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Friday, 16 February 2018

Why I Wish There Were a Hell

This sermon was delivered on 16th February 2018, after another massacre in a school, this time in Florida.

In my youth, I used to believe in heaven and hell. How could I not? Everything I read said that there was a heaven, and the natural corollary to heaven in Western culture is hell. I believed that when a person died they lived on in some other way. My 5-year old son said exactly that to me in the car the other day. As I became more aware of evil, I didn’t know of the Rabbinic concept of Gehinnom, a cleansing place, so I just thought that if good people go to one place, bad people must go to another. So, I essentially picked up on the idea of hell. Over time, my belief in an other-worldy hell disappeared before my belief in an other-worldly heaven did. What kept it going for a while was the old story that heaven looks just like hell, where everyone has long spoons to eat from a shared pot, but that in heaven the people use the spoons to feed each other while in hell they try to feed themselves with the impossibly long spoons, and fail. That was cute. In time, Gehinnom became a far more appealing theological position for me – the idea that except for the utterly wicked, whose souls are immediately destroyed, everyone goes through a period of cleansing before moving onto Gan Eden, the eternal, peaceful afterlife. That accorded with my understanding at the time that God is a God of love, who wants us to be righteous, who wants to share the Divine glory with us.

This week, after the mass murder in Florida, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, wrote a piece about how God cries with us over the senseless slaughter of children. I found no comfort in it. Maybe because I didn’t cry because I’m desensitized to this, as most of us are. We’re shocked and deeply saddened, and terrified for our own children, but in the face of such regular slaughter, we’ve had to at least partially numb ourselves to it. If God is a supernatural Deity, if God is conscious, does God really cry over this? If so, does God spend all day every day in tears at the senseless violence humanity inflicts on itself every single moment? Does God lament creating this world, or creating humanity?

In Parshat Noach, God becomes sick of the violence. It nauseates God.  “The Eternal saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised in the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. So the Eternal regretted that God had made humanity on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. The Eternal said, “I will blot out from the earth the people whom I created – people together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

We tend to view that vengeful God as antiquated, but I must admit, right now, I crave it. I need it. If there is a Supernatural Deity, part of me hopes that God is on the brink of wiping out this disgusting, failed experiment and only holding back because of a promise made to Noah to not do so again. The events of this week make me wish that there were a hell. Everyone who takes money that blinds them to act, that allows them to turn away when other people’s children are regularly slaughtered, I wish there were a hell for such people. Not Gehinnom, not a place that cleanses them of their sins and then allows them to sit next to the righteous in heaven. I wish there were a place where they suffer for eternity.

It pains me that I don’t believe in that. It pains me because it means I have to face the reality that those who sit idly by face no consequences in this world or the next. I think back to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, in which three individuals end up in hell, which is each other. No fire and brimstone, no torture, other than each other’s company. Through that play, Sartre was trying to suggest that other people are our own hell, that essentially hell can be here on earth, but I can’t agree. I don’t think the people who deserve hell even give a damn. I think they are mentally impervious to this. I think their lust for power at all cost totally blinds them to this repetitive suffering. And moreover, they know that many of them are still likely to hold onto power even when the masses have a chance to change the political landscape. They are immune from hell, especially the hell that others have to go through because of their own inaction, and knowing that makes me nauseous.  I yearn for Divine justice and none comes.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites building the Sanctuary so that God may dwell among them. After the Tabernacle, the Temple was built to house God’s Presence. That was destroyed and then the Second Temple brought God’s Presence among the people once more. Since that was destroyed, God’s immediate Presence has not been with humanity. I would suggest that until the wholesale and repetitive slaughter of people, particularly children, is ended in our society, it would be impossible for God to dwell among us. I would go so far as to say that it would be offensive for us to suggest that God could currently dwell among us, or would even want to.  I understand that this may not be comforting for some, like those who find Rabbi Jacob’s notion of God crying over this tragedy comforting. But I can’t find comfort now. I’m not comforted when every day I drop my kids off at school and kiss them and tell them that I love them just in case it’s the last time I ever see them alive. There’s no comfort there. I can’t be comforted now. I can’t think that God dwells among us while we do nothing about this.

And I know that my wish for an eternity of visceral, tormenting hell for some individuals is an expression of my own anger, frustration and pain. I understand that. But I also understand that it is a convenient avoidance of my responsibility in this, too. Sure, I have spoken about the differing forms of violence endemic in this society to raise awareness and to slowly change society. But I’ve not yet called an elected official to try to make real political change. I’ve not yet supported any organization – like the ones whose details you can find on the table at the back of the Sanctuary – that is trying to bring about real change and stop these constant massacres. So if there were a hell, maybe I would deserve it, too. Maybe all of us who sit idly by and shake our heads and hug our kids and do nothing to stop the next massacre, maybe all of us deserve it, too. Maybe that realization, in and of itself, will be enough to bring about change in me, and perhaps in others, too, so that we might finally act. Or do we have to wait until, God forbid, we experience the true hell of this regular culling of children affecting  the ones we love?

Some of my Rabbinic colleagues have responded to the latest atrocity with poetry. Some have created new versions of the Kaddish to express their grief. I would rather not. I can’t currently look at this tragedy and immediately spring into a prayer praising God for life, as Kaddish does. Ashamnu, however, the prayer for begging for our sins, seems far more appropriate to me, so here’s my version this week:

We have sinned. We have permitted murder. We have accepted murder. We have tolerated murder. We have politicized murder. We have stood idly over the blood of our neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, and of their neighbor’s children, all the while praying that our own would be spared of violence. We have called on the Divine for mercy when we showed none ourselves.  We have prevaricated. We have hidden our consciences and numbed our souls. We have ignored the cries of our society’s children’s blood that calls to us from the ground. We have shaken our heads and failed to act. We have been callous. We have tolerated violence throughout our society and have profited from it. We have succumbed to cynicism and defeat.

For all these failures of judgment and will, we will ask for forgiveness, but only once we have done everything in our power to end the slaughter of innocents in our society. For that, we pray only for strength. (And let us say, amen)

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