You might have read in yesterday's Press Democrat about Tara Steele, a minister and my colleague and fellow conspirator in the Of One Soul Campaign, and her dramatic rescue from the John Muir Trail near Fresno. She was doing a walk she'd been planning and looking forward to for a long time. Nineteen days alone on the trail. And somewhere on Day 9 she began to wobble and her lips began to tremble and she began seeing double. She realized she was having a stroke. She had a personal locator beacon with her. And she hit the emergency button. And the beacon worked and rescuers came. I don't know if she prayed; I haven't asked her, although I can't imagine she would have done much else while waiting for help to arrive. She was airlifted out, hanging on a stretcher from a helicopter, a thought that fills me with terror (footage!). But I'm grateful it was available for her. And now she's at home in Santa Rosa recuperating.
Maybe we needed this story a little bit right now, because some of us are still thinking about 21-year old Riley Zickel who, just before my time, was bar mitzvahed at this synagogue, in this very building, and who went for an overnight alone in the Oregon wilderness. That was on July 27. And then no one heard from him. And there were searches – hundreds of people searched. And we watched his parents' Facebook pages and their determined posts. And then it was a week. And then nine days. And then the official search ended. And more private searchers continued, but no longer with any obvious hope of finding him alive. And while the more desperate margins of our imaginations might continue to entertain crazy cinematic tales of pretending to disappear in order to lose your family and your past and start up with a new name in a foreign country, in general all the hopeful language is now gone from the Facebook posts, even though the 4-letter word beginning with D has not been uttered. And we sit here tonight uncertain whether to say kaddish.
Two hikers. Two hikes gone terribly wrong. One ending in rescue and survival. And the other not. We are reminded of our mortality. Of the precarious things these bodies are. Because anything can happen at any time for any of us. Things have happened at many times for many of us. And so far our own stories have been stories of rescue and survival. Until one day they won't be.
Well, what can you say? It is what it is.
It is what it is. This is the new phrase, isn't it? Have you noticed how it's come to pervade the culture? It's the pop mantra of the new millennium. A platitude of resignation and indifference.
It is what it is.
Of course, "It is what it is," this over-used, over-articulated cliche, would not be an unreasonable translation of YHWH, our under-articulated name of God. YHWH, another 4-letter word, works out in Hebrew to sound like a great big IS. With a hint of was in the middle and a gesture toward will be at the front. YHWH. Was-Is-Will-Be.
It Is What It Is. Really, just the right name for a deity that when speaking in the first person refers to itself as "I Am What I Am."
Maybe "it is what it is" isn't in fact a throwaway, but a recognition. There is an IS-ness that pervades all paths. Some paths lead to joy, and some to sorrow. Some paths are errant, and some of those lead to rescue anyway. And some don't. But aren't they still part of a great IS? And isn't noticing the great IS a sort of acceptance?
Moshe, in this week's Torah portion, V'etchanan, struggles mightily with his own mortality. We meet him toward the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, his great closing monologue, his final words to the people as he prepares to take his leave. A fifth of Torah's ink is poured into this speech. His words are erratic. He repeats histories. He restates laws. He lays out threats of the terrible things that will happen if we don't follow God's will, threats that look uncomfortably like our warming, storming, famining planet right now. Moshe also gives over some bits of poetry, lest we should ever think that this politician and prophet wasn't a poet at heart.
And Moshe is petulant. He describes asking God for a reprieve: let me enter the land! And God saying, "Enough! Speak no more to me of this." Talmud (BT Sotah 13b) suggests that God's "enough" was because the children were in the room. That is, the Children of Israel were listening; they shouldn't think that the master was so severe and the student so pestering. "Enough," God says, reminding Moshe of his own dignity.
But Moshe isn't concerned about dignity. He tells the Children of Israel it's their fault. They are to blame. Their transgressions are the reason God is punishing him. Moshe, who spends 40 years talking to God face to face, never considers the possibility that this is not a punishment. He never stops to think, "I'm old. I'm 120. I've spent 40 years in the desert. This might just be all my body has to give." Even with God at his side, even with YHWH set before him face to face, it never seems to cross Moshe's mind that it is what it is.
This isn't to knock Moshe. After this inhuman task of leading a million Hebrews and allies through a wilderness, he is entitled to be bitter and overbearing. And to notice that it is what it is is a very hard place for anyone to get to, despite the ease with which it falls from our lips.
Because despite what we might say, we are not resigned to things as they are. We live in a world that has been made by us, by our people, by humans. I don't say this with arrogance. We did not make the planet. But at a certain point we became makers. We made art and agriculture. We made houses and weapons. We made fences and walls. We made money and we made poverty. We made stories and poems and lies. We made beauty and machines and libraries and wars.
It is hard to say "it is what it is" about a world that we fashioned into something frightening. It is hard to say "it is what it is" about a world that we still might be able to rescue. We are pulled taut between resignation and hope. Yes, it is what it is, but maybe it can still be what it might be.
There's another platitude that pours with equal frequency from of our lips. Do you know what it is?
"It's all good."
Really? It's all good? Is that some kind of chipper bypassing of unpleasant truth? As Jews we have long said in Hebrew, gam zo l'tovah – "this is also for the good." But somehow in that phrasing it doesn't sound like denial – pretending something is good when it's not – but an article of faith, that our piece of the picture is limited, and that experience teaches us that even the terrible moments can give rise to new beginnings, new insight, deepened love, greater maturity. Gam zo l'tovah. This too will someday be for the good.
But "it's all good" as we articulate it in America today? Well, it's hard to say these words in the face of the story of a 21-year old who walks into the woods but not out of them. It's not all good.
But I will allow that it might be fair to cautiously say, "It's all God." That every element of this story: the woods, the mountains, the glacier, the brilliant adventurous spirit, and the element of chance – these are all God. And these elements all conspired to create tragedy. No, it's not all good. But still, it might be all God.
Because if we believe in God, we've got to believe in a god that is everything, that contains and constitutes everything. God is either everything or God is nothing. And God being everything and God being nothing look exactly the same, though they feel very different. So if we believe in God, God must be everything. Tragedy can't be the place where God was left out by accident. God has to be all of this. The whole thing. This whole Creation, and its millions of competing systems. Bodies, climates, geology, consciousness.
YHWH. It is what it is. And what it is is everything. It's not all good, except maybe in its totality, at which point "good" stops having meaning. And still, this great IS is our home, it is our body, it is our beloved. It's all God.
These are not words of comfort. There is nothing here that can comfort someone who is grieving or someone who is ailing. But there might be something here that we nonetheless sense to be true.
And despite his petulance, Moshe did understand that it's all God. Later in this very portion he tells us to listen, and conveys his insight as best he can. He says, Sh'ma Yisrael, listen up you people, YHWH Eloheynu YHWH echad. "It Is What It Is" describes our God; "It Is What It Is" is everything; One (Deuteronomy 6:4).
And Moshe knew how hard it is to hold onto that kind of awareness. He knew that you might nod and say, "Yes, I get it," but it still might not feel that way in your kishkes. So elsewhere this week he says words that came to be part of our Aleynu prayer. He says:
וידעת היום והשבת אל לבבך
כי יי הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל
ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד
V'yada'ta hayom v'hashevota el l'vavekha
Ki YHWH hu HaElohim bahamayim mima'al
V'al ha'aretz mitachat. Eyn od.
(Deuteronomy 4:39). "You get it right now, so return that knowledge to your heart, the knowledge that YHWH is God in heaven above and on the Earth below; there is nothing else."
"Return this knowledge to your heart." Not "give it over" but "return it". Because obviously this kind of knowing has been there before. Maybe when you were a baby and didn't yet understand you were supposed to see mother and mobile and room as separate from you. Your heart once knew that it is what it is and your heart once knew it's all God. And you forgot. But now, says Moshe, this is the time to restore it to your heart, that old time feeling of being held in the thickness of all that is. So your heart can have the pleasure of this holy deja vu.
But we don't always live in that consciousness. We live in this world. We take great risks walking in the woods. We take great risks whenever we step out of the house. We also take risks when we stay in. Our bodies chug along until some moment when they sputter. And still we live, still we go out, still we walk in the woods because it is so worth it. Still we try to change our world because we have faith that we can. And we say, "It is what it is," not as a throwaway. Not as an "oh well." But as a wow. "Wow! Can you believe it is what it is? Yes, I know, it's not all good. But it is all God."
So this knowledge that God is heaven and God is earth and God is us and God is tree and trail and danger and rescue, God is all of this, and there is nothing else, v'hashevota el levavecha – return this precious knowledge to your heart that once knew it, before it forgot. Return it before it forgets again.