)

[9] See Jacobs p.451 and sources cited there

[10] Principles p. 449

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