As coach of Rockland’s 16U basketball team in the JCC Maccabi Games last week, I saw my fair share of good refereeing; I also saw some really bad calls. Some went in our team’s favor and some went against us. Some calls were inconsequential to the game’s outcome and some changed the game’s momentum and possibly affected the results. I encountered coaches drawing technical fouls for inapproprate behavior (none for me!), and coaches bantering with the refs as if they knew each other well.
This week’s Torah portion instructs us to appoint judges who will administer the just application of our societal rules. Our society’s referees are commanded to rule justly, to shun partiality and to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It is a tall task, however, to ask judges to remain totally impartial. I certainly don’t expect a referee to give any of my players the benefit of the doubt if they are being disrespectful in any way to the referee, another player, or the game itself! In the same vein, why would an umpire want to make a call that I am expecting if all I do is complain about every call?
On a far more emotional level, how can an umpire not get caught up in the approving roar of the crowd or the emotional swell of a game’s momentum? What referee doesn’t get angry when voices from the sideline or the crowd are constantly berating them for the job they are doing? And what person won’t harbor some resentment from one bad set of interactions to the next encounter?
I instruct all my players that I will be the only one to address the referees. I greet them with a handshake. During the game, I ask for explanations of a ruling, as opposed to being overtly critical. I point out inconsistency in the application of the rules. I suggest that certain infractions by the opposing team be watched more carefully. And after the game, my players shake the hands of the “judges” and thank them for their service.
Sounds good, right? But what about the fact that I do all these things with the added hope that it will gain some measure of favor for my team? Am I not striving for some measure of impartiality, a psychological bribe of sorts?
In our day and age, there is more and more emphasis on instant replay, on removing the human element from the application of the rules. Removing the human, however, also means removing the humanity from the equation. In this month of Elul and in the time of judgment that is a few weeks away, we ask God to move from the seat of justice to the seat of mercy. We don’t want to be held to the strict application of the rules. We want a ref who will let us travel, or carry, or commit a foul once in a while without getting called for it. We want a judge who will, in fact, be partial to our humanity.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
In Jewish tradition, the words of prayers, psalms and blessings often make confident statements that leave us wondering how we can be so bold in the face of God’s will.
“Deep is Your love for us, Adonai our God, boundless Your tender compassion.” (Blessing before the Sh’ma) “God will cover you with protective wings so that you find refuge in God’s shelter.” (Psalm 90) “You grant perfect healing because You are the faithful and merciful God of healing.” (Amidah)
At short-lived but profound moments of prayer, I feel strong and sure of my relationship to God. For just that fraction of time, I state my prayer-thoughts with absolute surety. How often does this happen?
Not very often.
Most of the time in prayer, I feel vulnerable and not at all sure of God’s intentions. My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, however, teaches a different way to understand such verses in liturgy. When we pray for something with a bold statement, with an abundance of confidence, we are actually asking with humility, and maybe even with desperation. Rabbi Gillman reframes Psalms and blessings as hopes and wishes, not facts. Now we understand the prayers above differently:
I hope that Your compassion is boundless. Please, God, cover me with protective wings. If You are the faithful and merciful God of healing, won’t You please grant perfect healing?
No where is this reframing more helpful than with regard to the statement we make to families of mourners as they exit the cemetery and when minyan is concluded in their shiva home: “Hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch shaar avaley tzion v’yarushalayim.” God, (the Place) will comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Perhaps, as my friend Rabbi Richard Hammerman writes, we console the mourners by indicating that they are not alone. Throughout all time, there have been tragedies and losses. Their loss is now part of the continuum of the eternal people of Israel who have experienced great loss. Alternatively, perhaps we help the mourners by acknowledging that their loss is as great as any loss has been throughout history. There is no hierarchy when it comes to the grief of losing a loved one.
The difficulty with the traditional statement of consolation does not lie in our ability as a community to provide comfort. We console, we listen, we remain present.
But how can we say with such certainty that God will comfort? What do we know of God’s providing comfort to our grief-stricken friend? How can we make such a bold statement? As one congregant wept to me, “I don’t think even God can comfort my broken heart.”
And still we say these words. We say the formula with confidence but we mean it as a humble prayer. When we recite these words, we are in effect saying: I’d like to snap my fingers and make your pain disappear. But I can’t. I wish my visit could make everything better, but of course it won’t. So I am left with nothing but a prayer: Please God, be the Place where my friends find consolation.
I say “HaMakom y’nachem” with surety to provide a beam of hope into the darkness experienced by mourners. I do not know for certain that God will give comfort, but I believe that it will be so. There is healing that happens only within the soul of the mourner. As much as I try to bring comfort, it is only God, with the assistance of the passage of time, Who can enter the soul and bring that kind of comfort.
At the limit of my ability to help, God’s infinite compassion takes over. I don’t actually know, but I pray that it will be so.
Please God, please bring comfort to these friends who are grieving as You do for all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
In these weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana, a time of consolation in the rhythm of the Jewish year, may we all provide the best comfort that we can to those in our midst who grieve. When we reach our limit, may we pray to God to do the heavy lifting.
And let us state our request as a statement. With confidence and courage, let us say that God will comfort them.
With berakhot, blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill