“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle.”
Many Jews around the world working toward the Yomim Nora’im (the Days of Awe) have some version of this sentiment — “why do I suffer,” “why do we suffer” — ringing in our ears and hearts these days. During this month of Elul and then into the holidays themselves, we go deep into our lives, our community, and our world to try to understand where we have made mistakes, where we need forgiveness, and where we can commit to a different path in the coming year.
Rather than create a whole playlist to take you through the period, as I have done here twice before, this post will take you through the song, FEAR., that gave us these lyrics and show how this single song can be a guidepost throughout your journey at various points during this season. It is a song by one of our great teachers of the moment — Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar — and the song’s arc contains many elements of our tradition, including prayers, Torah readings, and themes, for this season. Kendrick himself has said that the song’s verses are “completely honest” and some of his best; if you pay close enough attention, you see them taking Kendrick through his own deeply personal version of the Chagim.
Preparation/Elul: The recording opens with a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl Duckworth, who’s a leading member of a Black Israelite group and influential on Kendrick. Carl refers to Deuteronomy 28:28, which, for Jews, comes from Torah portion, Ki Tavo, read just a few weeks before the Chagim begin (and the week that this post is being published), part of a series of discourses from Moses that conclude the Torah. In this particular chapter, we learn of the many curses that flow from violations of the laws set forth in the Torah, in painful detail, following a chapter focused on the blessings.
We are constantly torn between blessings and curses during the Yomim Noraim, and the verse that Carl quotes focuses on the affliction of blindness and madness but then Carl tells Kendrick “until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way.” These are particularly harsh curses, to be sure, but this discourse sets the tone for us during the preparatory weeks leading up to the holidays by reminding us of the stakes, both in our hearts and in the world. And many of us will spend these weeks trying to “get the memo.”
Selichot: The first rapping on the track begins with a deep baritone, working both under and over the track, with these lines: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/Why God, why God do I gotta bleed?Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet/Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Earth is no more, why don’t you burn this m*********?” This is the refrain that will carry Kendrick through, ringing in our ears before the song really begins.
On the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, we enter the season more directly with the Selichot service. The service centers on recitation of the 13 Attributes of God, as well as our own failings and requests for mercy from God. Kendrick’s song opens with requests for answers, for a recognition of suffering, and with an acknowledgment of God’s power and strength. True, Kendrick’s words reflect a more directly personal relationship with God than we often consider in Judaism, but if there’s ever a point in our tradition when the connection feels personal, it’s during this service that opens this period.
Rosh Hashanah (especially Torah readings and Day 1 Haftorah): The bulk of FEAR. focuses on scenes from Kendrick’s life at ages 7, 17, and 27. At age 7, we hear his mother threatening that she will “beat [yo] ass” for one transgression or another, and working through — and displacing on to her son — all of the pain she is dealing with as a poor woman trying to raise her kids. The verse closes with his mom saying “N****, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else.”
The relationship between parent and child is front and center during Rosh Hashanah, especially as we read the saga of Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac from the Torah on Day 1, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac from the Torah on Day 2, and the desperation of Hannah to have a child, which eventually happens through Samuel, during the Haftorah on Day 1. Each of these stories shows us an aspect of parenting, and how the choices we make as parents can impact our children, positively or negatively, over the course of their lives. We learn throughout these stories of the power of faith, and how faith and hope can lead us to where we may need to be. But we also learn more about fear and trauma, and the marks they leave on everyone involved, just as they have caused indelible pain for Kendrick to this day. And hopefully these stories lead us to change our actions in the coming year.
Yom Kippur (especially U’Netaneh Tokef): In the second main verse, Kendrick is 17, and he is focused on how likely it is that, as a young black man growing up poor in America, he is will die. He spends most of the verse recounting all the ways he may die, with painfully honest lyrics like: “I’ll prolly die anonymous/I’ll prolly die with promises….I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments/I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’.” But his concluding line — I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17/All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things” — is the most brutal of all, as it shows a man desperately hoping to survive and gain control but who realizes how little control he really has in our society.
The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer recited on Yom Kippur is eerily similar, as are many other moments throughout the season. In the prayer, we consider the many ways a person may die or suffer during the course of the year, depending on what God chooses for us. It is cold and direct and unforgiving. But unlike Kendrick — who feels he has no control — we are given some agency in the prayer, when the text says that Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah can ease the severity of the decree. Whether this is a difference in the essence of the Jewish faith, or, at least in our current day, an indirect reflection of privilege, we must recognize that we do have agency, we have an element of control in our world that many lack, and we must use it for good where we can.
Neilah: In the final verse of the core of the song, Kendrick is 27, and he is taking stock. And he is afraid. He sings, “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ creativity/I’m talkin’ fear, fear of missin’ out on you and me/I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God.” And he feels God damning him, and himself damning God and the world: “Damn/Goddamn you/Goddamn me/Goddamn us/Goddamn we/Goddamn us all.” It is a stark conclusion, especially for someone as gifted and successful as Kendrick Lamar, but in our society and our world, it is the conclusion that many people come to.
In Neilah, the final service of the Yomim Noraim, we do our own stock-taking. We ask God to extend our days, to wipe away our sins. We want to feel that we are no longer afraid, after all we have poured out through the many services in synagogue and personal reflections. Hopefully we end up in a place more positive and hopeful than Kendrick’s, but the real lesson is that we must end somewhere honest. That we see what our work will be for the coming year and what we need to overcome. Whether that is fear, or hope, damnation, or salvation, we must understand not only the journey, but where it has left us.
Conclusion: Cousin Carl’s voicemail ends the song, channeling again the theme of blessings and curses. “So that’s why we get chastised, that’s why we’re in the position we’re in/Until we come back to these laws, statutes and commandments/And do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us/We’re gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today/In the United States of America/I love you, son, and I pray for you/God bless you, shalom” (He is a Black Israelite, after all, so of course he says “Shalom”).
May we all pray for each other in this country, in this world, and find a way to move beyond the curses and toward the blessings by coming back to the laws, the commandments, and the mercy and peace they seek to create during the Yomim Noraim. May we move past all of our FEAR. and find comfort in two other Kendrick tracks, GOD. and LOVE.