Embracing complexity and nuance: Talking to your family friends whose opinions you hate.
I have a niece, Yonina, who made aliyah and lives in Israel. Yonina serves as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces reserves. This summer, I watched the war in Gaza through her eyes.
Have you ever been to the Grand Tetons, our National Park in Wyoming? I did a few years back on a family road trip. It was magnificent. The jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons mountain range, rise up more than 7,000 feet above the valley floor, in a way that is just stunning. The lush green fields are beautiful, as are the rainbows of wildflowers that paint the meadows in vivid colors. Noisy streams cascade down the rocky canyons to fill larger lakes at the foot of the range. After driving around in the Park for a few days, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty that I had to pull off the road.
Overwhelmed by the Beauty of Nature
Grabbing my camera, I jumped out of the van and ran down to the winding Snake River. I was overcome with emotion. My heart beat rapidly, my breathing quickened, and, standing there, I began to shed tears of joy. The words of the Biblical Psalmist rang out in my head – (I’m a rabbi, what did you expect) – M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic grandeur. I was in awe. To paraphrase the 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was in awe of creation; I was filled with radical wonder at its magnificence. At that moment, I had no doubt that this world had a Creator, for I saw the Creator’s illustrious splendor before my very eyes. Mah nora hamaqom hazeh – how awesome was this place!
Have you ever been moved by the radiance of nature, a mountain, an ocean, or a beautiful sunset with a loved one by your side? Did you feel a sense of radical wonder? Did you feel “spiritual”?
I think spirituality is the “sense that we are all part of something greater.” Many of us feel astounding spirituality within nature. Which leads to the question: Is that God?
Personal Spiritual Connections among a Bunch of Addicts
Another story. Years ago I led retreats for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Participants learned and prayed together, confessed weaknesses to one another, and cried the reaffirming tears of recovery. Strangers at the start of the weekend, they grew close as they shared stories of pain and failure, of shattered dreams and broken lives.
At the end of each retreat, we gathered for a friendship circle. Interspersed between songs of hope, participants reflected on their experience on the retreat. A few described their interactions with others as being “holy.” In fact, a 20th century German-Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber taught that when two people place themselves so completely into a relationship, to truly understand and “be there” with each other, without masks and without pretenses, then God is in the moment. That Jewish recovery retreat became one, united by concern for each other. For them, God wasn’t some guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in high. God was a nearby Presence, felt in each encounter.
Have you ever had a feeling of spirituality borne within the intimacy of an encounter with another person? It might have been an interaction over a cup of coffee, sharing life’s stories, or the connection that happened while taking a walk with an old friend. Or with someone you deeply care for, truly making love.
So many of us have felt spirituality in those kind of human encounters. But one might ask: is that God?
Time to Talk about God
It is time we be upfront with each other. And speak about the three-letter word, which keeps coming up but that we continuously stop short of discussing: G-O-D! It is time to talk about God.
Let’s start with short poll. I’ll give you three options; you each may vote once: I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I’m not sure about God. Everyone please vote, but only once: Raise your hand if you believe in God. (Please lower your hand.) Now raise your hand if you don’t believe in God. And raise your hand now if you are not sure.
[At that service, 60% raised their hands professing a belief in God, 30% not believing in God, and 10% not sure. These results are an anomaly from my experiences with other groups. It has been suggested that few would want to declare a lack of belief in God before their Rabbi, with their neighbors surrounding them, at synagogue, on Rosh Hashana. Usually about 2/3 of the group are unsure or non-believers.]
That’s a pretty interesting response on a day ostensibly devoted to thanking God for our blessings, and for asking God to write us into the metaphoric Book of Life. You would think it would be a given that people who will spend so much time in worship services would be God-believers. Yet as our poll evidenced, so many of us are not, or at least we are not sure.
I spend so much of my time as a rabbi speaking with people about their relationships with God (or lack thereof). The topic arises in the planning of a wedding when a bride or groom will ask, “How many times during the ceremony do you mention God?” It arises in difficult times when people ask why God “took” the 19 year old boy, or what was God’s plan in “giving cancer” to a kind, loving 48 year old husband and father of two?
What God Don’t You Believe In?
I often ask people who don’t believe in God, which God don’t they believe in. One congregant recently responded, “You know, God in the Torah who rewards the good people and punishes the bad. All knowing. All powerful. All Good. I just can’t believe in God because too many bad things happen to good people and too many bad people get away with murder.”
I get it. In fact I too don’t believe in God as literally depicted in the Torah: A God who punishes people with illness, who always rewards the righteous in ways we can see. My observations do not support this idea. That God-concept is like a youngster’s understanding of his parent. Like back when my kids were young and thought that I, Daddy, was the smartest man in the world, that everything I did was planned and perfect. (Oh, how I sometimes miss those days.) As my kids have grown they have developed a more nuanced view of me, which I’m glad has allowed us to develop a richer, more realistic, closer relationship.
Similarly, our Jewish people has grown up from the early days of the Torah, and our relationship with God similarly has evolved to become more mature.
New Jewish understandings have emerged that are at once more sophisticated while still embedded in Jewish tradition. This host of Jewish God concepts just might entice you to rethink your beliefs or lack thereof.
18 Different Jewish Views of God
Why rethink your belief in God? Because a relationship with God can give us strength, courage, perspective, patience, and an appreciation for something beyond ourselves. Because the very act of wrestling again and again with our beliefs can empower us. And because over the last 50 years, Jewish thinkers have articulated more than 18 different Jewish views of God, which are radically dissimilar from each other, and from the “reward and punishment” view of God.
We have talked about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical sense of wonder as one way to realizing God’s presence, and we touched on Martin Buber’s “personal relationships” theology.
Now, have you ever considered the “God is an idea” theology, that God is a well-constructed ideal against which we can measure our actions? That’s from Jewish thinker Eric Fromm.
Have you heard about the feminist theology, challenging the notion that God was not present during the Holocaust? Scholar Melissa Raphael teaches that the attempts by women to take care of others and to cover the bodies of the suffering restored God’s presence to Auschwitz.
Often I connect with a concept of God as the totality of all the forces in life – gravity, centrifugal force, of the forces that keep us breathing and moving forward. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s God is not supernatural, yet is still very real.
Rabbi/author Marcia Prager and others have developed a God-concept from the name of God – Yud Hey Vav Hey. We usually pronounce this name “Adonai” but that is just a euphemism since we do not know how to actually say God’s four-letter name. God’s name – Yud Hey Vav Hey – is actually a collection of three verbs – haya – was, hoveh – is, and y’hiyeh – will be. So to those God-thinkers, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. God is Existence. Which turns on its head the question of whether one has to believe. Existence just is and so are we.
Then there’s Limited God theology, which explains that while God created the universe, God limited Godself to make room for humanity, and thus cannot act in the world to change it. If you like that, check out Milton Steinberg.
And then there is Kipnes “Internet-analogy” theology, in which God is liken to the Internet, an endless source of wisdom, strength and connectivity. (That one hasn’t made it into the Top 10 theologies list… but it is still young.)
This smorgasbord of Jewish spiritual beliefs points us back to why we are here today. Is it tradition? Or because today is a holy day?, Are we here to count blessings or to ask forgiveness? Or for for introspection, for the kids, or because the music is inspiring and the rabbi’s sermons are thought-provoking… Or as just an excuse to buy a new outfit?
No matter how we interpret our time together we cannot escape the prevalent presence of God in our services. God’s name is written in our machzor (prayerbook). Does that mean God is among us?
God Lessons from a Funeral
Last week, sadly, I officiated at the funeral of a 19 year old. A wonderful, loving, caring boy, Josh Isaac’s recent heroin drug addiction sabotaged his blessed, beautiful life. His parents begged the assembled to remember his essential goodness, yet simultaneously to wipe out the scourge of addiction. Said his mom Joyce, “There is no such thing as recreational use of heroin.” One moment you are enjoying yourself. The next you are hooked.
At the funeral, I asked the 450+ mourners to hold hands. (Let’s do that now. Take the hands of those to your left and right.) Why? For the same reason I had them do it. Because Martin Buber said we could sense God’s presence through personal relationships. Because Mordecai Kaplan believed that we nurture a God-like compassion through our own hands. Our physical connection created a holy place for the community of mourners, just like now. At that moment, even those who were sure they did not believe in God, hoped and prayed nonetheless.
These many ways to think about and experience God are all Jewish, and are available for you to explore and incorporate into your spiritual life. In fact, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I are teaching a twice monthly, Sunday morning course called “God, Belief, and Disbelief.” Learn more about it in the Adult Learning postcards outside.
What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?
Let’s do another poll. This time may vote as many times as you want. Raise your hand if you consider yourself spiritual. Raise your hand if you consider yourself religious. Raise your hand if you think you can be spiritual and yet not believe in God.
Remember, I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.
Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore. Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.
How Religion Sometimes Ruins One’s Spirituality
So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.
I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us – as some literalists believe God asked Abraham – to sacrifice our children, either on a mountaintop or by strapping a suit of dynamite around their waists.
I do believe that God cares that we use our minds and our hearts to nurture compassion, pursue justice and make peace. I am drawn toward those ritual actions and prayerful words that deepen our connection with Yud Hey Vav Hey, the totality of existence.
And I believe passionately in the ability of people to gain purpose, strength, and consolation from their relationship with God. Why?
When I Talked to God and God Answered
Because it has happened to me.
One final story. Many years ago something occurred in my family, which required prompt, critical decision-making, but the crucial response was beyond my capability. Anxious to guide and protect my family, I heeded the counsel of Nachman of Bratslav, a 18th century rebbe. Rebbe Nachman advocated for hitbodedut, for speaking to God – crying out to God if necessary – in a normal way “as you would with a best friend.” So I opened my heart and began talking to God in the same way that I am talking to you now. I discovered through my conversation with God a new voice and unparalleled strength, just what I needed to help my family. I felt as if God had heard my plea for guidance.
Have you ever called out in a time of need and felt like something, someone, was listening?
Was that really God? For me it was. And perhaps for many of you.
Yes, the idea and reality of God are complex but they are worth it. The investment of your time and attention might introduce or reintroduce you to another or even a more sophisticated God concept.
Perhaps like I did at the Grand Tetons and in my time of personal need, and like the recovering addicts did on the retreat, you too will break through to a new spirituality or religiosity. Of course, Cantor Doug, Rabbi Julia and I, and all our interns, are always here to listen to you, to help you with your God questions, issues, or disillusionment. Together, let’s explore the human desire for connection with God.
This New Year, let’s each get in touch with our spiritual side. Now that would truly make it a Shana Tova uMetuka – a sweet and good new year. The invitation is on the table. Let’s walk that road together. L’Shana Tova.
Words of Thanks
My Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon in 5774/2013.
Sermons are always result from the collaboration with a group of people. I thank my wife, Michelle November, for her brilliant editing skills and unfailingly on target suggestions. I thank my practice partner Rabbi Julia Weisz (also of Or Ami), whose insightful comments helped bring the written text to vocal expression. I am indebted to (and slightly irritated by) my friend Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple) for honestly telling me that my intended sermon needed a lot of work; that constructive criticism led me to shelve that one in favor of this sermon, a message I really wanted to share. (I only wish I had sent it to him much earlier so that I would have had more time to write a new sermon.)
So many people introduced me to the thinking of the theologians reviewed here, including my teachers – Drs. Eugene Borowitz, David Ellenson, Larry Hoffman and Leonard Kravitz of HUC-JIR; author Rabbis Rifat Soncino and Daniel Syme; my Facebook friends – Rabbis Jordie Gerson, Heather Miller, and Kari Hofmaister Tuling who helped crowdsource this sermon; and my Institute for Jewish Spirituality teachers – Rachel Cowen, Nancy Flam, Myriam Klotz, Marc Margolius, Jonathan Slater, and Sheila Weinberg, who collectively led me into deeper connection with the Holy One and helped me understand how to live Reb Nachman’s hitbodedut.
Sometimes the most anxiety-provoking moment of the High Holy Days arrives well ahead of when I actually deliver my sermon. The anxiety bursts forth between the time I send a draft of the sermon off to my respected reviewers and the moment when I receive their suggestions/edits/critique.
A recent article shed light on the value of professional coaches. Top surgeon Atul Gawande wrote Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better? in this week’s The New Yorker magazine. He explore the question: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?
I have long been a believer that all professionals, even rabbi – especially rabbis, can benefit from personal coaching. In fact, by the time I arrive on the bimah and begin speaking, I have already subjected myself to the critiques of at least a half dozen people. In fact, their opinions make the difference between an adequate sermon and one which has the potential to inspire and motivate. In a good year, I will have practiced delivering my sermon before a few different colleagues or friends to ensure it is “listen-able”.
In a sense, these reviewers are my sermon-writing coaches. Their help, like the yoga instructor that pushes me, often causes me much discomfort. (But out of comfort, they say, comes wisdom.) My coaches help me say what I need to say in a way that makes sense and can be heard. They help me cut away the fat (some of which I had originally thought were gems); they push me away from frontal “preaching” toward engaging “storytelling” or “teaching.”
They remind me to envision 5-7 different listeners and to consider ahead of time how they might hear the sermon. Humbling as that exercise often is, it regularly forces me to widen my comments to minimize the number of people who are left behind. I long ago became a firm believer that good writing and good preaching emerges from the collaboration and coaching by thoughtful people.
I make a special point of thanking these people in the first endnote on my final publishable copy of the sermon. For my recent sermon, A Letter to My Sons: On Being a Man, I thanked them thusly:
This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to a series of people whose input, comments and edits enhanced this sermon. Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles, CA), Dr. David Rubin (Sherman Oaks, CA), and Rabbi Julia Weisz (of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA) each offered important insights. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (of Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA) has long been teaching Jewish men how to be “good men”; he opened his treasure trove of resources via www.Dropbox.com. By far the greatest assistance comes from my wife Michelle November (Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA), who as usual helped me translate good ideas into comprehensible sermons. This sermon also draws upon knowledge gained as a “social sermon.” On Facebook and Twitter, I asked a series of questions, including, “What should I tell my kids about being a man?” and “What should I tell my kids about sex?” More than two dozen responses from congregants, friends and colleagues influenced this sermon.
Yes, this sermon received intense going over by:
- One colleague who currently teaches Homiletics (sermon writing/preaching) in the Rabbinical School of HUC-JIR;
- Another colleague is one of the emerging experts on my chosen topic (the American Jewish male);
- A third colleague is a newly ordained colleague at our synagogue; I believe that through coaching each other, we develop a learning relationship that makes each of us a better rabbi;
- A psychologist doctor who has long been providing me with insights for sermons and on how to handle pastoral issues when they arise;
- My wife Michelle who is a master editor, a merciless surgeon of unnecessary or toxic words, and a compassionate yet unforgiving truth-teller.
Over the years I have received coaching help from a Roundtable group of rabbis and social workers, a Spiritual Director, an executive coach, a Hebrew teacher, various yoga instructors, and a series of chevruta partners.
How about you? Where do you receive personal or professional coaching?
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!
Click here to download a PDF of this sermon.
Who has seen the movie Toy Story 3? My wife Michelle and I saw it with the kids on the day it came out. There we sat, watching Pixar’s animated film about a bunch of talking toys, when I noticed the tears running down my wife’s face. I squeezed her hand tightly; I too was crying. Now just so you know, we didn’t get choked up in the original Toy Story, nor in Toy Story 2. We were crying because just like our eldest child Rachel, the owner and friend of the toys, a character named Andy was going off to college. When we later saw the movie The Kids are All Right, we again found ourselves sobbing during the off-to-college scene.
Michelle and I are experiencing a wonderful yet tear-inducing reality that our little redhead has flown the coop, venturing off as a freshman to Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. We long dreamt about and planned for our child to go to college. Yet now that she actually has the gall to go, we find ourselves on a rollercoaster of emotions.
Who has sent children or grandchildren off to college? Who remembers your own parents’ reactions when you first left home? (Who would like to schedule some time in my office to work through the memories of your parent’s joy when you left home?) How many are already emotional at the thought of your own children leaving, even though your own kids won’t go to college for many more years?
As Rachel prepared to leave, I sat down and wrote her a letter. Rereading it a few days later, I realized that the message I had tailored to my eldest child was applicable to so many transitions beyond leaving for college. Essentially, we can all use words of encouragement to go out and “seize the day,” to make the most of our lives while remain true to our core Jewish values.
So whether you have a child or grandchild going off to college, or are that student yourself; whether you have recently started a new job or find yourself searching for one anew, or are beginning or enjoying a recent retirement; if you have recently said goodbye to dear friends who moved away or had to move yourself; if you are reencountering the world after illness or loss or are struggling with the jumble of emotions in the midst of a loved one’s illness or death; if you are welcoming a new member into the family – the birth or adoption of a baby, a fiancé, spouse or partner, a new son- or daughter-in-law, step-parent, or…; if you are about to make a decision to change the path of your life or if you just feel yourself getting stuck in a routine and want to consider a return to a vibrant life path; or whatever transition you find yourself in… I hope these words will inspire you.
Of course, whenever I mention Rachel and her transition of going to college, please substitute in your mind your name and your own transition, since this is for you too.
You are about to embark on the next leg of the journey called “your life.” For all of us, this leg is bittersweet: Sweet, because as you go off to college, exciting new worlds will open up to you, worlds that you didn’t even imagine existed. They will inspire you and challenge you; you will grow in incredible ways.
Of course, this is a moment of sadness too. Your departure to college makes it undeniably clear that you are no longer a little girl, my little redhead, who lived in a protective bubble of family and community, as safe as possible under the watchful eyes of mom and dad.
No, although Mom and I fantasized about it, they don’t seem to allow parents to be your college roommates. You are off on your own. Although we will undoubtedly connect regularly – texting, BBM, Facebook, iChat and maybe even that old standby, the telephone – Mom and I will no longer have front row seats on your journey; from this day forward, we learn about you from you.
This all happened way too quickly. I miss the days when you could just curl up into my arms and my hugs and kisses were all you seemed to need, yet I know that you and I will be fine. We have worked hard to create a close, trusting relationship, which will grow and deepen as you and I change and grow. More than anything, I cherish our closeness. It gives me the strength to allow to you go off to the college of your choice, instead of my preferred choice: URTC – University of Right around The Corner.
As you leave, there is so much I want to remind you about, values to reaffirm, lessons to repeat. Now I know college is filled with really smart professors and really handsome T.A.’s. However, I want to share with you 18 bits of my chochma, one piece of wisdom for each of your 18 years of life.
- First, last, and in between, remember always that you are compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful. Every time we talk to you, you take our breath away with your insightfulness, the depth of your kindness, your “you.” This essence animates you. Our Creator, the Holy One, endowed you with these gifts. Embrace them, honor them, hone them. Especially because…
- The world is about to open up for you. Embrace the excitement and the challenge. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, wrote kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tsar me-od, v’ha-ikkar lo l’fached klal – that the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid. So step up, step out – be it with people, experiences, or opportunities. Don’t be afraid to fall or fail. Where we can, Mom and I will be there to support you, but we trust your strength and resilience to pick yourself up and redirect. (Of course, be thoughtful. Just because a bridge presents itself, doesn’t mean you have to cross it.)
- Every new experience allows you to reflect upon the ideas you take for granted and ideas you have never before encountered. Absorb the knowledge; be challenged by the ideas of others. Listen carefully to their perspectives on the world, their philosophies, and even their theologies. As the Talmudic sage Ben Zoma taught: V’eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? Ha-lomed mikol adam – the one who learns from every person.
- Remember that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. So seek out the diverse people who populate your college. As the Passover Seder reminds us, ger hayiti b’eretz mitzrayim, that we Jews were once strangers, shunned, to the edges of society by people with narrow minds. Move out of the Egypt of narrow-mindedness and into the promised land of pluralism.
- Remember that you are beautiful. So make sure you fall in love with someone who treats you beautifully. And try to fall in love with someone who shares your love and appreciation of Judaism and wants to create a Jewish home. Not because Judaism is the only truth. Not because you cannot find happiness with someone who is not Jewish (you can). Do it because it is who you are.
- Mom and I pride ourselves in getting you to this point in your life, healthy, whole and in one piece. Now your safety and future is up to you. Remember the four questions that Dr. Bruce Powell, founder of New Community Jewish High School, asks ourselves to consider before we do something: 1. Is it safe? 2. Is it legal? 3. Is it moral? And, because what you do today in your dorm room or at a party is apt to show up that night on someone’s Facebook page: 4. Would you want your mother, father, grandparents, teacher, or rabbi to know about it? If you cannot say “yes” to all four, perhaps you should not walk down that path.
- You see, the world will present you with a plethora of opportunities to indulge your wildest urges – intellectually, physically, spiritually, with artificial stimulants, with artificial people. College is a time of experimentation. But heed the wisdom of the wise Ben Zoma who said, V’eizeh hu gibor? Who is mighty? HaKovesh et yitzro. The one who controls her passions. So just remember: ultimately you are responsible for who you will become and what you make of your life.
- You are now the guide of your own learning. Make wise choices. Sign up each semester for classes that are thought-provoking and inspiring. Ask questions, and respectfully challenge pat answers so that you can advance from collecting knowledge to developing wisdom.
- Remember also that Judaism is a multifaceted, multi-vocal, intellectually compelling religion. There is so much you – and I – still don’t know about it. So choose a Jewish studies class each year to learn more about Judaism as an adult.
- At your school, the Religious Students Union provides a golden opportunity to broaden your horizons. Naturally, Jewish life on campus is not the same as at Or Ami. Just as you are growing intellectually, socially and independently, so too allow yourself to grow Jewishly. Do not feel self-conscious at what you don’t know. Seek out the Hillel director to explore together what your college Jewish life could look like. You might be surprised at the opportunities that appeal to you.
- Make sure to get to Israel. Apply for a Birthright trip early – with the Reform movement. Consider taking a semester abroad in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
- And speaking of Israel, you may soon discover that the University world is not always supportive of her. Many people use the open intellectual environment as a cover to bash Israel. You know that I love Israel, her people, and her land… You also know that I believe there is much to criticize the government of Israel about. As an Oheiv Yisrael, a lover of Israel, we must separate the critique of policies from our support of the fundamental right of the Jewish people to a Jewish pluralistic, democratic state. So align yourself with AIPAC, or StandWithUs, or Shalom Achshav/Peace Now. Wherever you stand, be sure to differentiate your response from those that just seek to harm Israel or our people.
- By the way, your religious/spiritual foundations are about to be shaken in exciting and scary ways. As you learn about the plethora of perspectives out there, you might find yourself considering ideas and beliefs beyond the Jewish ideas with which you have been raised.
- Don’t be afraid to find out that some of our most cherished beliefs have parallels or antecedents in other cultures or religions. I believe that God shares wisdom in many ways with many peoples, and that there are many paths to that Truth. Buddhism has informed the Jewish spirituality I have embraced; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share compelling ideas about justice and compassion.
- I encourage all Or Ami students to call or email your rabbi – me – or Cantor Doug, when you are feeling shaken to your core. A lot of life happens in four years. We will help you remain grounded and process complex issues.
- About grades. Do your very best. You do not need to be an A+ student. But as you learned at “New Jew” (your high school), always strive to be an A+ human being. Living a life of kindness and compassion, integrity and honesty, of tzedakah and justice – this is non-negotiable.
- Rachel, you amaze and inspire me. Your journey excites me, as I get to watch you in the process of becoming. Know that your parents will be all right too, because we believe in you.
- May the Holy One bless you on your journey. B’tzeitecha u’voecha – in your going away and in your coming home too. Mei-atah v’ad olam. From this day forth and forever.
I love you.
Friends, those are words of wisdom I shared with my baby as she ventured off – ideas about values and openness, about safety and Jewish involvement. These are the same words I could share with all our Or Ami college students as they step into the next phase of their lives.
Over the past year, Or Ami has begun to refocused and strengthen on our youth. We now have reinvigorated programs: Mitzvah Club for families with children in 2nd-6th grades; Temple Kef Night, evenings of fun for 6th-8th graders; and an active LoMPTY senior youth group for high schoolers. Today, we are proud to announce four new initiatives to reach out to our Or Ami college students:
- If you send me your child’s or grandchild’s email and snail mail address, I will be in touch regularly. First, I will share a version of this letter, advice for the college student, addressed specifically to your child. Then we at Or Ami will be in touch with them over holidays and before semester break.
- As soon as I reach our goal of raising $2,500, the first 25 college student children of Or Ami members who take an approved (by me) Jewish studies, Israel studies or Hebrew class will receive a $100 gift card for iTunes, Amazon or Starbucks. This will begin spring semester. The idea is to incentivize Jewish learning; it’s an investment in the Jewish future.
- We are beginning to webcast our Shabbat Services, primarily to ensure that our congregants who are ill or homebound will be able to enjoy the Cantor’s music and our prayers. In fact, we are experimenting today by webcasting these High Holy Day services. We will make sure that our college students know that when they are missing home, feeling lost or alone, they can log in to sing Listen and Shema with Cantor Doug, light candles with the congregation, or be inspired by their rabbi.
- Or Ami’s First Annual Thanksgiving Weekend College Reunion is happening this year. On the Saturday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, I am inviting all Or Ami college students of current and former members to join me as my guest for an early sushi dinner. Come reconnect with each other and with your rabbi, and there still will be plenty of time to go out later with your other friends.
As our children go off, we pray that they go to a place where they will be safe. Where they will be wise in times when we won’t know. And that they will find God’s light, when the stars come out each night. Our babies are precious; we needn’t give them up when they go to college. We can guide them differently, more subtly, but with the same love and inspiration. Or Ami’s Henaynu caring and support does not end when our kids graduate high school. Let’s shine the light of Or Ami brightly as they make their way into the world.
May we as individuals, as parents and grandparents, as children, as a community, continue to recognize the beauty in our relationships with one another, continue to reach out, to inspire each other, to evolve, and to embrace change.
Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Yom Kippur 5770/2009
[For full endnotes, textual references and lyrics of songs sung/quoted, see Rabbi’s writings on our Or Ami website.]
A story: In the year 120 CE, in the land of Israel, a horrible plague swept through the holy land. So many took ill. Thousands succumbed. The plague took beloved friends and co-workers. By the time it ended, 24,000 had died. Whole families were wiped out.
Devastated, people struggled to understand why this plague had come. In an age before the Centers for Disease Control, they turned to their rabbinic leaders for explanation and comfort. Following the best pre-scientific knowledge of their day, these ancient rabbis concluded that the plague must be punishment for some appalling sin they committed.
Which fit. Because it was a time of terrible partisanship in the halls of Torah study. Here they were talking Torah and their arguments were supposed to be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Yet as the disagreements intensified, words sharpened, and attacks by one study group on those who disagreed with them became vicious. Soon discussions about Jewish law became forums to destroy each others’ reputations, livelihoods, lives.
Then the great 2nd century scholar Rabbi Akiba figured it out. The plague’s cause to sinat chinam, the baseless hatred that the students had for each other. Searching for a cure, he turned to Torah. There in Leviticus, he read V’ahavta l’ray-a-cha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.
Having witnessed the way that so many students of Torah were engaged in the holiest of endeavors – the study of Torah – yet were still insensitive towards others, Akiva proclaimed that this great sin could only be remedied with gemilut chasadim, lovingkindness.
V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha set a high standard of behavior. It was not about feeling love. Rather, each action we take which affects others must pass a specific litmus test: Would we want to be on the receiving end of that action? Rabbi Akiva challenged: Loving yourself, you must take the needs and desires of others into account. Do so and the world will quickly be cleansed of hatred and violence. So he rallied his surviving students to this new cause, an aspiration for holy living which accompanied holy learning.
Cantor and Chorale sing the Chorus and Verse from Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Amar Rabi Akiva
Accepting the plagues as the result of sinful behavior, Akiva’s 2nd century colleague Ben Azzai suggested another fundamental principle in Torah to guide us. Lifting up a verse from the Creation story in Genesis – b’tzelem Elohim, that we were created in the image of God – Ben Azzai taught that though we may seem different, act differently, speak different languages, we are connected by the miraculous process of our creation. B’tzelem Elohim, being created in God’s image, proclaims that each human being is equally blessed, because we all are born with intrinsic value and worth.
B’tzelem Elohim set a new standard for our actions: since God is neither white nor black, male nor female, Jew nor non-Jew, and since every human being is an image of God, there is no preferred image. Therefore all people should be well treated as equals. If each person harbors God’s image within, we have the responsibility to care for, protect, and embrace every person. Even those we do not know. We need to open our hearts to the strangers in our midst, and to create communities of inclusion, where prejudice and hate give way to love and respect.
What a wonderful world that would be!
Cantor and Chorale sing a Chorus and Verse from Sheryl Braunstein and Paul Kipnes’ song, B’tzelem Elohim
Another story. We all know Moses, our people’s greatest hero. He is one who wrestled with the challenges of being a stranger in a strange land. Saved at birth by a non-Israelite princess. Raised in Pharaoh’s home. Struggling for decades with the secret of his birth. Moses watched his people struggle under the whip and sword. Until one day, after witnessing the abuse heaped upon an Israelite slave by his Egyptian taskmaster, Moses became incensed. Furious, Moses killed the taskmaster. When the act became known, Moses fled into the wilderness. There, he met Yitro, a Midianite priest, and there he fell in love with Tzipporah, Yitro’s beautiful headstrong daughter. In this wilderness, Tzipporah gave birth to their first son. Moses aptly named his son, Gershom, which means Ger hayiti b’eretz nochriya. Gershom, meaning I was a stranger in a strange land.
Some rabbis point to the naming of Gershom as one of the pivotal incidents in the onset of the Exodus. Before God could call Moses to service, before Moses could go down to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, he had to embrace an existential reality – that a fundamental part of his identity was the experience of being an outsider. To lead God’s people, to nurture the community toward holiness, Moses needed to feel in the very beating of his heart, the heart of the stranger.
We all know what it is like to feel like a stranger. You step into a room filled with people who look at you, and then return to their conversations, as if you were not there. You sit alone in class or in the office, and nobody turns to say hello. You enter a synagogue – somewhere else, of course – and no one makes you feel welcome. Though we all descended from one human, Adam, most of us have a tendency to categorize people as “like us” or “not like us” – by skin color, by race, by religion or sexual orientation, by socio-economic status. Most of the time, if we hang out with our own crowd, we feel secure that we are part of the group. But step outside the circle, and we feel the heart of the stranger. We feel misplaced, different.
Then at Mt. Sinai we received the Torah, and with it a moral imperative to remain keenly aware of people living at the margins. Did you know that the commandment to protect the defenseless in society from exploitation is the most often repeated injunction in the entire Torah, appearing more often than commandments to love God, keep kosher, or observe Shabbat? According to one count by the Talmud, no less than thirty-six times are we directed to protect the most vulnerable among us. In ancient Israel, it was understood that strangers, as outsiders with few support systems, were defenseless against injustice.
Later, we Jews saw Israel, our holy land, twice destroyed. Two times we experienced being scattered throughout the world, separated from our holy places, the source of our identity. Then in the Middle Ages, a sense of our own insecurity deepened, created by years of living at the whim of city-state rulers, who at a moment’s notice could expel us with just the knowledge in our heads and whatever we could carry on our backs. Those realities entered our hearts, pumping through our veins the blood of being the stranger.
Now, at every Passover seder, we eat bitter herbs and matzah and relive our flight from being a stranger. Every Sukkot, we re-experience wandering by living in sukkah booths. Every Shabbat, we sing Mi Chamocha, thanking God for bringing us out of Egypt. Again and again in the Bible and in our rituals, the memory of our slavery points us to one commandment: You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger… Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.
What does it really mean today to feel the heart of the stranger? Sometimes it just makes you sick.
A story: this summer Michelle, the boys and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum chronicles key episodes in the oppression of blacks and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. There, we learned in depth about the cynical machinations of racism that permeated our country’s legal, business and governmental system. There, we saw how nefarious forces over a short period of time had transformed forbidden slavery into a then acceptable system of brutal racial discrimination. The Museum’s depictions of the brave struggle for Arkansas school desegregation, of Rosa Parks’ sitting up front of the bus, of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and of Freedom Summer illuminated the radiant power of an organized caring community to roll back prejudice. There we learn how one inspired man, working with other insightful, motivated people, turned this country back on the road toward justice.
Yet walking through the museum was emotionally draining. The photos and news clippings, eyewitness accounts and whites-only signs, were startling. It defied sensibility that in America, in my lifetime, lawyers and preachers, judges and governors, bus drivers and businessmen, Jews among them – could wrap themselves in the cloak of Biblical morality to justify the subjugation, and later separation, of the races. I was ashamed at how our country treated its own citizens. How deadened do you have to be inside to ignore our biblical mandates of b’tzelem Elohim and love thy neighbor as yourself? How numb do you have to be to the heart of the stranger to lynch someone who is marching just so they can sit at the front of the bus?
The institutionalization of racial discrimination in America back then, and the continued marginalization and often exploitation of other groups of people – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the physically and mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, the working poor – defies every fundamental principle Judaism holds dear: that we were created in God’s image, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, that we were strangers in a strange land. What is a Jew to do, when we hear of prejudice and discrimination, especially when the Bible is used to justify injustice?
Our Jewish hearts, like those of the Biblical prophets of Israel before us, must become incensed by this twisting of our values to support a status quo. Our responsibility is to speak out and act up to ensure those pushed to the margins are embraced and cared for.
We feel the heart of the stranger. That’s why Jews have been at the forefront of every significant social movement then and now: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-apartheid, ending genocide in Darfur, end of sanctioned torture, and more. We feel the heart of the stranger. It’s why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. The heart of the stranger. It is why so many Or Ami congregants step forward in droves to support children in foster care, kids they never even met. The heart of the stranger.
I’m proud that Congregation Or Ami strives to live up to the standards set by Akiva, Ben Azzai and Moses. Nothing makes me kvell – beam with more pride – than when people speak about Or Ami as the place where people previously felt like they were on the margins of the community are welcomed back into the center. Our sanctuary is filled with people who “are young and old; able-bodied and have special needs; single and couples, divorced and blended families; people of various sexual orientations; multiracial people and multiethnic families; people whose lives range from whole to broken, and from struggling to wealthy.” We are a mosaic of Moses’ people.
So this year, let’s continue to cultivate within the heart of the stranger.
Perhaps next time you see a person with a different color skin than yours – perhaps black or brown, white, reddish or yellow – you will look first beneath their skin color to honor the image of God that resides within.
Maybe when a client or co-worker walks into the office – the Persian or Israeli, the Muslim woman wearing the head covering, we will withhold that knee-jerk prejudging – and try to will love that neighbor as ourselves.
Perhaps when we see someone walking down the street, or bussing our plates at a restaurant, and we start to wonder if he is an illegal immigrant, we will remember that we too were often strangers in a strange land.
And when we see the poorest of the poor, sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping under a park bench, we will shine them a smile. And then when we go home, let’s call our city councilors or write our congress people, to tell them that we feel shame that God’s children are living in the gutters. And then we will write a check to a hunger organization, and volunteer at the SOVA food pantry, and vote for people who will help erase homelessness and poverty from our streets once and for all.
And when we listen to cable news and hear tirades about why we cannot, should not, enact serious reform of our inexcusably deficient healthcare and health insurance system, remember that the stranger sitting in the row right in front of us might be someone whose mother or father, or cousin or friend, or they themselves, cannot get the care they need because our current system, that might serve you and me well enough, stands idly by while our neighbors bleed. Hopefully our hearts will do more than bleed for them. Hopefully we will stand up and advocate for them.
And next time we think about the men and women, who share love, but cannot marry, because they happen to be of the same gender, we will remember our Torah, which sees the b’tzelem Elohim in all people, would bless monogamous, consensual, gay or lesbian marriages, and you will honor and bless them too, as do I, your rabbi.
It is Yom Kippur, and we stand together to ask forgiveness for our sins. For the ways we have harmed others by our actions, and by our inactions as well. For standing idly by while our neighbors bleed, suffer, or struggle. For numbing ourselves to the heart of the stranger, and pretending that we weren’t once strangers too.
Because we are all neighbors, commanded to treat each other with love. Because we all are created in the image of God, making each of us valued and worthy. Because we remember what it is like to be marginalized, oppressed and ignored.
On this day especially, may God grant us the courage:
To break the chains that bind us
And make oppression disappear.
To help the stranger find a bed.
To remember that [we] must share our daily bread.
Torah teaches Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. May we remember Justice, justice, I will pursue you.
Cantor Cotler sings his song, “Justice, Justice”
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