Please, please do say But…

Often when we say “no ifs, ands, or buts about it’ we aim to make a conclusive point. When we unpack these three words, we discover something revealing about the final word ‘but’ Of course ’If’ signals the conditional as in ‘if this, then that’. ‘And’ indicates the additional, building upon what precedes it. The last word, ’but’, is a pivot word, often reversing course to mitigate or nullify what came before it.

But…it is possible to pivot toward deeper responsibility. This is what our prayerbook reliably invites whenever we encounter the Hebrew word for ‘but’ (aval). Each morning after expressing humility over our dust-like mortality in the context of the cosmos, we pray ‘but’ (aval) we are children of a covenanted People invested with immense responsibility to be God’s partners in generating goodness and repairing our societies. On Yom Kippur, the ‘but’ is even more dramatic. It pivots us away from blaming others toward personal responsibility. In the chest-beating confessional, we pray “Verily we are righteous and without sin, (aval anach’nu chatanu) “‘but’ we have sinned.” Here too, rather than qualifying or outsourcing wrongs, we are asked to do just the opposite, to in-source accountability.

I brought this message during last month’s Yom Kippur observance. What I had not realized until several days later, was that I did so as a mourner and the Hebrew word for mourner is aveil. Both aveil (mourner) and aveil (but) capture a radical pivot. For forty days I’ve been praying Kaddish in honor of my mother, Betty Hamilton of blessed memory. The power of the aveil’s pivot has indeed taken up residence within my inner life. The question we all face at a pivotal moment is “Where will it lead us, toward finger-pointing blame or toward hand-extending blessing?”

The very first appearance of the word aval occurs in this week’s portion of Torah, but its context is about birth not death. God responds to a highly skeptical Abraham, “But your wife Sarah shall indeed bear a child whose name will be knows as Isaac” (17:19). Perhaps connecting the Torah’s first use of the word ‘but’ (aval) with birth is meant to be suggestive. When we pray ‘but’ we become change agents. Would that the same might be true when we say ‘but’.

Recently I’ve noted when seeking a minyan to pray Mourner’s Kaddish each morning, midday, and evening, I will be poised to rush out to a synagogue for this purpose. Then, suddenly I’ll realize that I find myself in the midst of 9 other Jewish adults who are eager to help make a minyan at which I may pray Kaddish. In the wake of unpredicted results in this week’s Presidential election, so many across our nation yearn to awaken to deeper human connection. May the ‘but’ that vectors toward accountable kindness bless our commonwealth and our country for good.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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