Does anybody else here remember the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?
It’s about a kid named Alexander, about 4 or 5 years old, who is not having a good day. He gets gum in his hair, and drops his sweater in the sink, and gets criticized by his teacher, and loses his best friend, and finds a cavity, AND has to eat Lima beans for dinner. It is such a bad day, that Alexander spends a whole lot of it thinking very seriously about just moving to Australia.
Now obviously, this is a kids’ book, and it describes kids’ problems. But I think we can all relate. We have all had days like that, where everything seems to go wrong, where things just aren’t as they should be. And I believe that we also experience something like this collectively, as a society. There are moments in history when things feel harder, when things aren’t as they should be. And for many people, right now is one of those moments. We turn on our TVs and we see massive hurricanes; flooding affecting millions; the storms getting bigger and the world getting warmer. We see wildfires in western Canada, an earthquake in Mexico, white supremacists marching through the streets of Virginia, and world leaders posturing over nuclear weapons in Korea. And it feels like the pages of a very scary children’s book – like our world having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Actually, it feels like another book too – the one you’re holding in your hands. This morning when we read the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, did anyone else feel like they were listening to this summer’s newsreel: Who is going to be hit by fire, and who by water? Who by war, and who by hate?
Un’taneh Tokef is Judaism’s traditional answer to why these kinds of things happen. And it’s not a pretty answer: It says that God is sitting on high for the next 10 days and making decrees. It says that your fate is being decided for you:
כבקרת רועה עדרו – As a shepherd makes the sheep pass under his staff,
so do You (O God) consider every soul, and decree its destiny.
This is an image of almost absolute helplessness, where we are the sheep, and the very hard things going on around us are God’s decrees. It’s a really troubling idea – that God decides the measure of your suffering while you sit in the sanctuary begging for mercy, that we are essentially passengers in a world where forces beyond our control are deciding our fate. We struggle with this passage every year. Some rabbis just skip that paragraph. We don’t want to hear it. We reject the notion of being so helples
Which is ironic, because we often do feel that way.
Recent studies have consistently shown that our stress levels are going up. For example, teenagers in Ontario are feeling anxious and depressed more than ever before, and the numbers aren’t so different for adults. A Pew survey found that large numbers of younger Canadians are feeling pessimistic about their future – especially about finances and about climate change. And south of the border, millennials are reporting losing faith in the very institutions of Democracy. Meanwhile, we are being told by scientists that climate change is pretty much inevitable, that the best we can do now is to try to minimize the damage. And for good measure, we are all watching the nuclear war games going on in North Korea.
It feels a little bit like someone is sitting on high and decreeing our fate. I don’t get to control whether a wild fire reaches my house. I don’t get to control whether a hurricane floods my city. I don’t get to control what the leader of North Korea does, or whether China implements pollution controls, or the rise of white supremacy in Virginia, or the incidence of anti-Semitism in downtown Toronto. These are things that happen around me, that happen to me.
And in that sense, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer actually describes beautifully how many people really do feel. It taps into a deep seated sense of helplessness – a sense of being small and powerless in a big, scary world.
So what do we do about that? How do we dispel that sense of helplessness? Well, we can start by trying to understand it.
The psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about a phenomenon he calls “learned helplessness.” He discovered through much experimentation that people (and animals) became “passive in the face of adversity [after] experienc[ing] noxious events that they could do nothing about.”
In other words, if something bad happens to you and can’t do anything about it, you tend to assume that won’t be able to do anything about it going forward either.
In one experiment, volunteers were separated into groups and subjected to an unpleasantly loud noise. One group was able to turn off the noise by pushing a button, while the second group couldn’t. Then, in part 2 of the same experiment, the volunteers were again subjected to the noise. Here’s the interesting part: those who had been able to turn it off in part 1 generally tried to do so again. Those who hadn’t been unable to turn it off in part 1 typically didn’t even try the second time around. They had learned from their past experience to feel helpless to solve the problem (Even through, by the way, they could have turned it off if they had tried.)
It’s not hard to see how that could generalize on a global scale. Problems like climate change, and racism, and nuclear war lend themselves – by their sheer enormity – to that sense that there’s nothing we can do. We might say to ourselves, “I recycle every week and I even bought a hybrid car, but the world is still getting warmer.” Or we might say, “I voted for the other guy, but I can’t stop this government, Chief Rabbi, this prime minister, this president from doing what they’re doing.
We feel a version of that all the time. But Seligman’s point is that the sense of helplessness is not actually related to the solvability of the problem. It is related only to past experiences. It is a learned response. And we can unlearn it.
The way that we unlearn helplessness is by shifting our thinking. By focusing on the things that we can change.
The business guru Stephen Covey says that each of us has a sphere of influence and the sphere of concern. There are a lot of things that we care about, and a much smaller number of things over which we have influence. And spending your time worrying about the things you can’t control is a recipe for feeling helpless, or dejected.
So what is our sphere of influence in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad? Which things do we have control over? Interestingly enough, the Jewish answer to that is found in the very same prayer that posed the question. A few lines after “who shall live and who shall die,” we read:
U’teshuvah ut’fillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagzeira.
Repentence, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper the severity of the decree.
Sometimes when we read this line it feels patronizing – if you pray hard enough and vow to change your ways, then God might forgive you. But that’s not what it says. What it says is that there are harsh realities in this world, but that repentance, prayer, and righteous acts have the potential to mitigate them. It says that these are the weapons in your Tikkun Olam arsenal, so to speak. These are the things you have control over when you go to repair the world.
Teshuvah, T’fillah, Tzedakah – Repentence, Prayer, and Acts of Righteousness
The Chasidim tell that a Jew once came to his rabbi and said “I’ve tried so hard to repair the world but it’s still broken.” And the rabbi replied, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself.”
Teshuvah, repentence, is the process of starting with yourself. It is the act of seeking to understand why we are the way we are, and how that influences the way things are around us.
And it turns out that teshuvah is good for your health. Literally.
A social psychologist named James Pennebaker conducted a series of experiments in which he asked people to write about upsetting or traumatic experiences, for 15 minutes for 4 days. There was a control group that was asked to write about something completely different. Then Pennebaker followed the participants’ medical records for a year, and get this – the people who had participated in the writing actually got sick less. They were literally healthier because of just 60 minutes of writing about challenging things they had been through. The catch was that only the people who had spent time analyzing and trying to make sense of the events had the health benefit. Those who spent the time venting, or writing about other things, saw no benefit at all. 
I don’t think the reason is mysterious. Those who have thought deeply about why things happen are more likely to seek support, or to try to shift things, and therefore more likely to feel better. We are better equipped to change what we have sought to understand.
The High Holy Days are a time to ask hard questions – about ourselves and about our world. And they are a time to find ways to change things. This is true every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur, but it is especially true when there are challenging things going on in the world.
Last week I was driving with one of my kids, listening to news about Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Florida. I come from a Gulf Coast family, so these things are personal – we worry about the people we love down south. My son and I were talking about how the storms seem to be getting more severe, and how scientists are telling us it’s related to climate change, and to human burning of fossil fuels. And then I pressed the accelerator and looked down at the dashboard of my gas-burning car, and I realized that I was contributing to that very problem even as we were talking about it.
That’s not a great feeling, but it is an opportunity for change. I don’t yet know how I might change my life as a result of that realisation – it’s hardly the first time I’ve realised it. But I think sometimes we need to realize things more than once in order to shift them.
Teshuvah – repentance – isn’t about beating yourself up. It isn’t about feeling ashamed. It is about making sense of our actions and our motivations, and of how they relate to what goes on around us.
And if teshuvah is the act of looking within ourselves for answers to hard question, then t’fillah, prayer, is the act of looking beyond ourselves.
There is a wonderful line in Fiddler on the Roof where the townspeople ask their rabbi for a “proper blessing for the Czar,” and the rabbi answers “May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.”
Prayer means seeking answers from something larger than ourselves. Sometimes it involves asking God to do things and change things. But often it’s more about seeking the strength we need to be agents of change.
Last month, as neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a group of clergy and faith leaders who marched as well. Arm in arm, singing and praying and trying to spread a different kind of message. In some cases they actually held back the white supremacist marchers. And wherever they went, they brought a sense of hope to an awful situation. One of the participants wrote, “They had their guns and shields. We had our songs, our faith, our love. And we had each other.”
Wherever we pray, whether in the chaotic streets of Charlottesville or in the safety of our sanctuary, it can help lend us strength to persevere through difficult times. And maybe equally importantly, it can bring us together as community.
There is a story in the Talmud in which a Rabbi writes a new prayer, “Eternal my God, guide me in peace and direct my steps.” But his colleagues object that it should say “Eternal our God, guide us in peace and direct our steps.” There is a power in togetherness that can transcend even the most difficult moments in our lives.
Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home city of New Orleans, people were scattered across the south just before the High Holy Days (not unlike what we’ve seen this year). One of the first actions taken by rabbis was to reorganize their synagogues in exile. Bringing people together to pray allowed them to seek some measure of healing.
George Odell wrote:
We need one another in our defeats
And [we need one another] in the hours of our success.
But those clergy who gathered in Charlotteville weren’t just there to pray or to be together – they were there to demand tzedek, to demand justice and righteousness in society.
When tragedy strikes, one of our first impulses is to want to give. Whether it is a hurricane, or an earthquake like the one that happened yesterday, we want to know what we can do to help make things better. That is tzedakah.
But interestingly enough, the Hebrew word Tzedakah, which our prayerbook translates as “charity,” actually means something different. It comes from the word tzedek, justice, and is a command to work for a fairer world. This could encompass charitable giving, to be sure, but it might also include volunteer work, community activism, and other concrete steps we take toward Tikkun Olam.
In a sense, tzedakah results FROM teshuvah and t’fillah – when we clarify our values, when we come together with others who share our vision for a better world, then we are equipped to do things to actualize that vision. The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon teaches just that – that the High Holy Days aren’t only about what we do in this sanctuary. The real point is what happens after we leave these seats. The prophet Isaiah asks:
Is this the fast I desire, a day to starve your bodies?
No, the fast I desire is to unlock fetters of wickedness;
To share your bread with the hungry, and take the poor into your home. 
As we gather together on these holidays, we could ask ourselves as well about the larger meaning of what we do here. Do the prayers we chant here inspire us to go out and change things? Do the sermons we hear and the introspection we do send us back into the world ready to make it a better place?
The Reverend Alvin Edwards is Senior Pastor of Mt Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and the creator of organization called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The group was founded in response to the 2015 church shooting in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Edwards worried about what would happen if something similar happened in his community, and so he started to bring together clergy of different denominations to meet, pray, and cooperate on social justice. And when the time came, it was some members of that group, together with reinforcements, who marched arm in arm during last month’s violence. And beyond one difficult weekend, the group is making a regularly doing social justice work. 
It shows that there is still room in the world for people to make a difference. And I think we are doing similar work as a congregation. I’m proud of the connections we’ve created with Christian and Muslim congregations. I’m proud of our blood drives, and our work in feeding the homeless and advocating for refugees. I’m particularly proud of our emerging relationship with members of Canada’s Indigenous community – the work we are doing to put that issue front and centre.
But there is always more that we can do. I want to challenge us, as a congregation, to continue to focus on Tzedek – on righteous acts and building a just world. I’ll invite you to take a look at the work of our Social Action Committee, and to consider committing to one act of social justice this year. After all, if we don’t repair the world, who will?
King Solomon once challenged his advisors to find a magical ring – one that would make a sad person feel happy and a happy person feel sad. The advisors scoured the kingdom until they finally found what they believed the king had in mind. They brought it before Solomon who looked at it and smiled. For the ring bore three simple Hebrew words: Gam Zeh Yaavor – This too shall pass.
One of the lessons of Judaism is that things do pass. The way the world feels in one moment may not necessarily be the way it feels in the next. As Alexander says at the end of his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, “There are days like this, even in Australia.” And part of our job is to reach into our inner resources and understand that the world still can be better, and that we still can play a role in making it so.
This year, may we be agents for good. Through our prayers, through our honest introspection, and through our acts of justice and kindness may we bring light into a sometimes dark universe. And may we do Tikkun – may we strive to bring healing to our souls and to our world.
 Seligman, Martin. Flourish.
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 147.
 Berachot 29b-30a.
 Isaiah 58.