We are two and a bit weeks away.
And this week’s jam packed parasha gives a great opportunity to loosen up those Rosh Hashanah muscles.
Here’s one of the dominant images of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season, in the mind of the Rabbis.
Amar Rabbi Yohanan - said Rabbi Yohanan
Three books are opened on RH, one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed for life the wholly wicked are at once inscribed and sealed for death and the intermediates are held suspended from RH until YK. If they are found worthy they are inscribed for life, if unworthy, they are inscribed for death.
I have, I suppose only two problems with this image. The first, for want of a better label I’ll call the Brue Almighty problem.
In the movie Bruce Almighty God decides to show Adam Sandler his book. It’s a filing cabinet. Tentatively Sandler begins to tug on the cabinet handle and finds himself blasted back the length of some vast warehouse as the files detailing every action in his life pouring forward . It’s a funny scene. It’s not a bad movie. But it’s not my theology.
My Bruce Almighty problem with the image of these books is that I just believe there are books up there. I don’t believe in God as a sort of cosmic senior Accountant, monitoring a teams of auditors poring over a double entry book system for each and every one of us. I just don’t have that sort of literal theology and, frankly, I would be deeply sceptical of anyone who claimed they did. I certainly wouldn’t want them as my Rabbi.
But my Bruce Almighty problem with this image of the books pales in comparison with what I’m going to call my ‘mother bird’ problem. Here’s my mother bird problem with this image of books of life for the righteous and books of death for the wicked.
In our portion this week we read on of the verses that commands a Jew to do certain things and in return receive arichat yamim - long days. If you want to get an egg from a nest, and the mother-bird is sitting on the nest, we read, you have to shoo the mother-bird away before you take the egg. And if you do you get length of days.
There’s another verse that also promises length of days,
Honour your father and mother, and you will receive length of days.
The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin relates that a father once asked a child to shoo the mother bird away from the nest while a group of Rabbis looked on approvingly.
“That boy will live long, one of the sages muttered whimsically. “For observe, in one act he is fulfilling two commandments, the reward of which is expressly stated as length of days. He is obeying his father and he will send the mother bird away.”
I’m quoting from one of my all time favourite books, As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, an imagining of the life in Rabbinic times. I’ll leave it with Steinberg to dramatically take us through what the Talmud says happened next.
“A few moments later wings fluttered about a treetop and a bare, slender arm waved toward it from among the branches. Then a treble cry shattered the silence. A sprawling body plummeted downward. Simultaneously a deeper voice shouted, inarticulate with panic. Instantly the rabbis rushed headlong down the grassy slope. The peasant was already on his knees gathering the boy into his arms.
“Tell me,” he said, lifting a distorted face to them, ‘”Does he still live?” One of the sages bent over the boy, then rose, shaking his head, [uttering the due and a rabbinically sanctioned phrase for announcing that a death has occured,] “Blessed be the Righteous Judge.”
“But masters,” the father moaned, “he was a good boy, a good pupil. Oh his mother ..” Tears streaming into his tangled beard he rose to his feet, warding off the hands that offered assistance. “I picked him up the moment he was born; I will carry him now.” He walked away bearing his burden with rough tenderness. Against their will, the rabbis stared after him and saw with fearful clarity the limp hanging limbs and dangling head of the dead child.”
So that’s the mother-bird problem. The problem of bad things happening to good people. It’s a deeper problem than the Bruce Almighty problem. Left untended the mother-bird problem can make a person feel there is no reason to be good. No reason behind anything at all.
I’ll come back to the mother-bird problem, but a word about Bruce and his filing cabinet.
The images - of books, auditing angels and the rest of them - are not meant to be taken literally. To be a Jew you are not required to believe God has a white beard. In fact you are prohibited from believing God has a white beard, or any kind of beard, or any kind of form at all. If we think the images of the Divine in our prayer books and even in the Torah are meant to be understood literally we perform acts of idolatry, not perfect faith. The Torah and the Rabbis and the authors of the great prayers of the Rosh Hashanah period use images; God the shepherd, the potter, the accountant, not because God is literally any of these, but rather these images are used a sort of emotional short-hand, as poetic conceits, as a way to encounter - with a human mind - ideas that are beyond human fathom.
Sometimes you can even feel in the way ideas and images are worked and reworked over centuries, a far more sophisticated way of grasping after the ineffable emerge.
This, for example, is how the image of those books finds expression in one of the most powerful of our Rosh Hashnah prayers; the Unataneh Tokef, recited just before the Musaf Kedusha.
Here God is referred to as
זְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחות, וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת. וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא. וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּו.
The remembrance of all things forgotten, and God opens the Book of Memory, and the book reads itself for the seal of each of us is in it.
Feels a little different from the Bruce Almighty idea, no.
I think the Unataneh Tokef is trying to say this.
On this day - on that day in two and bit weeks time, everything we have done, even those things we have forgotten that we have done count. In some cosmic sense we are creating a narrative with our every action that leaves an imprint; our kindnesses, our cruelties and our moments of indifference. They don’t just disappear. And our lives are made up of the narrative of our actions and our inactions, our moments of success and our failures. And that no goodness fails to impact somehow, somewhere. And that no falling short is, cosmically speaking, irrelevant.
No wonder hamalachim yechafayzun - even the angels tremble.
Rosh Hashanah is a serious business. The Bruce Almighty problem is solvable.
But what about the motherbird problem - the problem articulated so perfectly in another Talmudic passage when Moses turns to God and asks, ‘Tzadik v’Ra lo, Rasha v’Tov lo’ - a bad happens to good people and good happens to the wicked.
It turns out I’m not the first person to have a mother-bird problem. I’m not even the first Rabbi.
This is the Rambam’s response to the notion, articulated by the Talmud’s Rabbi Yohanan, notion of a book of life for the good and a book of death for the wicked.
How could Rabbi Yohanan have said such a thing, Do all the righteous indeed live and all the wicked die [each year]? Is not the world and all its desirable things given over to the wicked. Biblical verses cry out against him [he cites them]. Has this sage [says the Rambam] never seen the book of Job?'
Only the pitifully naive think only good comes to good and vice versa. In fact, when the Talmud imagines God’s answer to Moses’s challenge, ‘Tzadik v’Ra lo, Rasha v’Tov lo” it imagines a response that almost isn’t a response at all, ‘I’ll be gracious who I want to be gracious to, and I will punish who I wish to punish.’
So what do we do with about the Mother-bird problem? Why bother telling us that good people get rewarded when we know, from bitter experience in too many cases, that life just doesn’t work like that.
One sociological, the other theological.
The practical thought is this.
It’s important for society to believe that there is a point to being good. It’s important for society for us to be complicit in the notion that its bad to cheat when using weights, and it’s good to develop a sense of compassion for animals, and respect for one’s parents.
Theology of Mordechai Kaplan. These things we say, about God, they are just reflection of what we feel is important. And you what, many of these things are important. And it’s worth giving these ideas an imprimatur of Divine assent as it’s more likely to make for a better society than a worse one.
It’s not that I think Kaplan is entirely wrong. But that’s not quite enough for me.
The other solution I have to the mother-bird problem is more delicate. I do believe that theologically, cosmically, karmically - choose term - it’s important to be good because I believe the amounts of goodness poured into the world make for a better world for us all. I don’t believe that the cause and effect mechanism is ever clear, and it might not ever be that I will receive the benefit of the goodly actions of my life (hopefully I won’t receive the punishments my poorer actions deserve). But I do believe that our actions count.
We are back with the language of the Unataneh Tokef prayer again. This I do believe. That there is a
An accounting of our every deed and action.
וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא. וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּו
And I do believe that actions count and the world and all of us who make our way in it, our shaped by the actions of human hands.
That makes each and every action and inaction so terrifying. That’s a idea that finds contemporary expression in writers like Franz Rosenzweig, but also in our Kabbalistic tradition steeped in a belief, in the language of Raphael Werblowsky a ‘terrifying conviction of the potency and significance of every human act.'
We do need to act well, kindly and compassionately in our lives not on the basis that it’s the only way we will get length of days, but because we shorten length of days of all we care about, ourselves included, if we do not.
As a theology it is, I admit, less clear cut than the simplistic Bruce Almighty position, or the simplisitic literalist undertanding of the reward of length of days in response to shoing away the mother bird. But I see in that no weakness, rather the reverse. And in any event, I am a Masorti Jew. My faith is not the place where I come for simple answers to the most complicated of questions, for indeed the motherbird problem haunts us all.Shabbat shalom