By Student Rabbi Stacey Z Robinson
This is about the 19th iteration of my personal reflection. The 19th of today, and the 19th written down. There have been infinitely more than 19 iterations playing in my head, ever since I was so kindly asked me to write one for Rosh HaShanah. Knowing what I want to write has not been the issue. Getting it right, finding all the words and hearing the flow of it— that’s been a bit of a challenge.
You see, there are too many words, too many ideas and things to say, floating around in my head. I know, somewhere, somewhen, that they connect. I can feel that, feel them all jostling for position, taking up residence in some little known and cobwebbed corner of my head, leaving a faint pattern in the dust and clutter.
Except, when I poke around, to find which of the eleventy-seven stories running around loose in my head is whispering “start here…” I get lost. That internal torch gutters, sending bizarre fun-house shadows to distort my visions, and then they all go skittering about, playing hide-and-seek with the shadows and light.
And so, since I can’t find the beginning of this thread, can’t seem to be able to tease and coax the end out from the tangled ball of string it has become, I thought about starting at the end. I could, but I don’t know what that is yet either. So, I will pick one bright and shiny things to start with, and see where that leads. It may be a beginning, though more likely, it will be a middle. There are many more middles than beginnings. I will pick one thing, and see what happens. I’m pretty sure I’ll at least recognize the end, whenever we get to that.
So. First — redemption. It’s all about redemption. My redemption, to be exact, and my quest for it. And my fear that I will never find it. Or receive it. And it’s about God. It’s all about God, too. Always. And my quest for God. And my fear that I will never find God or forgiveness. And that I will never be able to forgive God. The pain of this fear is almost unbearable.
I spent a couple of decades denying God and redemption both. That pain was unimaginable. I am reminded of the midrash of King David and the origins of the Adonai S’fatai, which is the prayer we say at the beginning of the Amidah. David, the rabbis tell us, had sent a man to his certain death for the sake of satisfying his own selfish need. The man, Uriah, was a man of honor. He would not be dissuaded when David had a sudden change of heart. He was killed in battle, along with most of his troops. David got word of Uriah’s death just before eveing prayers.
What was he to do? He knew that he would have to talk to God, to ask forgiveness. But– and here’s the hard part– David’s fear: what if God said no? What if God refused? David ran into the fields, running from himself, from his fear, from God, until he could run no farther. How could he ask God for forgiveness, when he couldn’t forgive himself? He stopped, just as the setting sun hit the horizon, staining the sky with crimson and gold and purple, and he cried out, in his fear and longing “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufid yagid t’hilatecha…”
God, open my lips, that I may declare your praise…
And with that prayer– filled to its very edges with pain and humility and hope and despair, David was forgiven.
Well sure, the voices in my head whisper, God can forgive David. Let’s face it: he’s, well, David. His very name means “beloved…” And you’re not. You’re… you. All bet’s are off.
It is my greatest longing, my unrequited quest– to be redeemed. To be forgiven. To dance in the palm of God’s hand. To believe, if even for an instant, that though I may not be David, though I may not be Beloved, I may find a small piece of it, and that that may be enough.
So it is fitting, I suppose, that I was asked that I give a personal reflection at this morning’s service. Today is such a busy one! The Book of Life and Death is opened and the Gates of Justice swing wide. It’s the birthday of the world. Today, we stand with awe and trepidation as we undertake the breathtaking majesty of diving inwards, a deep and long and solitary dive, into murky waters that make us gasp and shiver with cold. But eventually, the water warms and the silt and grit settle and we learn to see, to shine a light on the inside, all the beauty, all the pain, all the hope and need.
It is all about redemption.
Today is redemption and majesty and reflection and God. It is joy and celebration and hope and…
Whatever today is, whatever the ritual and tradition that surrounds this day may be, what today is, what today will ever and always be, is my brother’s yahrzeit. While my head hears whispers of “pick me” and “start here,” my heart hears a steady murmur of “this is the second anniversary.” And last year, for all the pomp and circumstance of Rosh HaShanah, for all my desperate yearning for redemption and God, drowning out the music and prayer and the triumphant sounding of the shofar that opened the Book and flung wide the Gate– all I could hear was the steady cadence of “This is the first anniversary of his death.”
This is one of those days that I am less forgiving of God. This is the second thing.
I know– absolutely know– that God is not at fault in this. God didn’t set the butterfly’s wings to flapping that ended in the hurricane of my brother’s death. There was no Divine Plan here. Randy smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, existed on caffeine and nicotine. He was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer when he was 45, and died when he was 47. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, though I don’t think of him every day like I did. Stretches of time go by– a handful of days, a week, some small length of time, and I will suddenly stop, feeling the ache of his loss like a stitch in my side, sharp and hot, receding into a dull throb until it is more memory than real. My breath doesn’t quite catch in my throat when I think of him. Mostly. I say kaddish every Shabbat, and I do not weep. Mostly.
He died because he smoked. He died because he got cancer. But he died today, two years ago. On Rosh HaShanah, the day of pomp and circumstance and joy and celebration. I was with him in the hospital when he died, literally as the shofar sounded down the hall from his room, And so the Book was laid open and the Gates swung wide and my brother died, all in the space of tekiyah. And so today has suddenly become hard. And I am suddenly less forgiving of God.
And for all of that, when I stood in prayer and my knees began to buckle from the weight of my sorrow, when I was filled with an ocean of pain and loss, when I wanted to curse God– when I did curse God– there were hands that reached out to hold me steady, and strong arms to carry me through to firm ground. When I demanded of God, to God– where the hell are You? I was answered: here. No farther than the nearest heartbeat, in the still small voices of all those around me, who showed me, again and again, that I was not alone. Even in my pain, even in my doubt and despair, I was not alone.
And so, the third thing: Redemption.
I started there, I know. Perhaps my ball of string, with its jumble of tangled threads and hopeless mess, was less eleventy-seven different things and more a giant mobius strip of one. Perhaps it is all reflections and variations on a single strand. Perhaps, at least for me, it is all about redemption. And God. Ever and always.
I have spent a lifetime yearning for redemption. I have spent an eternity of lifetimes searching for God. I have declared my disbelief in God even as I feared that God didn’t believe in me. I have shouted my rage and demanded answers and whispered my praise. And the thing I come back to, again and again, like a gift of impossible and breathless wonder–
It is not what I pray that matters. It is that I pray.
For all my yearning, for all my longing, what I don’t ever realize is that I am redeemed. I have not been abandoned by God. Neither have I been forgotten. David had it right in his psalms: we cry out to God and we are healed. He didn’t tell us “God only hears the pretty words. Speak only of love and praise, only then will you be heard.” No, it’s pretty clear: we find healing and redemption because we cry out in our anger and our fear.
I do not believe in a Santa Claus god, who bestows presents on the deserving: God does not provide parking spaces or jobs, nor do we win wars or sporting events as the result of our faith and prayers. Good people will die, evil people will prosper, the sun will continue to blaze in the noonday sky. world without end, amen amen.
In my faith, in my prayer, what I find, again and again– what I am given, again and again, is grace. What I get is strength and courage to face what life has placed in front of me in that moment…even if that thing is the death of my beloved brother. My faith is not a guarantee that I will never know fear, or that only good and happy things will happen. My faith, my prayer allows me to put one foot in front of the other and know that I will be carried through. And in that exact moment, the moment I take that step, I am enough and I am redeemed. And in that moment, I dance in the palm of God’s hand.
For my brother, Randy (z’l)
May we all dance in the palm of God’s hand