During Kol Nidre, we began a three-part conversation about God. (View it in the
Kol Nidre service at OramiLIVE.com). In Part One, which I call God and the Hula Hoops, I used hula hoops to illuminate different ideas about God. In the second conversation, I had it out with God, demanding God ask forgiveness for the mess God made of the world. Instead of an apology, I got something else. (Check it out.) Now I’m going one step higher. Last night I talked to God. Today, I’m talking to Mark.
“Rabbi does faith make it easier for you to deal with all this loss?”
So asked Mark, with whom I have been very close for a few decades. In addition to all the B’nai Mitzvah, baby namings, and weddings, we have been together through life changes and economic downturns, through illness and loss, in hospital rooms and at funeral homes. I was with his family after his mother passed. He came to my home after my father died.
“With all you have seen,” he seemed to be asking, “With the death and the tragedies, the cancer and the Alzheimer’s, the young people taken before their time, the old people suffering well after theirs… do you have a faith that gets you through?”
I confess that his question caught me off guard.
Beyond this Covid-era’s benevolent blessings and the sweet silver linings, these have been two tough years facing one painful tragedy after another: a nearby mass shooting, raging wildfires placing more than 85% of our congregation under mandatory evacuation, the deaths first my mother-in-law followed soon thereafter by the death of my father and then recently my mother, burying the first known Jewish Covid patient in Los Angeles who was also a friend, and, during the height of Los Angeles’s Covid surge, supporting the families of sixteen people who died in a single month.
Too much tragedy. Too much illness. Too much anxiety and depression. Too much. Just too much.
I know I am not alone. We have talked. I know that too many of you have been struggling to maintain equilibrium. To find joy amidst the jumbled journey of life. To dodge the depression that threatens to overwhelm. To maintain a sense of meaning amidst it all. I always wonder: how do you get through?
When Mark asked me, does my faith get me through, I paused. I have spent so much time ministering to others or attending to my own wounds that I often forget to factor in my own faith. How did I get through?
There were mornings that, like many of you, I woke so tired that I didn’t know how I’d get up and out of bed. There were afternoons that the tears flowed freely at the sadness of it all. And there were evenings when the weight of the burdens we are facing made me wonder where I would find wisdom to bring us back to blessing and into relief.
Yet somehow, the next day, I found my feet still under me, and supporting me, as I rose up to reach out and navigate another day.
Where does that strength come from? How could I continually put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, when I felt less charged within than a teen’s cell phone that’s been connecting all day?
It’s my faith. That is where I find holiness and the Holy One: guiding me, sometimes directing me, sending my spouse and friends to me at just the right moment to hold me or strengthen me. That is when, in the guise of my spiritual director or therapists, God grants me insight and wisdom, energy and equilibrium, to be self-aware and self-compassionate. That’s when my partner clergy come forth, like flight attendants on the jetway that’s my life, to remind me to put on my own oxygen mask first. And because the Holy One is in everything and in everyone, identifying those supports, setting them up, and allowing them to help me are acts of faith in themselves.
During a particularly difficult point in my journey, Rabbi Julia Weisz reminded me
that what I was going thru was akin to trying to stay standing on a board in the middle of the ocean. Waves – of sadness or despair or mourning – would keep coming, she said. I couldn’t stop them or even anticipate them. I couldn’t turn around to look for them because when I did, I would lose my equilibrium and fall.
So my task was just to continue facing forward and ride the waves. Sometimes those waves are small and I handle them with ease. Sometimes they wash over me with a vengeance that throws me into the ocean. Then my faith helps me get back up on the board, knowing that the cold water need not stop me because feeling drenched is an indication that I am still alive.
Climbing back on the board again and again, it is my faith that lets me face forward while both embracing and letting go of what’s behind me and still coming toward me. Somehow, I sense that I would make it through.
That’s my faith. Rock solid faith, that I am not alone. That during my life’s work –
whether it’s the sacred work of the rabbinate, or the sacred stuff of being a spouse, parent, sibling, and friend, or in the sense that self-care is sacred too – I believe I would float above the floodwaters or through the eye of the storm.
Because, like our patriarch Jacob experienced in the middle of the wilderness, beside that sulam (that ladder) that up to the heavens, Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh – Wow, Holiness is alive in this place. Yes, goodness and Godliness are here with us too.
So I danced with Miriam, taking up my timbrel with the women as we waltz alongside those walls of water that simultaneously seem so threatening and so reassuring. I sing Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai – Who is like You, O Source of Strength? I found faith in HaMakom, that there is no place without the Presence, the Holy Presence, no place where I was alone.
So I jumped forward with Joshua and Caleb, coming out of their mission to scout out the Promised Land, convinced that some challenges were gigantic and I would feel insignificantly ant-like before them, yet a pathway through the wilderness will always appear and I would always be able to wander forth toward eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, the promise of a fruitful existence that will sustain me. An existence as nourishing as mother’s milk, a sweetness as sweet as honey on my tongue.
Amidst mind-blowing misery or the daily rebalancing to exact equilibrium from this Existence, I have held fast to that faith. It calls me to count my blessings still and to let go of the small stuff – in other words, to jettison the jetsam so I can float forward. It reminds me as I try to remind you, to give thanks regularly – Shehecheyanu – for each new moment – whether of pleasure, pain, or a uniquely novel intermix of the two – for we are alive, we are loved, and we are surrounded by the Soul of Souls, the Source of All Existence. Elohai. My God. Our God.
So yes, Mark, I have a faith that does me through. And I hope that you do too.
I would love to hear from you, or any of you about your own faith, and how you seek ways to strengthen it during challenging times. Or if you struggle with faith or have struggled with faith, let’s talk about that too. Know that I am always here
for you and for those fantastic faith conversations.
Let’s all strive to find a faith to sustain us, that we can pass down, with our most cherished Jewish values, l’dor vador, from generation to generation.
Thank you to my friend Mark, for asking the pointed, poignant question that sent me on a journey to articulate my faith.
Thanks also to Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, my spiritual director, who each month makes sure I consider what role the Holy One plays in my life, and to Rabbi Julia Weisz and Cantor Doug Cotler whose partnership and friendship carried me through many of the darkest moments of these last years.
Finally, to my wife Michelle, through whose love, depth, patience, and personality, I am constantly reminded of the blessings of the Blessed One, and thus have found my faith. Thank you!