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Yom Kippur Morning 5777

You Have No Control Who Lives, Who Dies

Rabbi Keren Gorban
Yom Kippur Morning 5777
Temple Sinai of Pittsburgh, PA

There is a question that has been all the rage for the past year or so: “How does a [misborn], orphan, [misbegott’n son of] a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Recognize it, even if I had to butcher the first line because we’re in a sanctuary, not on a stage? For those of you who have not succumbed to “Hamilaria,” the question comes from the opening lines of Hamilton: An American Musical. It refers to Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, who came to America with almost nothing and created key American institutions that allowed our fledgling country to survive. It’s the frustrated question of Aaron Burr who, for all of his advantages, struggled to find success.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Two men born within a year of each other, both orphaned at a young age, and both extremely intelligent. Both began their careers in the military, helping to fight for American independence as part of the Revolutionary War. Both became lawyers, were involved in public service, and had roles in the new American government. And both were aggressively competitive with each other. Yet Hamilton succeeded and thrived despite the tragedies and scandals he suffered; while Burr struggled and failed no matter how much good came his way. How and why did one succeed while the other failed? How and why did one die a hero while the other, decades later, died in relative obscurity?

Though we probably don’t really dwell on the questions of Hamilton and Burr, similar questions come up for us as well: Why did that person get promoted when I’ve been working twice as hard? Why did that sweet boy get cancer while people who do terrible things are as hale and hearty as ever? Why do some people seem to have easy lives, with everything handed to them on a silver platter, while others struggle with hardship after hardship?

It’s also one of the primary questions of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. We sing and read these words every year:

On Rosh HaShanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many will pass and how many will be created?

Who will live and who will die?

Who will reach the ripeness of age, and who will be taken before their time?…

Who will rest and who will wander?

Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled?

Who will be calm and who tormented?

Who will become poor and who will prosper?

Who will be humbled and who exalted?

But despite the fact that we repeat these questions year in and year out, we cannot ever answer them—at least not with any real certainty. We have expectations and assumptions and hopes about what will happen in the coming year, but we cannot rest assured that they will occur. To borrow another lyric from Hamilton, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

You have no control?! I don’t know about you, but every fiber of my being wants to resist that statement. How is it possible that I have NO control? Of course I have control! I control where I live and where I go. I control what food I eat and how much. I control how much exercise I get and what kind I do. I control the education I get and the jobs I seek out. And I control which risks I take and which I avoid. I plan for what I want and I work to make it happen; I don’t leave my life up to chance or whim, waiting for the wind to blow me in a new direction!

Nevertheless, the truth is that this is just the illusion of control. Most, if not all of the major events and experiences in my life were the result of coincidence. As an example, in many ways, I am a rabbi, standing here today, because of happenstance. At the beginning of ninth grade, I was solidly on my way to becoming a doctor…or a teacher. At my synagogue’s Hebrew High School one evening, I happened to overhear a conversation about a regional youth group event. It seemed like lots of other teens from my synagogue were going, so I wanted to go too. But the registration deadline had just passed. Luckily, they still let me attend. In one short weekend, I happened to find a community that felt like home, so I went back. At the next event, I happened to hear about Jewish camp for the first time, including one for high schoolers only. I was sure that my parents would never allow me to go, but, surprisingly, they did. While I was at camp, I met young adults who were studying to be rabbis and I met college students who wanted to be rabbis. I hadn’t seen young rabbis before or talked to people who considered that a viable career! And those are just some of the events, over which I had no control, that started me down the path toward becoming a rabbi. There are countless other events and non-events (we can’t forget all of the things that didn’t happen, that didn’t derail me) that allowed me to continue down the path that brought me here today. “You have no control” over what happens.

It’s a terrifying thought that we have no control over what happens. We dream, we plan, we hope. And we work hard to bring those dreams and plans and hopes to life. And yet… and yet sometimes life has other plans for us. An opportunity arises that takes us in a different direction. Challenges of all sorts—from illness to job loss to the end of a relationship—can impede our progress or force a change. And tragedies can bring our plans to a halt. We spend our lives working toward goals that may not be realized, working toward happiness that may not come, working toward success that may never be achieved. הבל הבלים, הכל הבל (Havel havalim, hakol havel), wrote Ecclesiastes, “Futility of futilities, all is futile.” No one wants this to be their life. No wonder we call these days “Yamim Noraim, the Days of Terror.”

Even on a smaller scale, we have no control over what happens. While we can request certain behaviors from the people around us or even train them, while we can threaten them with consequences for behaviors we don’t like, ultimately we can’t force others to do what we want. This happens at work and school, between partners, between parents and children, between siblings, and among friends. The people we encounter regularly do things that irritate us and we can’t stop them from doing it. We have no control over what happens.

Even as our tradition forces us to remember the precariousness of our lives and the reality that we have no control over what happens, it reminds us that we do, in fact, have some control—not over what happens, but over how we respond. Do we see every obstacle as a roadblock or as an opportunity to reflect and think creatively? Do we justify bad behavior with the claim that we’re just trying to get what we’re owed or do we maintain our morals and values despite the assumption that “nice guys finish last? Do we feel that we deserve a better life than we’ve gotten, that life has treated us unfairly, or do we find the beauty and blessing in the life we have?

This is where the fictionalized Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr from the musical differ from each other so greatly that the first became “a hero and a scholar” while the latter became a “villain in your history.” According to the music, a penniless Hamilton fights for every opportunity to succeed. Roadblocks and obstacles arise and he figures out how to overcome them or get around them, or he finds a new goals. He’s unstoppable, seeking every opportunity for enacting his vision of the United States…and advancing his career. The wealthy, connected Burr, on the other hand, keeps waiting for his chance to come along, hoping that life will get better. He sees opportunities as his due, but doesn’t recognize them or squanders them when the going gets rough. Meanwhile, every threat to his success, whether real or perceived, Burr sees as a direct personal attack. We have no control over what happens, but we certainly have control over how we respond. And how we respond to whatever life throws at us changes us and our experience of life.

Six years ago, I spent the summer working as a chaplain in a trauma hospital. During the first few weeks alone, there were a number of particularly tragic deaths. But what struck me most about them was the way the families responded.

One family, faced with the deaths of their teenage son and their parents, found strength and comfort in their family, their community, and God. Though in shock and grieving, this family found the blessings in their son’s life, sharing stories about his athleticism, his generosity, and his sense of humor. They honored their parents’ lives with more stories and shared their love. Their world had just been turned upside down, and yet they seemed to move within it so gracefully.

In a different family, the victim’s wife and parents felt that God “had it in for” their loved one. There was always a cloud over his head, trouble always followed him, he never got a break. This man’s tragic death was just another piece of his tragic life.

These families’ vastly different reactions to their loved ones’ sudden and unexpected deaths continued in the months and years following. The family whose son and parents died wanted the blessing of their loved ones’ lives to continue beyond their deaths. They donated their son’s organs, using their tragedy to save lives. They also created a scholarship fund in memory of their son. Though there was no inherent meaning in these deaths, the family created meaning, created blessing, and created hope where none existed. Out of the worst experience of their lives, they chose to respond for good. And I imagine that they do the same throughout their lives.

The other family experienced their grief so profoundly and personally that they probably could not find any hope, any blessing to temper the pain. I certainly don’t blame them; they had every right to grieve that deeply and to respond in this way. Nevertheless, the response of pain and meaninglessness has very different psychological results than a response of hope and blessing. Pain begets pain while hope begets hope. I hope that they were able to find sources of comfort and strength that brought blessing to their lives.

We are reminded of our ability to choose our response to the challenges and tragedies—and the blessings and gifts—of life in the next lines of the Unetaneh Tokef: “ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה. (Ut’shuvah ut’filah ut’zdakah maavirin et roa hag’zeirah)—But through repentance, prayer, and righteous giving we can transcend the harshness of the decree.” This line does not mean that good things will happen to the penitent, pious, and righteous. We see again and again in our world that this is not true. Repentance, prayer, and righteous giving don’t have the power to change what befalls us, but they do have the power to change us by changing how we react to what befalls us. They help us see the “decree,” the difficult experiences of life, as less harsh, less severe and less personal. And repentance, prayer, and righteous giving—tz’dakah—give our lives meaning.

How do they do this? Repentance keeps our relationships whole. When we can admit to each other that we were sometimes wrong or did the wrong thing, we show that we value our connection with others more than our pride and ego. It allows us to repair the cracks in our relationships before they break beyond repair, strengthening the bonds between friends, families, and community. Prayer keeps us connected to the holiness and wonder of the world. When we pray, whether the prayers of our hearts or those from the liturgy, and whether or not we believe every word we say, we remind ourselves that there is more to existence than we can experience. Prayer gives us opportunities to catch glimpses of the Divine, and it brings holiness to our lives. And Tz’dakah, righteous giving? Tz’dakah connects us to the world around us. It requires that we remember how much we have that we can give to others, no matter how terrible the challenges we face. Tz’dakah forces us to admit that there is good in our lives that we can share with others, helping us turn our pain into blessing. Repentance, prayer, and righteous giving don’t change the reality, but they do change our experience of it.

If we respond to challenges and tragedies in our lives as though they are attacks or punishments, as though life is out to get us, we will suffer during both good and bad times. We will feel lost and torn and tormented and poor. But if we respond to them as though they are part of the reality of living and try to eke out every possible blessing or act of goodness from the most difficult experiences of our lives, we will feel a sense of calm and peace, of safety and wealth. We may not have control over what happens, but we can choose how we respond to it. Which response will you choose?

May each of us have enough strength, love, and goodness in our lives to carry us through the difficulties that will come our way and help us find the blessings within.

Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Sat, March 28 2020 3 Nisan 5780