Who By Water: Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader – Yom Kippur, Sep. 23, 2015


This entry on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is the sermon from Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, at the Yom Kippur Morning in the Contemporary Service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to re-post this to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, send the link to family and friends, and make responses below to continue the conversation engendered in this sermon.

We are just beginning to get to know each other. To help with this process, here are a few things you should know about me:

I am a rabbi. I am from Southern California. I have two adorable young children. I have a Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy. I am a runner. I love to bake. My favorite coffee drinks are Chai Tea Lattes. I am a sucker for romantic comedies. I am just a tiny little bit on the controlling side. I have been called bossy – once or twice. What can I say, but I want things the way I want them – I make no apologies for that!

But I’ve had to learn how to let go.

Yom Kippur is hard for me. It forces us to acknowledge that we are not always in control. What exactly does it mean to be being inscribed in the book of life?  How can we control this? Can we?

Parenting and pregnancy can help us prepare for Yom Kippur because these experiences have taught me quickly how little control we have. When it comes to pregnancy and children we accept a little uncertainty. When it comes to other areas of our life, lack of control becomes a much harder idea to accept. Isn’t this part of what Yom Kippur is about?

One of the most solemn Yom Kippur prayers is the Un’taneh Tokef, which we read together this morning. This prayer, a poem really, reinforces the idea that we have little or no control over the important things in our lives. It paints a picture of God writing names into the book of life: it asks who shall live and who shall die, who shall reach the end of their days, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and so on.   As the poem ends, we are reminded: but repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree.

The terrible beauty of this poem paints a picture of God revisiting all of our actions, words and deeds from the previous year, judging us, and deciding our fate. Based on our behavior, God sits in judgment of us deciding who shall live and who shall die. The dark theology of the Un’taneh Tokef is not a God we, as Reform Jews, normally think of: a God with the power to decree every aspect of our lives and to decide upon our fate as a whim.

Many scholars and rabbis have struggled with this ideology.

I have struggled the theology of this prayer too. I cannot believe in a God who sits in judgment of all of our actions and deeds and deciding if we are worthy enough to live another year. Is it really God who decides every single aspect of our lives? If that is the case, then how do we explain all of the tragedies that we have all seen?   Is it God that decided the fate of the person who is struck with a terrible illness or a loss of young life? If this theology is taken further, is this prayer blaming the person? Is it saying that their acts of “repentance, prayer and charity” were not sufficient?

I find this theology deeply problematic and disturbing.   These are my questions about this prayer, I invite you to share with your thoughts about it.

At the same time, there are lessons we can learn from this prayer. I think the Un’taneh Tokef, can help us ask ourselves important questions. With all of these quandaries in mind, today I suggest two connected ways to interpret the Un’taneh Tokef. How we engage with the Un’taneh Tokef on a personal level can frame the way we look at this prayer on a communal or global scale. First, we need to ask the right questions of the prayer.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, suggests we view the Un’taneh Tokef as “God’s alarm clock.” God is giving us a wake-up call; key to this are three Hebrew words, teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah. Sacks says the problem is that we misinterpret teshuvah. We think of this word as meaning repentance, but it also means to return. Sacks suggests that if we think instead of teshuvah as a demand to return to our roots, faith, traditions, and values, we can have more informed tefillah, prayer. And if we have more informed tefillah, which goes beyond avoiding a terrible fate, then we have a better way of tzedekah, engaging with and doing good in the world. We seek a better world because our traditions and values demand it. It is when we have asked questions of the prayer that we can use the prayer for guidance.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, argues that the Un’taneh Tokef is not really asking us who shall die, but in what ways will people die. He uses water as an example. When we hear the question of who by water, most people think of hurricanes or floods: Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the Indian Ocean Tsunami or even the flash floods that killed 16 in Utah recently.

Rabbi Jacobs reminds us that while we cannot control of the amount of water that falls onto an area, but we can control of what happens to the water once it has fallen. Many of the deaths associated with these tragedies would have been avoidable had different structural, governmental, and social systems were in place.

As a Californian, I think of water in a different way: a lack of it, drought.

I love the outdoors. I have never felt closer to God than watching the sunset over the ocean or hiking a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. These landscapes are under threat. The beautiful hills around my childhood home are now so dry a single spark could set off a terrible wild fire. These idyllic, green, tree-covered hills, once so full of life are now brown, withered, and dying. Where lively grass green grew there is now brown dead weeds.

Living in Cleveland, I realize that water is not a problem. 41 inches of rain fell on the city last year. In Los Angeles, it was just over 8 inches. The year before that 6 inches of rain fell, and the year before that, the total was just over 5. So why does this matter? So hills are browning and lawns dying. So what?

It matters because we rely on California, especially Southern California, for food. We do not control the amount of rain that falls, but we do control how it is used. In California the drought is exacerbated by the economic demands: it is ten times more profitable to grow water rich crops like almonds, walnuts and pistachios nuts, than low water usage plants. Farmers are ripping out low water use crops and replacing them with thirstier ones. This increased demand for water during the drought is causing farmers to build deep aquifers to utilize the water under ground. Aquifers that used that used to be 200 feet deep are now 2000 feet deep because of the increased demand for water.

Since many farmers cannot afford to deepen their wells, hedge funds, large banks, and large farming enterprises are buying the land to plant the high water usage plants. Yet this is not the only problem. Aquafina, Perrier, and San Pellegrino all bottle water in California. Starbuck’s Ethos water brand: made in California. As our water has become scarcer, the profitability of water has grown ever greater.

Meanwhile, small towns throughout California have been cut off from water supplies, while continuing drought threatens to raise food prices, harming the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. So why does California affect us? Because we need to eat, and California is a grocery store for our nation.

While we cannot control rain in California or anywhere else, we can control our shopping habits. We can buy more in season fruits and vegetables, and we can demand that businesses and policymakers make more environmentally responsible choices. We can raise our voices to advocate for environmentally sustainable practices.

Rabbi Jacobs argues that the Un’taneh Tokef asks us to step in to prevent a misfortune like a drought becoming an injustice. These are words to live by. They ask us to return, to return to the values, ideas, and beliefs of our tradition. And to act in this way, we need to begin with ourselves. The Un’taneh Tokef urges us to partner with each other and God working for a better world.

The questions who shall live and who shall die asks us to be introspective. We are tasked with closely examining who we are and who we want to be. We may not control how long we live, but we do control how we spend the time that we have. Like Rabbis Sacks and Jacobs, I believe that we should read the Un’taneh Tokef metaphorically, asking ourselves, what parts of ourselves do want to live?

What part of ourselves do we want to foster and thrive?

What interests or habits or relationships do we want to focus our energy on?

What parts of ourselves to do want to live?

What parts of ourselves do we want to let go of?

What habits, behaviors, hurts, wrongs, relationships, and behaviors shall die?

What parts of ourselves do we want to say goodbye to and what parts of ourselves do we want to build up?

As the High Holy Days remind us, the length of our days is not up to us, but what we do with our time is. In fostering our best selves that we move closer to achieving our potential for us and the world around us.   We can make decisions that strive for good for our community, our loved ones and ourselves.  We can change the question, so instead of saying who by water meaning, who will be harmed by water, we can ask, who by water – meaning who will use water as a means to work for good.