Pink Ribbons and Yom Kippur

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It’s October, which, as you may have noticed is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and there’s a pink ribbon on everything these days, from Cuisinarts, to donuts at 7-11 to boxers for your beau.  I’m all for money going to breast cancer research–this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, since my mother died a month ago of breast cancer–but seeing grocery displays that are all pink, and passing windows full of pink breast cancer supporting products doesn’t feel as sweet and supportive to me as it did last year.  It feels a little tacky, a little misleading.  If I just buy this pink standing mixer I’ll never have to worry about being diagnosed myself.  I should get myself an ugly pink charm bracelet because some percentage of the purchase goes to a worthy breast cancer related charity.  The thing is, it’s still a marketing campaign.  At it’s core, it’s people trying to sell something, and while I knew that before, it never really came into focus until now.  It’s nice to buy pink things, it’s nice to support charities, but it’s not a real solution to any problem, it’s just a drain on your bank account.

pink boxers breast cancer

I feel similarly about the Yom Kippur liturgy.  I’ve never loved saying things like, “Who by fire and who by water,” but I always thought of it as a more abstract metaphorical statement.  I’m all for repentance, and trying to do better, and though the mahzor always seemed a little harsh it never particularly bothered me.  I could kind of imagine God sorting through the Jewish world every year and making a ‘naughty and nice’ list, and I believed that prayer, repentance and charity could probably shift someone from the naughty to the nice column.  But now, in the wake of seven months of caring for my mother and now intense grief, the mahzor just seems grotesque.  Last year my mother didn’t make it off the naughty list?  If she (or those of us in her family) had just prayed harder and done more repentance and done more tzedakah, she’d still be alive?  I can’t, in good conscience, believe that.  And suddenly ‘who by starvation, who by thirst’ is incredibly, horribly poignant.  Essentially, my mother starved to death, at the end of a long and excruciating battle.  The whole concept of Divine reward and punishment in this lifetime seems cheap all of a sudden, a too easy answer to a lifetime of difficult and complex questions.
Probably I just need more than a month to sort through all of this before I can try to come to any kind of philanthropic or theological equilibrium, but right now I’m feeling pretty despondent about both cancer, and Yom Kippur.

Posted on October 8, 2008

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