It is Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and I like to share some of the lessons and stories that I come across in my sermon preparations that don’t make it to the “big time” but are worthy nonetheless. This thought, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, best known as the former Chief Rabbi of England, was going to be used even before the horrific flooding in Houston and environs, with which it kind of fits.
During the holidays we often raise our Kiddush cup and say l’hayyim. Especially at this time of year, we ask for life, over and over again, life for ourselves and each other. So what is life? How do we describe that which we want to have during this new year and the however – many – more days we still have before we leave this earth?
People have struggled to answer this question in every age since life began. I like the answer of Rabbi Sacks. He says that life is a lottery, and that every one of us who is alive today, and who lives in the western world, is a winner. The only problem is that most of us are not aware that we have won. We are like the owners of a winning powerball ticket which has somehow fallen into the couch, and therefore we are unaware of all the money that we have won.
What does R. Sacks mean when he says that life is a lottery? He means that if we had been born in the Middle Ages, our life expectancy would only be half of what it is today. We live at least twice as long on average as most people did back then. And we did nothing to be born in this century and not in that one. It was just the luck of the draw.
And he means that if we had been born in Poland or in Russia in the last century or so, we would have had to smuggle ourselves out of the country, taking with us only what we could carry with us, and we would have had to travel for many, many miles in order to arrive at a free country, whereas most of us who are here today were born in this country. We did nothing whatsoever to earn the right to live in a free country. We were born into it. And that, too, was the luck of the draw.
And he also means that if we had been born in the ancient world, that unless we were a Jew, we would probably be illiterate all our life. Most non-Jews were. That is why King John did not really sign the Magna Carta, as most people think. He did not know how to write his name, and so he signed it with an X. And therefore, if you are literate, that is simply because you happened to be born at a time when literacy is widespread. You did not earn this ability. You got it simply by being born in this time and place. It was the luck of the draw.
And so, Rabbi Sacks says that life is a lottery. The main distinguishing qualities of our lives are really a matter of luck. And therefore, we should realize how lucky we are.
Do you like this definition – that life is a lottery in which we just happen to hold the winning ticket? I am not sure. On the one hand, it is certainly true. None of us chose to be born when and where we were. None of us earned the right to live in this century or in this country instead of at some other time or in some other place. But on the other hand, I feel a little bit uncomfortable with the idea that life is just a matter of luck. Don’t we have at least some share in fashioning the kind of life that we lead? And doesn’t God? I feel a little bit uncomfortable with this definition that life is a lottery. Don’t you?
I suspect that Rabbi Sacks is probably a little bit uncomfortable with this definition too, for he has devoted his life to teaching people how to live with their good luck, and how to be grateful for their good fortune, and so I have no doubt that he believes that both God and people have a share in molding lives, and that not everything in our lives is a matter of luck. But that is one definition of the meaning of life that I want to offer you today: life is a lottery. I have another that got my attention, for another time.
Praying for the people of Texas, and asking that we all contribute what we can to the relief and rebuild efforts. Best, Bill Rudolph