Drash for Yom Kippur 5779: The Theology of Buffering
by Marc Mangel
I have been thinking a lot this past year about why bad things happen to good people and what, if anything, we can do about it.
At the start of his book by the same title, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of congregants whose only child – a daughter in her freshman year of college – died of a brain aneurism. When Kushner went to console them, the parents said “You know, Rabbi, we did not fast on Yom Kippur”. Kushner said “no this is not the reason that your daughter died”, and I too say no.
To understand why, we need to turn to the Kabbalah.
The Kabbalistic understanding of creation is that God contracted and concealed– the Tzimtzum – in order to make space for the created world. This is not physical space – God is everywhere – but contraction of cosmic presence.
Rabbi Chaim Miller writes: “Think of the Shechinah as music that’s so loud that it would burst your eardrums but if you would just turn down the volume a bit, then you would be able to heart it…The Shechinah’s energy is sufficiently diminished [by God’s concealment] to be a starting point for our universe.”
Susan and I were in Honolulu once and in the park across from our hotel we heard a Jimmy Buffet concert. Of course, we also heard street traffic, people talking, children laughing, airplanes flying overhead, birds cawing and many other sounds.
Imagine an outdoor concert with an amazingly powerful sound system. It is so powerful, in fact, that you cannot get near it without blowing out your ears. This is the analogy of Godly energy before the contraction. The impresario erects sound buffers between the source of the sound and the lawn where you are sitting. With those buffers in place you can clearly hear the concert.
But there is space between you and the buffer. If people are talking, kids are playing, buses are running, you may still hear them in addition to – or possibly louder than — the concert.
Imagine now that you have noise reducing headphones connecting directly to the mixer – the essence of the concert – before amplification. The sound is amazing! And many of the external distractions have disappeared.
But not all — the very existence of space between the buffer and you means that there are random sounds that may interfere with hearing the concert.
For example, suppose that an aircraft carrier is in town and a pilot decides to buzz Honolulu, creating a sonic boom. You will hear that sonic boom no matter how good the headphones are.
Similarly for us – the tzimtzum is the buffer between us and Godly energy; the space means that sometimes random bad things will happen.
Simply put, although we can do much (eating wisely, exercising, not smoking, or drinking and driving) to avoid some bad things happening we cannot change the reality that sometimes bad things will happen to good people – it is the cost we pay for existence.
But we can do something about it as individuals and as a community: When bad things do happen, we must marshal resolve and activate the forces of goodness to a higher level. In his book 60 Days, Rabbi Shimon Jacobson writes that Yom Kippur is “the birthday of the single most important ingredient in life – hope…that we can rebuild what was broken and make it stronger than before”. Our resolve and activated goodness create hope. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote regarding sickness that one must strengthen confidence in God and find a good doctor and follow the doctor’s instructions.
In addition, although the gap between the created world and God must always be present, we have tools – prayer, meditation, study, and Tzedaka – that allow us to close it somewhat.
The Rebbe also wrote
“The natural tendency is to treat matters of the spirits as luxury items – sort of an appendage to life.
“Eating, sleeping, making money – these things are given priority and time dedicated to them is sacrosanct.
“But prayer, meditation and study fit in only when you feel like it, and are pushed aside on the slightest whim.
“Set a schedule for spiritually enriching activities. Be as tough with that schedule as a workaholic would be with business”.
This for our internal self. But how do we escape the confines of our own self?
In his English version of Psalm 112, Zalman Schachter uses the word ‘sharing’ as a translation for Tzedaka (rather than charity or righteousness). Sharing with others allows us to escape the confines of our own self.
To alive means to live in a world in which bad things happen to good people. But imagine what kind of world we’d have – even with random bad things happening to good people — if everyone were to pay attention to the wonder of the world, to adhere to their own schedule of spiritually enriching activities, and shared the goodness that comes to them.
Imagine it, and then let us make it so.
Have an easy fast and G’mar Chatima Tova.