The Floor is Lava: Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5781

An example of the teamwork on display in Netflix’s Floor is Lava

Among the best TV shows I binged during the pandemic was te popular Netflix series Floor is Lava. Floor is Lava is a game show — admittedly, a very silly game show — based on a game that you may have played as a child. The premise is fully encapsulated by the title: teams of 3 contestants (often family units or groups of close friends) must get from one side of a room to the other without touching the floor, which is made entirely of “lava” (not real lava, of course; that would be crazy). Scattered around the room are various surfaces (some of which move or collapse into the lava) onto which contestants can crawl, cling, walk, or jump, and select objects that contestants can use to create shortcuts or to help teammates get from point A to point B. In each episode, three teams compete against each other, and whichever team manages to get more of its contestants to the other side of the room than the others wins $10,000…and a lava lamp.

What I love about this show is how refreshingly different it is from many other shows out there nowadays, especially other reality TV and competition shows. These other shows pit individual characters or contestants against each other; they thrive on conflict, drama, interpersonal meanness, or cutthroat tactics; they draw their entertainment from humiliating and demeaning participants; and they are set up for audiences to root against certain participants. 

Floor is Lava, on the other hand, is thoroughly good-natured. To be sure, contestants embarrass themselves from time to time by lunging face-first into a pit of bubbling “lava,” but the audience is never cued to root for them to fail or to take pleasure in their misfortune. The teams don’t compete simultaneously, so the audience roots for each and every team to succeed, and feels sad when any team or contestant doesn’t make it across the finish line. Additionally, since teams win by getting as many of their members as possible safely to the other side of the room, individual participants are incentivized to help out their teammates, and the most successful teams are the ones who work best together, those that collaborate, cooperate, and communicate throughout the obstacle course. 

And, upon deep reflection, another reason I appreciated Floor is Lava so much during the pandemic is because it is, in a sense, a perfect metaphor for this tumultuous and terrifying time. Over the past six months, we have had to live with the knowledge that each and every in-person interaction is fraught with the danger of contracting or unknowingly communicating a highly contagious and deadly virus for which there is no vaccine and no known cure. 

I have wrestled with a lot of anxiety since March, always afraid that one small mistake — how I wear my mask, how I washed my hands, how I positioned my body during a face-to-face conversation — could have life or death consequences for me or others; always mindful that as a communal leader, the decisions I make or the actions I take could have life or death consequences for my congregants. The danger lurking in every interaction and in every moment compounded the anxiety that was already produced by the unusually turbulent times, and became exacerbated by unsteady leadership, economic crisis, and a national reckoning over racial injustice. Metaphorically speaking, we are living in a time where it feels like all the floors are lava, where the ground beneath our feet is on fire.

One of the great, if challenging, insights of Rosh Hashanah is that this kind of uncertainty and instability is not a feature unique to life in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and widespread upheaval. Rather, this moment has revealed the way things actually are, though we might often ignore it, or are privileged enough to be able to pretend otherwise. The uncomfortable truth we all must face is that we live unpredictable lives in an unpredictable world. 

The insight is most powerfully and memorably expressed in the prayer known as U-Netaneh Tokef. U-Netaneh Tokef is a liturgical poem that introduces the Kedushah, the prayer acknowledging God’s sanctity, which is found toward the beginning of the repetition of the musaf Amidah. U-Netaneh Tokef is an old prayer, most likely 1500 years old, and was composed by an extremely talented but unknown poet. While we recite U-Netaneh Tokef on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, most scholars believe the poem was written specifically for Rosh Hashanah, because it focuses on the terror of standing before God in judgment, and Rosh Hashanah is traditionally regarded as Yom ha-Din, Judgment Day, the day on which all creation passes before God in judgment (as opposed to Yom Kippur, which is traditionally regarded as the day on which God forgives our transgressions). Take a moment to read through it, in the Hebrew or in the English, on page 144 of our Mahzor [Lev Shalem].

On the surface, at least until the last stanza, U-Netaneh Tokef is pretty terrifying. It asserts that on Rosh Hashanah, God judges everyone — even the angels — with perfect and uncompromising justice. We have no say in the matter; our deeds already speak for themselves, and God takes stock of us and determines our destiny, like sheep passing before the shepherd’s crook. None of us has a chance of being acquitted — we are being held to the standard of absolute truth, to the standard of angelic perfection. Perhaps this is why the list of possible judgments focus overwhelmingly on punishments, including and especially many different ways of being killed. If we, with all our flaws, faults, and failings, were to be judged with perfect truth, not one of us would survive.

It is, however, important to note that there is one important thing missing from the poem: our own awareness of each of our fates. The poet asserts that God judges us on Rosh Hashanah, but only God knows the verdict. We, the ones being judged, aren’t told. We’re left in the dark. Now, I’m just a simple country lawyer [tugs dramatically on imaginary suspenders], but every court case I’ve ever heard of ends with the judge reading a verdict to the parties involved, not guilty or guilty. And if a defendant is judged guilty, the judge similarly notifies them of their sentence. With no offense meant, how could God preside in judgment over us but not tell us the verdict or the sentence? What good does it accomplish in the first place for God to judge us if we are not going to be told our fates? What is the poet trying to tell us by leaving us to wonder (and worry!) about our destiny?

The belief that we are judged and sentenced on Rosh Hashanah but are unaware of that judgment and that sentence means that as we enter a new year, we will face each moment and each day, uncertain of what that moment or of what that day may bring. One does not have to believe in the poem’s underlying theology of human crime and perfect Divine justice to appreciate the insight the poet is offering here, a truth that we often fail to realize and even actively avoid. Fortune can bless us or disaster can overtake us without warning, and without any obvious justification. Our lives can be forever changed in ways that we may or may not deserve and that we can neither predict nor prepare for. “Who will live, and who will die?” “Who in their time and who not in their time?” The truth the poet reveals in U-Netaneh Tokef is that, from our limited human perspective, none of us ultimately can know. 

Who could have known back in January, or February, that a previously undiscovered virus, a microscopic nothing, would tear through our world, sickening tens of millions, killing hundreds of thousands? Who could have predicted in February that the most powerful nation on Earth would prove unable to stop a virus from killing two hundred thousand of its citizens? Who would have thought back in March that in a matter of weeks the world’s greatest economies would collapse, or that we would be homeschooling our children indefinitely, or that we’d be unable to visit sick relatives in the hospital or barred from attending a funeral in-person? Who would have imagined this past spring that in the summer months something close to a revolution would erupt over long-standing systemic inequities? 

But U-Netaneh Tokef points out that spontaneous, radical, life-altering change is a perpetual part of the human experience. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, “Change is the only constant in life.” From unexpected illness to wildfire, from needlessly fatal police encounters to unpredictable car crashes, from floods to factory explosions — unanticipated events routinely transform our lives, and we often cannot discern why or whether we deserve the outcome we got. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, we are all experience life like the sheep passing before the shepherd’s crook in U-Netaneh Tokef, never knowing when our lives will take a sudden, even fatal, turn, or why a spontaneous misfortune or an unexpected bout of good luck happened to us, and not the next lamb in the line. And virus or not, U-Netaneh Tokef reminds us that, whether it be sooner or later, we all face the same sentence. 

The deep, dark secret of life that U-Netaneh Tokef reveals is that we walk through a world whose floors are lava. But in lifting the veil on the precariousness and uncertainty at the heart of our existence, U-Netaneh Tokef also provides instruction. It tells us how to walk through a world when the floors are lava.

I mentioned earlier that U-Netaneh Tokef comes across as harsh and horrifying — until the last stanza. That stanza begins with the following declaration:

וְּתשוָּבה וְּתִּפָלה וְּצָדָקה ַמֲעִּביִּרין ֶּאת ֹּרַע ַהְגֵׂזָרה, 

But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

Before I explain what this line is saying, let me first explain what it is not saying: it is not saying that if you repent wholeheartedly enough, or that if you pray sincerely enough, or that if you perform enough deeds of goodness, kindness, or justice, that God will necessarily overturn a guilty verdict God has rendered against you. The poet isn’t asserting that repentance, prayer, and righteous living enable any of us to avert our death sentence, because to be human is to be mortal; to be alive means, ultimately, that one day, whenever that day may be, our lives will end. We have limited control over when that day will come, and in any case we cannot prevent it indefinitely, no matter how much we repent, pray, or live righteously. Similarly, no amount of repentance, prayer, or good deeds will enable us to know when our lives will end. 

Repentance, prayer, and righteousness don’t enable us to avert the decree. Rather, they enable us to avert the severity of the decree. They may not lengthen our days, but they will enliven whatever days we have; they may not grant us certainty about our fate, but they will imbue each of us with clarity of purpose. By engaging in those three acts — repentance, prayer, and righteousness — by living lives dominated by those deeds, we can overcome the anxiety and the fear, the paralysis and the despair, the resignation and the recklessness and the rage, that we might otherwise experience traversing a world whose floor is lava. 

Let’s start with repentance. Repentance is predicated on the notion that we have choice, free will, moral agency; that our future is not dictated by our past or present, or even predetermined on high; it is, in many important ways, up to us, dependent on the choices we make. We may rarely be in control of our circumstances, or what others do to us. But we can always control what we do in light of those circumstances, and how we think about what we have done after we’ve done it. You may not have chosen to live in a world whose floor is lava, but you do have the choice about how to traverse that world. And repentance is furthermore about being aware of and learning from our mistakes, affirming that our agency makes us accountable for our failures and simultaneously able to move beyond them. When the floor is lava, and you take the wrong path, what do you do next? If I learned anything from the show Floor is Lava, it’s that the only way to make it through is by acknowledging the misstep, finding a way back to where you started, and trying again. 

That’s where prayer comes in. We often think of prayer as trying to persuade a powerful God out there to come down here to help us out. While there are prayers like that in the siddur, that’s not by and large how the Jewish tradition views prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah, more accurately defined as self-assessment, or introspection. In Jewish tradition, prayer is about looking intensely at our lives, our relationships, and our world through the lens of our highest ideals and most cherished commitments. Because prayer is the practice of routinely reminding ourselves of our ideals and commitments and evaluating where we are in relation to those values, prayer is the indispensable companion to repentance. In a world where the floor is lava, prayer is where we learn how to navigate the terrain and reach the other side. And prayer is where we check in with ourselves and with God to see how we’re doing on the journey, whether we’re on course, or whether we’ve inadvertently veered onto the wrong path. Prayer gives us something that the contestants on Floor is Lava would kill for: a kind of GPS, one that not only shows the way forward, but also lets us know if we need to make a course-correction.

If prayer is about knowing the way and evaluating our place on the path, and repentance is about carrying on despite our setbacks and getting back on track when we’ve gone astray, righteousness, or tzedakah, is about the way we walk in between the two. Again, our English translations can sometimes be misleading. Often, tzedakah is translated as charity, which implies a voluntary act of kindness for someone in need. While our tradition certainly applauds such deeds, that’s not what tzedakah is. Tzedakah is derived from the word tzedek, meaning justice, fairness, or equity. Tzedakah is therefore better understood as actions we take to level our society’s playing field, not out of exceptional generosity, but rather out of the recognition that all human life is equal in value and infinite in dignity, and that therefore we are responsible to and for each other; obligated to ensure that no person suffers want, and that no person suffers discrimination, persecution, or oppression. In the game show, the best teams are the ones who discover that they are all better off individually and collectively if they help each other through the course. 

The show, of course, incentivizes this by determining the winning team based on who got the most people across the finish line. But it turns out that this is also true in real life. Each of us is better off when all of us have the resources and support we need; and conversely, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because we are all deeply interconnected, inequality impacts the wellbeing not only of the poor and powerless, but of the wealthy and privileged as well. In a world where the floor is lava, none of us has the luxury of focusing only on our own needs. We are all in this together, and we need each other to get through. 

If we ever had any doubt about this truth, the pandemic has revealed how interrelated we all are, how thoroughly dependent we actually are on each other’s wellbeing. We now know for certain that a previously unknown virus can infect one person in China, and, within just a few months, can leave hundreds of thousands of people dead the world over; that those of us who have had the good fortune to shelter in place have depended on low-wage farmhands, warehouse workers, truckers, shelf-stockers and Instacart shoppers everywhere to literally put their lives at risk so that we can have stocked pantries and refrigerators, which also means that when the health, safety, or welfare of the poor is threatened or disrupted, the wealthy can suffer, too. “We are,” to borrow again from Dr. King, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” When anyone anywhere is oppressed, all of us, everywhere, suffer; and conversely, our welfare depends on everyone’s liberation. In a world where the floor is lava, the right — perhaps the only — way to make it through is by supporting each other on the journey. 

And the fact that the way of justice and equity is the right way to traverse the dangerous landscape of our lives means that it is an obligation incumbent upon all of us, with those who enjoy more wealth, or advantage, or power, bearing a larger share of the burden to help those most vulnerable to falling into the fire. That’s why tzedakah isn’t charity. It’s righteousness, because ensuring everyone’s health, safety, and welfare isn’t just a nice thing to do; it is the very definition of the right thing to do, and we are all of us, always, obligated to do what is right.

U-Netaneh Tokef enumerates these three practices — repentance, prayer, and righteousness — because they are mutually reinforcing. Each of them is worthy on its own, but together, they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Righteousness is persistently supporting one another, making sure everyone gets through. Prayer is constantly and consistently evaluating whether we are on that righteous path, leaving no one behind. And repentance is about turning back when we find that we’ve gone off course, as each of us invariably will, refusing to stop or give up, holding ourselves accountable for our choices and in each moment striving to make better ones, bringing ourselves back towards the righteous ways of equity and justice. 

The tumult and trials of the past six months have enabled us to see our lives and our world as they really are. In the “Before Times” we may have avoided this reality. Perhaps, for some of us, fortunate circumstances insulated us from it. But the truth is we walk through a world whose floor is lava; not just now, but always. Each year, Rosh Hashanah forces us to confront this reality and ask ourselves: how should we walk through such a world? 

And the holy day offers an answer, if we are discerning enough to see it, and disciplined enough to heed it: Repentance, prayer, and righteousness. These three mutually reinforcing practices won’t save any of us from the fate that awaits all of us. But they will magnify and sanctify our lives, lift up the lives of others, and enable us to bring our troubled world a little closer to ultimate redemption. 

In the year to come, I encourage each and every one of us to embrace at least some of these practices. For instance, you can practice righteousness by joining our Caring Crews initiative, which I mentioned yesterday, or by participating in the holy work of our Social Action/Tikkun Olam committee, which advances the causes of equity, inclusion, and peace in our city, Commonwealth, and planet. You can deepen your prayer practice by, for example, joining us for one additional service per month, as I mentioned yesterday, or by joining with your children or grandchildren in our Religious School’s “Jewish Connections Challenge,” or by participating in a new initiative that we will be launching later this year called TBE’s Tefillah Goals, in which you can choose a “Tefillah Goal,” a Jewish ritual skill that you commit to learning and mastering. We will pair congregants with other congregants who are able to teach the relevant skills, provide opportunities for learning together, and help track progress. When you master your “Tefillah Goal,” we will have a major congregational celebration marking the accomplishment. And any time you strive to go deeper and further in these spiritual pursuits, you are engaging in an act of teshuvah, of turning toward a life path of increasing righteousness and holiness. 

On Rosh Hashanah we confront the difficult truth that we live in a world where the floors are lava. In a world like this, it would be natural to freeze or get angry or just give up. But that, according to our tradition, is not the way through. When the floors are lava, the way through is for us to join hands and navigate the right path together. 

Shanah Tovah.

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