Between Hope and Fear

A classic dilemma of faith.

Tags: Jewish World
Rabbi S. Weiss

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Arutz 7

The recent, tragic death of IAF pilot Assaf Ramon dramatically provokes the central question that annually
One could accurately say that Ilan reached spiritual heights virtually unsurpassed in history. And yet he vanished.
preoccupies us during the High Holidays: Is there an intelligent, guiding hand to the Universe, or is life ruled by randomness, coincidence and caprice?

The deaths of this celebrated father and son, their lives cut short and their brilliant careers sent literally crashing into oblivion, ought to give us all pause. Ilan Ramon was an icon of Jewish pride and Israeli valor, the youngest member of the team that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor, and the representative of the entire Jewish People when he was selected by NASA to join the Columbia space mission team. Singing Jewish songs, reciting Kiddush and carrying a Holocaust Torah scroll high above the Earth aboard his space ship, one could accurately say that Ilan reached spiritual heights virtually unsurpassed in history. And yet he vanished six years ago in a fiery instant, when the Columbia disintegrated on reentry.

Assaf, his son, displayed stoic heroism by following in his father's footsteps and pursuing an exemplary career in the Israeli Air Force. This past June, he graduated at the top of his class and was named an outstanding pilot. Tall, handsome and friendly, he seemed the archetypal picture of the new Israeli who dares to go where few would venture. When he helped bring his crippled jet in for an emergency landing some months ago, that image was only reinforced.

Yet now both these great men - who reached astronomical heights in Heaven, both literally and figuratively - are gone. What does their death say to us about God and the human condition? For if God is just and merciful - as our prayers so often tell us - if He rewards the righteous and protects the innocent, then why did the Ramons have to perish so abruptly, so painfully? Why could they not have lived out long lives, savoring their many accomplishments and basking, with their family, in the glow of their gifts to Israel and their fellow Jews?

And if we conclude, somehow, that God did not have a hand in their deaths, that things "just happen" out there, beyond anyone's control, then how can we relate this to a faith that identifies the Almighty as a personal God who is intimately involved in the world and all its citizens, a God who reviews each of our "files" at the New Year and ultimately decides our fate? Why would I possibly pray to a powerless deity?

This classic dilemma, I believe, is encapsulated in one of the most potent, yet perplexing, prayers of the High Holidays. The Un'tane Tokef, recited on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, seems to form the centerpiece of each service. It begins by reminding us of "how awesome this day is." It then speaks of the "Great Shofar sounding," the angels quaking with fear, and all of humanity being brought to pass, like sheep, under the shepherd's rod. There they are counted, one by one, "their lifetimes fixed and their destinies inscribed, for on Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed."

But then the prayer takes on a very different, almost frightening tone: "Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall enjoy long life and who will die an untimely death?" And, if we are indeed to perish, "will it be by fire, or water? By sword or plague? Will we meet our end in an earthquake, a drought, a famine? Will we be at rest, in the bosom of our loved ones, or wander aimlessly, filled with anxiety? Will we be safe and left alone, or be assaulted? Will we lead lives of comfort, or of torment? Will we see our fortunes made, or lost? Will we rise in stature, or be brought low?"

It seems to me that there are two separate voices emanating from this page. The one is telling us that life is ordered; it is logical, reasonable, mapped out and structured. Every creature has its special and unique role to play, and each of us is judged by our actions, the Eternal Shepherd carefully, lovingly giving us the "once over" as we cross the bar from this year to next. It all runs according to plan.

But the other voice is not so sure; it is filled with doubt, almost hysteria: Will we indeed be judged in a fair and equitable system? Will our good deeds be rewarded, our forgiveness accepted, our lot in life administered by a God of compassion? Or will we be subject to the various vicissitudes of life, vulnerable to all the cruel and callous crimes lurking out there in search of a victim? Can we rely on the published parameters of reward and punishment, or will disaster strike us without warning, from just around the next corner?

All of humanity, I suggest, shares these twin voices; all of us vacillate between hope and fear. Hope that God is everything we desperately want Him to be, believe Him to be. And fear that maybe not everything operates along the rational, cause-and-effect line that we were taught about in cheder. Sometimes, as when our small, largely-
It seems to me that there are two separate voices emanating from this page.
citizen Israeli army vanquishes much larger and more intimidating foes, our hopes are realized. But at other times, when suffering abounds, when brave soldiers and pilots suddenly fall out of the sky, our gravest fears are realized.

The answers to our deepest questions are complex, not simple; nor are they meant to be spoon-fed to us. We are not babies; we are the most sophisticated of the Creator's creations. It is we who have to grapple mightily to find an answer; God will not make it easy for us. The final words of the Un'tane Tokef form, perhaps, the "bottom line" in our search for meaning: "Repentance, prayer and charity circumvent the harsh decree." In striving to get closer to God - through repentance and humble self-effacement; and in striving to get closer to our fellow man - through acts of charity and kindness; and in trying to get closer to ourselves - through prayer and introspection - we may enter the place where answers can be found.

It is there that we will keep our faith alive and somehow come to grips with tragedies like that of the Ramons. And it is there where we will find the strength to live, to face another day in which, G-d willing, hope will overcome fear.

The writer is the father of fallen soldier Sgt. Ari Weiss.