Is Unfairness Thy Middle Name?

Rabbi Jonathan Kendall
Rabbi Jonathan Kendall

Rabbi Jonathan P. Kendall, D.D.

Just before I left for an extended cruise of the Bahamas (which, for refreshment of soul and spirit, I highly recommend), it fell to me to officiate at the funeral of a young physician. He had courageously and selflessly battled a chronic cancer for almost nine years. The dilemmas of when a doctor becomes a patient are fairly well documented. The reality boils down to one simple piece: they know too much.

I remember my late father who received his MD when he was twenty-two and practiced for fifty years. Two years before his death, my parents took a European trip and he slipped and fell in a jet way, breaking his wrist in the process. He went to the American Hospital in Paris to have it cast. Upon his return, he told me, “This shouldn’t have happened. I think I must be cooking something. Please don’t tell your mother.” And, of course, he was right. He knew the score. And, as if on cue, he began a slow but inexorable slide toward his eternity.

For the young physician I buried a week before the New Year, my sense is that he also was aware that time was running out. To his credit, he never allowed his illness to intrude on his life. He took his wife and two young children on fantastic trips to show them the world – and, I suspect – to be able to see it through their eyes, to share in those spectacular moments of wonder and discovery that reach far beyond death. About twenty days before he died, everything began to shut down. There were no more treatment options. Just as he planned his life, so he planned his departure from this world.

When we bury someone “before their time,” we are fond of saying that we do not mourn for the years he/she had, but for the years they were denied. It is a reversal of what we have come to expect about the natural order of things. The words sound great at the funeral but when you stop to think about them, to really consider their meaning, they have a hollow ring.

As we motored along visiting islands large and small and – (May the Holy One forgive me) eating conch and drinking rum with umbrellas and fruit sticking out of the glasses – I still could not banish the thoughts of the unfairness of it all.

Of course, if you step back to gain perspective, one comes to the realization that this “fairness” business is OUR expectation. I have combed the sacred texts for years, decades, in fact the better part of my life. Nowhere is it written that fairness is some sort of Divine gift. We are a faith of responsibilities, not entitlements.

We are supposed to be fair, just, evenhanded and generous. God is under no such obligation.

Yes, I know there are texts – prayers that we recite – about God being compassionate and gracious, abundant in kindness and faithfulness. We also invoke heartfelt words for complete and speedy healings, even when we know that God is not celestial room service and we cannot order up cures where none exist. Like it or not, WE wrote those sentiments that sprouted buoyantly from our hopes and expectations, from the prospect and optimism that the great spinning wheel of our days will always hum with serenity and not whine with adversity.

I think that sometimes we place too much trust in our dreams without according nature its due. And when something unfair happens, when we are forced to say “farewell” to someone “before their time,” our faith is shaken.

Disruptions in the natural order, especially in an age of so much instantaneous information, gratification and fulfillment don’t taste right. It is as if our palates have encountered something we don’t like and we do our level best to sequester it or hide it under something else, lest our discomfort become public and our host be upset. Maybe the face we make when something is served up that is repellent to us is OK. God, I think, understands and will not be offended when we push away from a thing that is just too challenging to comprehend.

Perhaps that’s what we’re supposed to do.

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