Tag: God

Wisdom from Bat Mitzvah Student Lauren: Making God Feel Real

More than anything, I love the individual time I spend with our pre-B’nai Mitzvah students, getting to know them, studying together their Torah portion, and exploring their ideas about God, Torah and Judaism. Without fail, they each surprise me (often teaching me), as they open my eyes to an enlightening perspective on the parasha (Torah portion) or a new way of relating to the Holy One. This week, Lauren Perlmutter articulated an almost universal truth about how some of us relate to God. While her Bat Mitzvah service is still weeks away, her wisdom needed to be shared now.

I asked Lauren what she believes about God. She wrote:

If someone were to ask me what I believed about God, I would say I honestly am not sure. When I am at my Jewish summer camp, Camp Newman, in closing circle, praying before we eat a meal, or doing Havdallah with all my friends, I do believe someone or something is there. It makes God feel real. At home, however, in daily life, I do not always think about God and the religious aspects of Judaism. If I were to take a step back from daily life, maybe I would feel the feeling that I have had with God in the past.

Simple wisdom!

When we are immersed in a clear spiritual experience – Jewish summer camp, the High Holy Day services, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, a funeral, a hike in a National Park – God’s presence is almost tangible. Yet as we leave that moment, the experience often recedes as our distance increases.

Here’s where young Lauren’s simple wisdom is most erudite: Were we to take a step back – from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives – putting ourselves purposely, mindfully in a place/ritual/experience/moment that holds spiritual potential, we might feel the feeling that we once had with holiness or the Holy One… with God.

Spirituality – holiness – like wireless internet – is all around us.  If we run around so much, if we fail to turn on our AirPorts (wireless internet receivers), we will miss the awesome, amazement that surrounds us.

This Shabbat, take a step back:

  • Hike through the mountains
  • Walk on the seashore
  • Come to Shabbat family services (Bay Laurel Elementary School at 7:30 pm)
  • Light candles, make kiddush, bless challah
  • Ask your loved ones when they have ever felt close to God
  • Read through the prayerbook
  • Do yoga
  • Meditate
  • Talk to God

You might be amazed at the feeling you begin to feel again!

So Debbie Friedman Died… Perhaps God was Too Busy Arranging the Outcome of the BCS Football Championship Game

At the end of the Auburn-Oregon BCS college football championship game, many winning Auburn players – including the coach and the quarterback – thanked God for being with them so that they could win the game. In fact, following the win, the Auburn team huddled together in a prayer circle.

At the moment, tens of thousands of people around the world were facing the sad painful reality that in spite of all the Mi Shebeirach healing prayers sung according to nusach Debbie Friedman (e.g. to her tune), Debbie died nonetheless.

Two groups praying; two different results. What gives, God?

It makes me kind of wonder:

Was God just too busy managing the results of college football championship that God didn’t have the time or inclination to respond to the tens of thousands of healing prayer requests for Debbie?


Is the Mi Shebeirach prayer just an ineffectual prayer or perhaps too nuanced (and God instead prefers the black & white, win or lose prayers of the football players)?


Are we getting this God and prayer thing wrong?

A few years back, when the Red Sox were playing in the World Series, I wrote a post entitled: “Can I pray that my Red Sox will win?”  I wondered: Is there a one to one relationship between our prayers and the results? Or said differently, how does it work? Is it “We pray and God responds”? Then why didn’t God respond to the Mi Shebeirach healing prayers for the very woman – Debbie Friedman – who brought the Mi Shebeirach back into vogue?

Here’s how I answer that questions:

Perhaps God does respond, but differently than we hoped. 

The Mi Shebeirach is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression, or the disease from our bodies and minds. But the One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refu’ah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness, amidst the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about chometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day.  And its about shalom – wholeness and peace.  

So healing sometimes means that death comes and through it, a return of peace and tranquility, a return to the arms of the Holy One.

Which means that we, who are left behind, must face life without Debbie, even as we remain open to our still loving, ever caring God.

Why the Good Die Young

A Conversation with God about 4 Funerals, Illness and an Earthquake in Haiti

What a pair of months February and March were last year; so much tragedy. A 13-year-old was killed crossing the street. A vibrant teenager – a student at our local New Community Jewish High School – was lost in a car accident. A 21-year-old rabbi’s son was struck down by a car while at college. A 42-year-old mother – our congregant – died in a snowboarding accident. A 49-year-old “pied piper” of a man – another congregant – dropped dead from a heart attack. Thousands of people came to the funerals.

I noticed that God attended each funeral, but amidst the many tear-filled eulogies, there wasn’t time for God to speak. So God sat quietly at the side – listening, crying. God left quietly after each funeral ended, and almost no one realized that God had been there. I did take notice. Wondering what God might have said had God been invited to deliver a eulogy, I dashed out after the Holy One. Still reeling from these funerals, I wondered if God could make sense of these senseless deaths. I asked if God had time to talk, and God was willing. We strolled through the cemetery, talking quietly.


Man: So God, what did you think of the funerals?

God: (in a still, small voice) Teenagers died. A young mom, gone before her time. A college freshman hit by a drunk driver. It is all very, very sad.

Man: Which was sad, God? The funerals or the deaths?

God: Both. Two fun-loving kids; so much potential, such bright futures ahead. A beautiful mother, whose vivaciousness was surpassed only by her charitableness. But the funerals were sad, too. The speakers, caught up in telling their own stories, understandably left out Mine. They missed awesome opportunities to speak about My love, My pain, and My hope for your future.

Man: You mean you don’t agree with what the rabbis said?

God: Look, one said Baruch dayan ha-emet, the traditional words of “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” suggesting that what happened was all part of a plan – My plan – while another suggested I took a boy’s life because he didn’t celebrate Shabbat that week. Some people, I suppose, find comfort in the idea that I have a master plan. Others find direction through religious rituals, which perhaps they believe help them beat the odds of life. If that brings them comfort, they can cherish those beliefs. But those ideas are built upon ancient words, misinterpreted to suggest things I didn’t say and I never meant. It’s neither who I am nor how I work. I don’t pre-plan untimely deaths and I don’t punish those who don’t keep the rituals. I am not responsible for those deaths.

Man: Wait, with all due respect, You created everything– spectacular sunsets, shooting stars and beautiful California coastline – But, you also created poisonous snakes and ferocious lions, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and deadly diseases. And, forgive me, but You are the One who created the humans who created the automobiles that led to the deaths of three people. Just where do you get off abdicating responsibility for any of this?

God: There you go again! Blaming Me for what you refuse to acknowledge, what you fail to see. Yes, I created it all, each with its own purpose. Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous. So I created lions. Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures. Bother them and look out!

Man: I don’t care about the lions? I’m talking about earthquakes and all those diseases –Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancerous tumors that ravaged my friend’s body!

God: I see how you might want to lay blame on Me for the creation of all of that because, yes, Creation was My idea and My doing. Call them the dreadful consequences of an imperfect Creation. Call it collateral damage of My desire to create humanity. Whatever you call it, know that natural disasters and unnatural disease were all unintended.

Man: How can you call these awful things, existing in the universe of Your creation, unintended?

God: Listen, each one pains Me. They weren’t in any plan. When I set out to create, I began with exactness and perfection. But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me. And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect. Your teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, articulated the story of creation well.

Man: You mean, the mystic from Tzfat, who taught the story of repairing the world, that we call Tikkun Olam?

God: Yes. First there was only Me. Everything was God. Ein Sof, Me without end. Then I contracted – tzimtzum – I pulled back to make space for Creation. I created the universe, as vessels, which at that moment were devoid of anything, including Me. Then I poured My light back into those vessels. But my light was too pure and too potent for the creation-that-was-not-Me. So it blew up – sh’virat ha-keilim – the vessel broke apart, sending shards of creation and sparks of My light all over the universe.

Broken world; bad things happen. The earthquakes and tsunamis. Cancer and heart attacks. Automobile accidents and incomprehensible tragedies on the slopes. All the result of a broken world, an imperfect world.

Man: So the imperfections were fundamentally a mistake. And as the Creator of All, they are Your mistake. But now I see that they were not Your Plan; rather they were an unintended consequence of Your desire to create our universe and us. Of Your aspiration to invest the universe-that-was-not-You with Your perfect light. Hmmm, it sounds like a beautiful experiment that sort of blew up. So how do you live with these tragedies, however unintended they may be?

God: I have tried to provide humanity with the ability to lessen their effect. Since earthquakes are unintended but inevitable, I make sure that everyone who buys a home (at least in California) has to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they will be living near an earthquake fault and that they understand the danger. If I were human, I probably wouldn’t live there. But, given the whole “free choice” component I built into Creation, everyone gets to decide how to live and where to live. So with free choice, you get the freedom to make your own dangerous and foolish decisions.

Man: So if we want free will, we can’t really expect You to step in to protect us. Then we’d just be Your puppets. We get to make the choices and we have to live with the consequences. We shouldn’t blame you then for the car crashes if we have seatbelts but don’t wear them, and know about air bags but don’t insist they be installed in all parts of our cars…

God: But even if you use all this safety equipment, people will still crash and die, or be left brain-dead. Because Creation is fundamentally broken, imperfect.

Man: What about all those diseases, causing children to die young and my friend to suffer so intensely?

God: Unintended but treatable. In a sense, they’re similar to the seatbelt dilemma. I give you humans big brains and teach you to understand science and medicine. Then you must decide whether you will focus your time and research dollars on curing diseases like Parkinson’s and MS, or if you will instead use your God-given resources to build sophisticated smart bombs and laser-guided missiles. Collectively, you humans have the ability to cure all these diseases. Do you also have the inclination to make it the priority?

Man: Are you saying that although you led us to the secrets of building earthquake-safe homes, we freely chose to allow thousands upon thousands of people in Haiti to continue to live in sub-par dangerous housing until it collapsed like a deck of cards when the earthquake hit?

God: Mmm. And don’t get Me started on Hurricane Katrina. The knowledge existed about how to build levees, which could withstand a Level 5 hurricane; I made sure of it. But as a country, you somehow squandered the knowledge and resources. You want to blame Me? You left the poor to fend for themselves! …It pains me to watch you abdicate your responsibility, as you fail to live up to your end of our human-Divine partnership. I cry for each life lost. I cry that you humans are suffering, and will suffer. I cry for the pain that I let into your life the day I decided to pull back and give you free will.

Man: Truthfully God, when I hurt, I don’t always feel that You are close. Where do You go when I’m in real pain?

God: That’s just it. I am still here. By your side. I’m holding you up and making sure you get through the day. Do you ever wonder how you find the strength to get out of bed the next morning? That’s Me. Do you see all those people who came over to your house, to hug and hold your loved ones, to take care of the arrangements so you could fall apart. That’s Me too. I’m making sure you keep getting phone calls and e-mails and all those beautiful memories posted to Facebook. My Friends are your Facebook Friends doing My sacred work. And when you rage at Me in anger, or withdraw from Me in pain, I’m still here, waiting patiently. Still loving. Still helping. It’s the holy work I do.

Man: Okay, but honestly, with the universe so filled with imperfection and bad things that continue to happen, do You regret that you created us in the first place?

God: I wanted to give you life. Like a parent, I brought you into this world so you could love and dream and bring joy to each other and to Me. And I gave you minds to think and hands to work and hearts to lead with compassion. Some of you forget and think you are invincible. Or think it’s only about you. And so you end up hurting yourself and often hurting others in the process. This pains Me.

Man: So God what is it that you want from us?

God: I want you to learn from each loss. Learn to buckle up, to visit the doctor more often, to play safely. Stop sweating the small stuff, and fighting and kvetching. And you should count your blessings more regularly. And to get good grades and do good work, so you can use your amazing minds to repair our world, to create great manifestations of our shared compassion and justice. And I want you to speak truth to power. And speak love to pain. Make sure everyone can be healthy. That everyone has enough. You should go give tzedakah. Go repair your broken relationships before it is too late. And invite Me into your lives by acting humbly, and living ethically, and caring for everyone, whether you know them or not.
And you must remember the teenagers, and the mother and the men. Live up to the best that they were. And comfort their mourners, today, next month and next year, because their pain will continue. And spend time with the ill ones, bringing them comfort amid their suffering. And remember and never forget, that I, the Eternal your God, am always here. Caring, loving, open to listen, to holding you, and to helping you through.

Man: Is there anything else we can do?

God: You can try to make quiet time to meditate and pray. Daily. I do. I pray that the memory of your loved ones – and the teens and the mom and the men and unnamed ones in Haiti and beyond – bring you blessing and joy. And that those who are ill have hope. May you comfort each other, and feel My love, too, and may you find fortitude and courage so that you may endure the inevitable dark times. Remember, there also will be plenty of joy. I love you. I wish for you wholeness and shalom.

That was my conversation with God. Open, honest, thought-provoking. You might find those answers comforting, or you might have different questions or seek different answers. I encourage each of you to approach God with your own questions. God always listens, and often responds back. And of course, you can always come talk with me, your rabbi. Although I am not God, I will gladly help you deepen your own relationship with the Holy One. I hope you will. Now wouldn’t that make this New Year truly a Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Unchain Your Faith: One Rabbi’s Radical Ideas about God

Originally published in Tribe (February 2010)

When our Israelite ancestors participated in the Exodus from Egypt, they liberated themselves from much more than just slavery and Pharaoh’s taskmasters. By means of the Ten Plagues, which dismantled the Egyptian pantheon, the Israelites witnessed the defeat of the Nile god, Sun god and Pharaoh’s (false) god complex. Crossing Yam Suf (“Sea of Reeds”), they left behind 400 years of Egyptian-influenced preconceptions about religious faith.

In the intervening 3,000 years, we Jews again have found ourselves enslaved by a host of oppressive ideas about our Jewish religion. Some of these misconceptions arise out of selective misinterpretation of our sacred texts; others result from the growing misguided fundamentalism that has steadily seeped into our Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

As Passover — our festival of liberation — again approached (and passed), perhaps it is time for our generation of Jews to liberate ourselves from a new set of preconceptions about what Judaism really holds to be true.

1. God Shaved the White Beard
With all of the Torah’s anthropomorphisms, it is difficult to escape the tendency to think about God as the guy with a white beard in a white robe. But God, as far as our Jewish tradition is concerned, ain’t no white guy and ain’t got no beard. In fact, if we take the Second Commandment seriously (“make no idol or image …”), we soon realize that God is a “nobody” and literally has no body. We Jews accept that God is the most real “nothing” around. God just is.

2. God Lacks Name Recognition
Contrary to popular belief in Jewish circles, God’s name is not Adonai, Yahweh or Hashem. “God” isn’t even God’s name. “God” is a title, a job description. According to Torah, our ultimate sourcebook for all things Jewish, God’s name is a four-letter word: Yud-hey-vav-hey (known as the Tetragrammaton). Like most four-letter words, it is unpronounceable. Literally. Each of these letters is silent until combined with a vowel, but since the Torah was written without vowels, it is impossible to figure out exactly how to pronounce God’s name. Some people pronounce Yahweh based on the vav being vocalized as the German “w.” Others read the yud as the German “j” and get Jehovah. Lawrence Kushner, the Reform Jewish rabbi-mystic, notes that each of the letters represents the non-sound of air moving through the throat and mouth. He once wrote that God’s name is the sound of breathing.

4. God Is Known by a Euphemism
Adonai means “my Lord” (or “my Lords”). Since we do not know how to pronounce God’s name, we need a creative way of addressing God. Adonai — “My Lord” — is a highly respectable, important-sounding euphemism. Adonai conveys that God is hierarchically the top dog. Within its Old World, aristocratic context, the lord was more powerful than the rest of us. It is like calling God the “Celestial CEO.” Of course, Hashem, favored by the Orthodox and the superstitious, means “The Name” and is a euphemism for “Adonai,” used lest we misuse the Holy Name.

5. God Is Not a Being; God Is a Verb
Torah understands God’s four-letter name as a meaningful combination of three verbs: Hey-vav-hey, or hoveh, signifying the present tense and meaning “Is”; Hey-yud-hey or haya, meaning “Was”; Yud-hey-yud-hey, or y’heyeh, meaning “Will Be.” In Torah and for Jews, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. As we sing in the prayer “Adon Olam,” God is the sum total of existence. Don’t worry about whether you believe in God. It doesn’t matter. Because God just Is-Was-Will Be. The question, instead, should be whether you are willing to open your eyes, your mind and your heart to the continuously sacred flow of Existence.

6. The Best Place to Find God Probably Isn’t in the Synagogue
With apologies to the very institution that employs me, the synagogue probably is not the best place to find God. Although we usually expect to find God there (after all, God did say in Exodus “build me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among you”), the overabundance of ritualization and the proliferation of wordy ancient prayers often impede a person’s natural ability to bond with the Divine. God is best found everywhere in every moment. That’s why the ancient rabbis knew God as HaMakom, “The Place,” meaning God is in every place, everywhere: here, over there, up there (pointing skyward), down there (pointing earthward), in there (pointing inside you and me). Wherever we can stop focusing on ourselves and our own material needs as well as open our eyes to the reality and beauty surrounding us, we might find God. The kabbalists know God as Ein Sof (“No End”) because God is everywhere, the Essence that is without end. Moses found God on a mountaintop, and so can you. Miriam encountered God at the shores of the sea, and so can you. The Levites — originally ritual singer/musicians — heard God in the sweet multi-instrument musicals they played, and so can you. Elijah experienced God in the still small voice within that spoke to him and, yup, so can you.

7. Ordered Jewish Prayer May Not Be the Best Way to Talk to God
Almost two millennia ago, a bunch of now-dead white Jewish rabbis, culminating with Rav Amram Gaon (died 875), laid out a series of required prayers and prayer themes, which became the order of the service as we know it. They were concerned with creating a unified order of service for the far-flung Jewish community. Like the biblical ancestors who created a system of worship — animal sacrifices — that mimicked but Jew-ified the surrounding practices, these rabbis did what everyone else was doing, wove together words and biblical passages into prayers to create a new way of talking to God. Although the ancient words can be engaging intellectually, they are theologically 2,000 years old and feel like it. Even for a fluent Hebrew speaker, praying those words and allusions can feel like trying to talk to your friend using Shakespearean English. The words sometimes don’t let us speak the praise in our hearts.

8. The Big Secret Your Rabbis Don’t Want You to Know
You can talk to God using normal language as easily as you iChat with a friend. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (grandson of the founder of Chasidism), taught his students hitbodedut, an intimate way to connect with God. He told them to go off into a field and talk to God, aloud, just like you would talk to your neighbor. God listens, Nachman contended, and, following his lead, his students experienced deeply this powerful spiritual reality. I regularly practice hitbodedut out in the field. Or while driving in the car. Or sitting, waiting in the carpool pickup lane. It is wonderful and very Jewish. I feel listened to, heard and appreciated. I don’t ask for things; I seek understanding and strength. I pour out my heart and speak of my problems. God listens. I gain clarity. My thanks are spoken; God hears my praise. Try it. While you are alone. Or while sitting silently in the sanctuary while the cantor intones the ancient prayers. You might find a new friend in God.

9. God Facebooks,Tweets and Texts Along With Us
You won’t find God by friend-searching “God,” even if some jokers misappropriated the name. Instead, God Facebooks us through our friends. After all, our rabbis, responding to the question about how we can fulfill the commandment to love God, turned to Leviticus 19:18, equating loving God with v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha (loving your friend as yourself). If you love your friends, treat them well, deepen connections that uplift but do no harm; then you have Facebooked the Holy One as well. The friend of your friend is … God. God also tweets us regularly. Those short 140-character messages come to us from all over — through the loving words of friends, the inspiring lyrics of songs, the uplifting news stories of people helping people, the wordless sound of wind blowing through trees or water crashing on the Malibu seashore. Those pithy little messages are easily ignored if you don’t read them for what they are — tweets from Tetragrammaton. Oh, and God texts us regularly. Choose a text — Torah, Talmud, Midrash, siddur — and get to know it. Like a message from a lover, God’s texts must be explored on multiple levels to uncover any hidden meanings or delicious nuance.

10. The Messiah Has NOT Come Yet
Let’s tell the truth. The Messiah — that figure who will bring an end to hunger, homelessness and violence and will lead us to universal piece — has not come yet. We Jews long ago rejected the idea of a Messiah who could die before accomplishing his/her tasks. That’s why Jesus, an inspiring teacher, was not our christ (Greek for “messiah”); why Bar Kochba, the second-century revolutionary once called messianic by Rabbi Akiva, was not the Messiah; and why Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994, is not the Messiah either. For Jews, the Messiah does not die. Instead, take a page from the Talmud: If you are planting a tree (or doing some other life-affirming act) and someone comes running to say that the Messiah is coming, complete your holy task first, and then go look later. Give tzedakah. Talk to God. Treat others with kindness. Don’t let all the Messiah talk turn you away from your holy work.

Breathing the Name of God

In this week’s parasha, we encounter Moses at the burning bush, speaking to God. In response to the instruction to go down to Egypt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppression, he asks a simple question: When people ask who You are, what shall I tell them? The answer: Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh. I am who I am. I was who I was. I am who I will be… God uses God’s name: Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Usually pronounced euphemistically as “Adonai,” God’s name is something more.

At services tonight at Congregation Or Ami, we will talk about what God’s name is and what the name teaches us about our lives. Here’s a foretaste…

My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the Reform Movement’s Rabbi-Mystic-Scholar, explains this name in Breathing the Name of God [From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: Eyes Remade for Wonder]. Read and consider:

The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are YOD, HAY, VAV, and HAY. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yahveh.” But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.

This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.

That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Scholars have suggested that a reasonable translation of the four-letter Name of God might be The One Who Brings Into Being All That Is. So God’s Name is the Name of Existence itself. And, since God is holy, then so is all creation. At the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s Name, but God only replies with Ehyeh-hasher-ehyeh, which is often incorrectly rendered by the static English, “I am who I am.” But in truth the Hebrew may denote the future tense: “I will be who I will be.” Here is a Name (and a God) who is neither completed nor finished. This God is literally not yet.

The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory

M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vodo: The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory
A Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5770/2009

[for citations of rabbinic and modern sources, see the sermon on the Or Ami website]

Lead in: Sheryl Braunstein and Or Ami Chorale sing “B’tzelem Elohim”

Sheryl’s beautiful song reminds me that we all were created in God’s image and therefore can “see” God’s face in our encounters with other people. This summer, I encountered another face of the Holy One. And it moved me deeply.

I spent the summer on sabbatical, dedicated as a Shabbat, an opportunity to retreat, reflect, refresh. While our daughter was a CIT at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa all summer, Michelle, the boys and I “mini-vanned” across America. We stayed at 3 Jewish Summer Camps; visited 9 Baseball Parks; boated in 6 waterways; danced at 5 amazing concerts; meandered through 10 American history museums; wine-tasted throughout the Northwest; and snapped over 3,000 digital photos. During our summer odyssey, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.

Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.

Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe.”

My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.

I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!

Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.

Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.

The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.

Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.

Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets? We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.

That was me. For most of my life. As many of you remember, I used to live with my gaze firmly locked on my CrackBerry. I used to walk around with my head down. Then I finally understood just what the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, was trying to say all those years ago: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo, the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic creations, yet we humans take our hands and cover our eyes. Except during isolated moments, my hands blinded me to the beauty around us.

And then we visited the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And then my eyes were truly opened wide.

And then I was awed into silence by the grandeur of Creation. It was like I was seeing clearly for the first time.

We were driving north by Jackson Lake, planning to scout out Yellowstone in the north. (Anyone been up there? Gorgeous, no?!) I had to pull off to the side of the road because I could not catch my breath. My family thought I wanted to take pictures. My son wondered if I was praying. Like Adam, I was just overwhelmed by the beauty. I needed to stop moving, and just take it in. I needed to find words to express the inspiration I felt.

This time the blackberry served a holy purpose. I took it out and wrote about my experience of wonder. I had to write something. The yearning was so powerful. The need to praise brought tears to my eyes.

In Torah, we read that when the Biblical scouts returned from scouting out the Holy Land, argue as they might about the Israelites’ ability to take possession of the land, they nonetheless wholeheartedly agreed in their praise of the land. They called it eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, a land flowing with milk and honey. I imagine how they must have welled up with emotion as they recounted discovering Israel’s beauty.

In the Grand Tetons, in the Louisiana Bayous, and all across this beautiful country of ours, I too welled up with intense emotion. America, every inch of it, is flowing with its own flavors of milk and honey. Some of us see it. Many of us miss it. The eighth century prophet Isaiah said it best: m’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s magnificence. God created. God sustains. God is. Here. In this place. The Place. HaMakom. This is God.

There once was a time when we Jews were inextricably tied to the land. Back in biblical times, we farmed and we harvested. Our holy days – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot – were dedicated to celebrating the agricultural cycle- planting, reaping, harvesting. Following Israel’s 20th century rebirth, the poignancy was that we were once again reconnected with the earth. But for most of us here in America – few of us farmers – the distance between our lives and any land is vast and growing. But it wasn’t always that way.

I discovered, for example, that the humans, who have inhabited southern Utah for over 10,000 years, were integrally connected to a mysterious canyon, we now call Zion Canyon National Park. Originally it wasn’t to hike or take pictures, like we do. Or to rock climb or rest. They came for food and water… it was as simple as that. Human survival meant gleaning from the land its scant harvests. Archaic peoples, Ancestral Native Americans – Pueblo Dwellers and Southern Paiutes – had extensive and intuitive knowledge of the plants, animals, and seasons. They would hunt, fish, and gather. They grew modest crops, and, like Jews do on Sukkot, would harvest only after they offered thanks for the generous bounty.

Of course, this ancient way of life is gone now. Today, when most of us travel on vacation, our temporary home isn’t a brush shelter, but a hotel. Our water source comes from a tap, not the natural springs in the rocks. We don’t need to forage in order to live. Still, we turn to the land to harvest its gifts. What might our harvests be? For many National Park travelers, we come to collect not things but knowledge, not resources but memories, not trophies but satisfaction.

And so it was for us when we hiked through Zion Canyon National Park. The sun warmed the earth. Buds blossomed and birds soared. A quiet liveliness rustled through the park. And I encountered something else. In the sound of the song of a river, as a canyon wren scolded us, amidst the giant cliffs that made me think big and feel small. I stood silent, mouth agape; eyes open wide at the astonishing landscape. Despite unsettling changes in our world, while standing there and gazing deep into the soul of that canyon, I found contentment, a place of peace.

That, my friends, is the encounter with holiness, with kedusha. That is what our ancestor Jacob experienced when he sensed a ladder rising up to the heavens and sensed God standing beside it. In the middle of nowhere, he realized, Achen yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh vanochi lo yadati – Wow, God is in this place and I did not know it. He identified where he stood: Mah norah haMakom hazeh – How awesome is HaMakom, this place. Ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim – This is a house of God, a gateway to the heavens. HaMakom. God. In this place. Everyplace. A gateway to heavens. Everywhere. Yeish. God’s here. There. Everywhere.

Of course, this contentment and peace so often eludes us. Whether driving around the city, journeying through the High Holy Days, or stumbling through our lives, we easily miss the serenity within our reach. So how can we encounter HaMakom, the Divine right here?

My story: It was a hot, August Sunday, just before our cross country travels were to come to an end. Michelle, Daniel, Noah and I set out to hike up the Virgin River, a beautiful, flowing tributary that bisects Utah’s Zion Canyon National Park. Two hours into the hike, we entered the Narrows, so called because of the narrow space created by the towering canyon walls as they leaned in. Though awesome sights encircled us, rocky obstacles lurking beneath the water’s surface sought to trip us up. Walking sticks were needed to probe the path ahead for underwater holes.

Here one must tread carefully. Too much attention focused on the surrounding beauty, and a foot misplaced on the slippery upcropping of underwater rocks sends you splashing into the river. This is a lesson of everyday life. Pay attention or you might get tripped up.

At the same time, don’t miss out on what’s right before your eyes. The Narrows also taught us that when we spend too much attention focused on each individual step – so afraid of stumbling and getting soaked – we might miss the grandeur of creation: cascading waterfalls, multicolored rock shelves, turquoise blue skies. We might walk right past Jacob’s ladder, sha’ar shamayim, the gateway to heavenly inspiration.

It’s right there. And here. And everywhere. HaMakom. We work hard to maintain balance and find equilibrium. Sometimes we have to play it safe and walk with conservative care.

Yet other times, we can take a risk. Look up and around, open up to the splendor. As the mystics remind us, Ein Sof, there is no end to God’s Holy space.

So remember that HaMakom, The Place, God’s Place, is right here. At the Agoura Hills-Calabasas Community Center. This afternoon, at Paradise Cover in Malibu. And on Sukkot, around a campfire in Old Agoura. Yes, HaMakom is up top of Big Bear. In Malibu Creek State Park. On the hiking trail out behind your back gate.

In these difficult times, life’s pressures threaten to push us over the edge. But we can still go find the Holy One. There you just might find that contentment and peace you seek. On a walk with a friend around Calabasas Lake, watching the stars with your kid up on Mulholland, sharing a cup of coffee with a loved one in the back yard. It’s a tried and true path to spirituality. As Naturalist John Muir said: “…break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend [time] in the woods. [You will] Wash your spirit clean.”

That’s the secret to finding God. Remembering that it’s all HaMakom, a sacred place. This whole world is Kadosh, holy. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed it. The psalmist Doug Cotler sings it: M’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s glory. “[And] Even when it’s hard to hear, Surely God is always near For everywhere we stand is holy ground.” Kadosh.

Song: Cantor Doug Cotler and Or Ami Chorale sing Cantor Cotler’s Kadosh