William Hamilton

When life is unfair

“Life can be very unfair. Good people suffer wrongs. Bad people prosper. The key question is how we respond to this reality?” This was the question a fellow-learner from our community wanted to ponder earlier this week on our late-afternoon walk back from the New Year’s ritual of symbolically casting away our sins. He concluded, “Either you see the unfairness as a reason to despair or as a reason to act.”

I liked the juxtaposition. Clearly he wanted to activate efforts to right the world’s wrongs. We then talked about a third possible response: straying away from the idea that life could be just. A form of giving up on the cosmic logic of right and wrong. 

An interesting thing to ponder on this Shabbat Shuva, when we weigh our willingness to repent, is that it’s possible for us to experience all three responses. First we grieve. Then we stray. And then we act to restore.

This week’s portion of Torah includes three verses when God expresses foreknowledge that we will stray. Three times we find the Hebrew word yadati, “I know you are rebellious, stiff necked” God says (Deut. 31:21, 27, 29). It seems quite fatalistic. 

Yet one sage, Rabbi Akiva who is the author of Avinu Maykeynu, one of this season’s most spiritually gripping prayers, had a fascinating way to understand history’s low points. He wouldn’t be saddened by them. Instead, he’d insist: just as the prophecy of destruction has come true, this means that the other words of the prophet, those of restoration and renewal, will also come true.

When people stray, they always have the ability to return. As Akiva would say, “If one thing comes to pass, then the other can too.”

When you do return, you discover a new sweep of momentum. It pours new life into your kindnesses. It grants fresh firmness into your principles. This new sweep is also a promise kept. It is at hand. May you find within it, fresh-fed energy and promise in the year to come.

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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