The Game Isn’t Rigged – A High Holidays Sermon

Even those things we view as problems with the Jewish past can help guide us.

When I was here last year, I talked about the story in Genesis, traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah, during which Abraham nearly kills Isaac. There’s no proof this event ever happened, of course, and as Humanistic Jews we reject both the idea of child sacrifice and the notion that Isaac was saved only because an angel intervened. I’m personally not even willing to bet that the biblical Abraham ever existed at all.

But there’s a lesson to be drawn from his story. If this event ever really happened, there was only one thing that could have stopped Abraham’s hand: Abraham himself.

And that’s the problem with saying that something is rigged.

It means that, like Abraham, we are ceding control. It means we believe that someone else forces our hand.

When we adopt this way of thinking, we surrender our agency. Perhaps we don’t do so happily, but when we say, “the system is rigged” or “the system is broken,” we are throwing up our hands and agreeing to let “the system” do whatever it will.

This is entirely understandable. In a way, it’s even comforting: if it’s entirely out of our control—if there’s nothing at all we can do because someone else has power over the future—we bear little or no responsibility to act. We have no obligation to do anything. If we try and fail, we can tell ourselves that our failures are not our fault.

But this assumed powerlessness is not an especially Jewish approach.

As often as our tradition suggests we are not in control, it nevertheless insists that we behave otherwise. On Yom Kippur, Jews have been called upon by tradition to view the coming year as having already been decided. The traditional liturgy, in U’Netanah Tokef, imagines that on Yom Kippur the lifespans and the deaths of all men were sealed into a Book of Life, as if the Greek Fates had measured and cut the length of every person’s life.

And yet.

It was on Yom Kippur, in the waning hours of the afternoon, that the rabbis of the Talmudic period—some 1500 years ago—ordained that Leviticus 18 be read. In the midst of the fast, as the congregation neared the end of the Days of Awe, a passage setting forth permissible and impermissible actions was read.

Jews were, even as their fates were purportedly being sealed and rendered beyond their control, instructed on proper behavior.

They had to be, because the reality was that the vast majority of the community would survive the coming year.

The game, the rabbis implicitly admitted, was not rigged.