SEPTEMBER 23, 2015

Rabbi Jon Adland

I came across this statement recently.  I think it was on Facebook, but in my excitement to write it down I forgot to give it an attribution.  It reads, “God doesn’t give us what we can handle, God helps us handle what we are given.”  (repeat line to make sure everyone hears it correctly.)  This statement is in direct opposition to what many of us have heard so many times, “God only gives us what we can handle.”

I am sure that if I surveyed this room and asked for testimony, many of you could recall a time when the weight of the world was pushing down on your shoulders and you just didn’t know what to do.  There was just too much going on in this life; too many pressures, too many struggles, just too much stuff.  Maybe it was a parents’ illness or things related to work or troubles with children.  Maybe it is in the sadness of the world around us and the utter futility of it all.  Despite all of the heaviness, the pressure, the weight, the seriousness, or the sadness, someone in their cheerfulness will look and say, “Don’t worry, God only gives you what you can handle.”  If it were only true.

Last night, at Kol Nidre, I spoke about the 23rd Psalm which many of us know so well—“The Lord is my shepherd.”  I wrote in that sermon the following, “What Rabbi Harold Kushner said in his first great book he repeats here (in his book on the 23rd Psalm) by reminding us that we can’t control all the events in our lives, but we can control how we respond.”  Let me share what Rabbi Kushner wrote in 1981 in, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People:

The Talmud…explains Abraham’s test (on Mt. Moriah) this way:  If you go to the marketplace, you will see the potter hitting his clay pots with a stick to show how solid they are.  But the wise potter hits only the strongest pots, never the flawed ones.  So too, God sends such tests and afflictions only to people God knows are capable of handling them, so they and others can learn the extent of their spiritual growth.

Kushner then continues,

Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy into an excellent book, “The Bereaved Parent.”  She remembers that when her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, “I know that this is a painful time for you.  But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden that we can bear.  God only let this happen to you because God knows that you are strong enough to handle it.”  Harriet Schiff remembers her reaction to those words: “If only I was a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive.”

I believe that Harriet Schiff has hit the nail on the head.

Throughout his excellent and timeless book, Rabbi Kushner returns to the idea that God isn’t up there somewhere, wherever “there” is, pointing a punitive finger down at God’s creatures testing us in any number of ways.  God isn’t looking around for the strongest of us to test us like the potter who only strikes the strongest pots.  Many of us who are familiar with the Biblical story of Job know that was done once.  God tests Job’s faithfulness by bringing about a series of disasters on Job and his family.  Job’s faith is never shaken during any of these trials though the three men who come to him believe that all of this could only have happened because of a flaw in Job’s character.  That is why many of us use the phrase, “The strength and faith of Job,” as the paramount of humans who have endured the worst, but still believe.  Job was only given what he could handle even though it was more than any of us could ever imagine.  We must remember that this is just a Biblical story of faith in much the same way that Abraham’s test on Moriah with his son Isaac is just a story about a test.  We aren’t Noah or Abraham or Moses or Jeremiah or Isaiah or David.  We are human beings whose lives have ups and downs, twists and turns, and unexpected surprises.  We can’t predict tomorrow and we can’t anticipate how we will react to every new situation that crosses our paths or is thrown at us.  God says to Job near the end of the book:

         4Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

Speak if you have understanding.

5Do you know who fixed its dimensions

8Who closed the sea behind doors

When it gushed forth out of the womb,

9When I clothed it in clouds,

Swaddled it in dense clouds,

10When I made breakers My limit for it,

And set up its bar and doors,

11And said, “You may come so far and no farther;

Here your surging waves will stop”?

12Have you ever commanded the day to break,

Assigned the dawn its place

Assigned the dawn its place

God knows, but just because God knows doesn’t mean God is pointing a finger at the strongest or weakest.  Things happen to us.  Some we can handle and some are beyond whatever strength we have.  God’s tests aren’t only for the strong and much of what happens in our lives aren’t God’s tests at all.

          Rabbi Kushner lays out a three-point approach to understanding God surrounding the story of Job that has been the basis of my theology ever since I read his book.  For those of you struggling with God, maybe this will make sense.  For those who are confident in their understanding of how God works in the world and in your life, maybe this fits or maybe not.  Rabbi Kushner writes:

  1. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world.  Nothing happens without God’s willing it.
  2.  God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
  3.  Job is a good person.

As long as Job is healthy and wealthy, we can believe all three statements.  When Job suffers the destruction of his life with the death of his family and the loss of all his property, then we have a problem.  Only two of three work at the same time.  If God is just and powerful, then Job must be a sinner and can’t be good.  If Job is good, but God causes his suffering, then God is not just.  If Job deserved better and God did not send his suffering, then God is not all-powerful. 

          I have often heard it framed this way:

  1. God is omnipotent
  2. God is omniscient
  3. God is omni-benevolent.

As Rabbi Kushner asserts, in the end God can only be two of the three.  For me, I reject all-powerful because I believe God is all-knowing and all-good.  I need God to be good, more than I need God to be powerful.  A good God doesn’t give us what we can handle, but helps us handle what we are given.  I have to believe this, because without it the suffering I see too many times in too many places frames an all-powerful God without mercy and compassion.

When I hear someone say, "Well, God doesn't give you more than you can handle," the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My skin crawls as if someone has run her nails over a 1962 chalkboard.  I usually remain quiet because I realize that the statement is well intended. When we are at a loss for words in the presence of someone who is hurting, we reflexively recite religious rhetoric such as this.

The rationale for the reassurance goes something like this: No matter how bad things seem, no matter how bleak the future appears, if we can just remember that God really doesn't give us more than we can handle, we might be able to hang in there for another day. We might be able to take a deep breath and take another step forward. 

It sounds good, but there is a slight problem. It doesn't work! Instead of being comforted, we often leave feeling dismissed and dejected.

  • If you are grieving the death of your son,
  • If you are struggling with infertility,
  • If your daughter has been deployed into a war zone,
  • If your marriage is crumbling,
  • If you are not sure how you will provide for your aging father,

If...well, a trite religious aphorism just doesn't cut it. We need something else. We need listening ears and warm hearts and helping hands.  Life is constantly throwing us curveballs and many of us just don’t have the tools, the strength, the faith to be able to handle or cope.  We never know what is around the next corner and comfort doesn’t come from a God who places burdens on our shoulders that we can’t handle.  What I want, what many of us want is a God who can help us handle the unanticipated struggles in life.

          The world around us has been overwhelmingly trying on our hearts and souls and even on our relationship with God.  From a Colorado school to a movie theater, from a Connecticut elementary school to a major Virginia university, from a church where people were studying Bible to a reporter and her cameraman just doing their morning job, there has been a deep pain that none of us can turn away from.  Can we say to these communities and to these parents, friends, survivors that God is only giving you what you can handle?  We have watched boats sink in the Mediterranean filled with refugees fleeing a war they didn’t ask for.  We read about airplanes shot down or that just disappear.  We mourn the victims from a train crash. And many, too many people die with the explosion of a bomb in cities we’ve heard of and in places we know nothing about.  Is God giving this world what it can handle?  Fourteen years after 9/11 can we look at the survivors and say that God only gave to those who could handle something like this?  Ten years after Katrina are we able to ask the same question?

            I have to believe that God helps me handle what I am given.  I have to believe that God helps us handle what we are given.  I want God to be there to celebrate with me the joys in life and I want God there to sustain me during the sad times.  I don’t want God to judge me as too strong or too weak, but as one of God’s creatures that needs God’s strength, mercy, and compassion that God offers to each of us.

          “God doesn’t give us what we can handle, God helps us handle what we are given.”  Throughout Judaism’s long history, we have seen this over and over again.  Jews never accepted the proposition that God gives us what we can handle, because we have been asked to handle so much in so many ways at so many different times. 

          Moses certainly didn’t believe that he had any extraordinary faith or strength.  Moses looked to God to support him in the decisions he made and in the actions he took.  As he led our ancestors out of Egypt, they tested Moses at each and every opportunity they could.  From a lack of food and water in the desert to taking creative measures in regard to leadership, God pushed Moses, but walked with him each step of the way.  Even when Moses failed, God still walked beside him giving him a last look at the land he never reached, but knowing God helped him handle the blessing and burden he was given.  

          When the Second Temple was destroyed and the soul was sucked out of the life of our people, many of our ancestors saw the end, but a number of rabbis believed so deeply in the strength and power of God that they knew God would be there to help them handle this devastation and destruction.  “God doesn’t give us what we can handle, God helps us handle what we are given.”  The new emerging class of rabbis used their faith and belief in God to mold a new and vibrant style of Jewish life that is so successful that we continue to use it today whether we are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews or observant/Torah Jews.

          And truly how can we believe that God gave to our people in the time of the Second World War only what they could handle.  A theology such as this attached to something as awful and horrendous as the Shoah would cause me to turn away from God forever.  I have to believe that many survivors who are believers would say that God didn’t give them what they could handle, but God helped them handle what they were given though for too many that wasn’t nearly enough.  Survivors don’t always understand or are able to articulate how they survived, but if you read Eliach’s “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” you will see God’s presence helping so many to get to the next day despite the horror of living from one moment to the next.

          Thank God our lives today don’t have to be lived like our ancestors did 70 years ago.  We are still faced with challenges that cause us to reach to the deepest places of our souls and faith.  Our Yom Kippur Mahzor in the section we know as the “Unetaneh Tokef” tells us that in the face of the hardest moments that “Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness temper judgment’s severe decree.”  I would add to this faith and belief.  I would add to this friends and family and community.  I would add to this knowledge and wisdom.  I would add to this the understanding that God is not out there figuring out who can handle what and then filling that cup to the brim with whatever the challenges of life.  Rather, I have to believe that the omni-benevolent God knows who is facing difficult moments and responds to support the person with whatever strength is needed.  It may not be instantaneous, but God is still there each and every day.

          We all face trials or hurdles or obstacles.  My prayer on this Yom Kippur morning is that we will understand that it is not God’s power being directed at us because God thinks that we can handle it.  Rather that we look to God’s goodness and know that when we face those moments in life that God will be there to hold our hands, give us hugs, support us, comfort us and love us.  We have to walk the journey, but we can do it with faith and belief in a just and loving and compassionate and merciful God.  “God doesn’t give us what we can handle, God helps us handle what we are given.”  And God is there for each of us.

Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.