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A GROWN UP GOD - Yom Kippur 2018/5779

09/26/2018 01:43:05 PM


A GROWN UP GOD - Yom Kippur 2018/5779

He sat before me, a typical petulant 13-year old. It was a week or so before his Bar Mitzvah and he had announced to his family at dinner last night that he didn't believe in God and didn't want to have a Bar Mitzvah. They didn't know what to do. Cancel the simcha? The invitations already went out, the caterer had already been paid, the yarmulkas were on order… Send him to the rabbi. So here he sat. 
    “You don't believe in God?” I asked him. 
    “No,” he confessed, with eyes cast downward, like he'd just told the Vice Principal that it was his spitball that hit the head cheerleader.
    “Ok, let's talk.” He looked up at me relieved I wasn't going to take out a magic wand and place a curse on him. 
    “You don't believe in God. Ok. When you say that, what do you mean by God?” 
This was a question he did not expect. 
    “You're a rabbi, you know... God.” 
    “Yes, but that's a slippery word. What do you mean by God?”
    “God is a spirit.He's invisible, but he's everywhere. He watches us. He punishes us when we're bad and rewards us when we're good. You know… God. And I can't believe in that anymore. Because there's just too much bad stuff in the world, with terrorism, and hurricanes, and wars, I just can't believe in it anymore.” 
    “I can't believe in that either, I responded. But that's not God. That's Santa Claus. “He knows if you've been sleeping, he knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” That's Santa Claus. And I don't believe in him either.” 
    “But you're a rabbi! You're religious.”
    “Yes. But being religious doesn't mean I give up my intelligence. It doesn't mean I don't see the world around me” 
    “Let me ask you something, do you have any picture of yourself when you were a little kid?” 
    “Sure. Mom says I was very cute.”
    “I'm sure you were. Can you still wear those clothes, the ones you wore when you were small?”
    “No. I grew out of them a long time ago.” 
    “And if you tried to put them on, that would be very uncomfortable, right? Well, you've outgrown your idea of God. You still have a kid's idea of God, and now you're starting to think like a grown up, and just as your clothes don't fit anymore, your ideas don't fit. You need a grown up God.” 
    “A grown-up God? What's a grown up God?”

“That's a very good question.”

He's not alone in his disbelief. Far from it. According to a recent study of American Jewish identity, some 35% of younger American Jews define themselves as Jewish without religion. If you ask, they will complain that religious institutions are authoritarian, boring, expensive. They find religious teaching irrelevant, and ritual hollow. And if you probe a bit more, you'll come to this " it just doesn't make sense. What religion teaches is just not my truth. Through no fault of their own, they are mature, thinking, critically minded adults working off a child's religious script. They've outgrown their ideas about God. 

What's a grown up idea of God? Where do we find this God?

“Where do we start? My young friend asks me, “A burning bush? A splitting sea?” 
    “Nope. We start with the ordinary experience.” 

When my daughter Nessa was three years old, we had a routine: Each night I would tuck her into bed, sing our bedtime prayers, kiss her good night, and attempt to sneak out of the room. Halfway down the hall, she began to scream: “Abba! There's an alligator under my bed! There's a monster in the closet! There's a giant spider on the ceiling! Abba!” I read books on parenting, so I know what to do: I walk back to the child's room and turn on every light. I look under the bed. “No alligator, Nessa.” I check the closet. “No monsters, Nessa.” I survey the ceiling. “No spiders, Nessa. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is coming and you've got to get to sleep. Everything is safe. Good night.” "OK Abba," she agrees, "But leave a light on."

We did this dance for an entire year until one night I stopped and realized what just happened. I sat down in the middle of the hallway and asked myself a question: Who is right? Whose description of the world is empirically, factually correct? The child afraid of alligators under the bed, or the father who reassures her that everything is safe, that tomorrow is surely coming. The truth is that the child is correct. She doesn't know the names of the alligators under the bed. She doesn't know about the diseases of the body and the diseases of society, of terrorists and lunatics who steal our security and our future. We grown-ups know all to well the threats that surround us and yet we still insist to our children that the world is safe enough to trust, at least for this one night. All loving parents do this. No one says, “You're right kid, the world is a cold, cruel evil place filled with monsters. Now go to sleep!” No one. Even the most hardboiled atheist whispers to the child, “Tomorrow is coming, you're safe tonight, go to sleep.”

The most precious gift we give our children is our faith that the world is safe for them: The world welcomes them, the world celebrates their arrival, the world anticipates their uniqueness, and that the world is so arranged that they can thrive. Of course there are threats, dangers, but we know we can equip them to cope. Latent in the vocation of parenting is a system of beliefs about nature of the world. This view of the world is not factual. And yet, every parent believes it. This is the faith of parenting.

Faith is not ascent to a creed. It is not a testimony to some proposition or catechism. Faith is lived. Beneath all our everyday actions and choices and decisions is an implicit system of beliefs. This system of beliefs forms a map that describes the world, its dangers and opportunities, its pitfalls and possibilities. The map points us toward what we deem to be success, where happiness is, and how to get there. It helps us anticipate what we're going to meet along that way.

The Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, taught that everyone has a god. A god, he defined, as an object of ultimate concern. Everyone directs their life toward some object -- material wealth, the love of family, the pursuit of justice, the appreciation of beauty, the search for truth. That's our ultimate concern, our god. But it is more than a god. Everyone has a religion. Because everyone has a map, a picture of the world. What's on that map is not empirical. It can't be proven scientifically. It is proven in the life we live. The question is -- what are the moral implications of my map? What kind of person does it make me?

Most of us give to charity of some kind. Why? Because we believe that charity heals the world. But how do we know that? What if it turned out that there is a given amount of suffering in the world, and healing it here only transferred it over there? We cured malaria, we were afflicted with polio. We cured polio we were inflicted with cancer. We treated cancer, we got AIDS. We stopped AIDS, we found ebola. How do you know that the world can be healed? You don't. You believe it. Because it makes you the person you most want to be.

    “You know what Bar Mitzvah is?” I asked my young friend. “It's when you begin choosing your map, you begin to decide who you most want to be.”  
    “But where is God in all this?” He asks impatiently.
    “God is coming,” I assure him. “But you don't start with God. You start by trying to make sense of life.” 
    “OK, but what is God?” he demands. 
    “God is the answer to the question -- how big is your map?”

The Gerer Rebbe, was a great 19th century Hasidic master in Poland. He wrote a letter to his children explaining his belief in God. We say Shema Yisrael, every day, twice a day, the Rebbe taught, but we don't realize what it means.

    “The meaning of “Adonai Echad, God is one,” he wrote, is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!), but the meaning is deeper than that: There is nothing else but God. …Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God Himself...  Because of this, every person can attach himself [to God] wherever he is, through the holiness that exists within every single thing, even physical things.”

What did the Rebbe mean? I want you to imagine you're standing in front of a big mirror. Touch your head. Touch your arms. Touch you legs. Touch you belly. Now touch your self, the part that is you.

    He's flummoxed. 

We all have a sense of self. The inner voice that is you. We become aware of self sometime before the age of two. It is the most remarkable part of us. It lives in the body, but it's not entirely of the body. That's why you can't find it to touch. You could lose any part of your body, but you'd still be, you. But what is it? It's interesting that the most immediate and intimate part of our being is a great mystery.

The Talmud offers this insight: “What God is to the world, the self is to the body.” Let's turn that around. What self is to each one of us, God is to the universe. Imagine that the entire universe is a body, and God is the self of the universe. In the Torah, God has a personal name. In Hebrew this name is spelled: Yud/Hay/Vav/Hay. This is a conflation of the words for: was, is, will be " all that is, all that was and all that will be, all three pronounced all at the same time.

Here's what it means: If we imagine the universe as a body, and God as the self of the universe, then what are we? Each of us is a cell in the body of God. Just as each cell has a special function in the body, each us is a unique and precious expression of the whole, of God, with a unique role to play in the life of the world. Each of us is needed. Each of us is necessary for the health, the well-being of the whole. At the same time, each of us is supported by the world, just as each cell is nurtured by the body.

What happens in the body when one cell decides it wants to go it alone, to go rogue, seek its own way with no regard to the well-being of the whole? That's called disease, that's cancer. What cancer is to a body, evil is to the world " when one of us denies that we're connected to the whole social ecology, when we forget are responsible for everyone else. The counterpart of Adonai Echad, God is the oneness, is the commandment, V'ahavtah l'reicha kamocha, You shall love the other as yourself, because in reality the other is yourself.

In the Ten Commandments, we are forbidden from making an image of God. Because if we choose one element of our experience and say, this is sacred and nothing else, we violate the oneness of all. If I worship what's mine, if I elevate the projections of my own self, and deny my connection with everyone else, that's idolatry.

We are forbidden from making any image of God. But there is one exception. The philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God broke His own rule. God created human begins in the divine image. Taught Heschel, it's not that we can't make an image of God. But that the only material out of which you can make an adequate image is the entirety of a human life. Religion, Heschel taught, begins with the consciousness that something is asked of me. To live a life that reflects the oneness of all.

Rabbi Schulweis called this the language of Godliness. I asked him once where he got this idea from. I expected him to say that it came from the German philosopher Feuerbach or from the Jewish thinker Maimonides. No, he said. He found it saying a bracha. A simple bracha contains this powerful idea.

Every bracha, he taught, has a subject and a predicate. 
    Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam. Praise is God, Ruler of the Universe,--  the subject.
    Ha motzee lechem min ha-aretz. Who brings forth bread from the earth, -- the predicate. 
But why the predicate? If all we wanted to do is praise God, all we should have needed was the subject. Baruch ata Adonai. Praised are you Adonai, our God. That should be enough.  We declare the predicate " Ha-motzee lechem, who brings bread from the earth, because the true meaning of the blessing is to focus attention on the power of this act, feeding to a hungry world, to express the oneness of all. 

The bracha points us to a set of acts we can call Godly. When I feed the hungry, when I heal the sick, when I comfort the bereaved, when I nurture a child, I become the hands and eyes and ears of God in the world, bringing together the pieces of the world, making them into one. 

What's the opposite of God? What gets in the way? Ego. The ever-present, unceasing infantile scream, “Me! Mine! Get me! Buy me! Pay attention to Me!” The voice that puts me at the center of the universe. Religion comes to teach us how to quiet that voice. That's what prayer is all about. To quell that screaming voice demanding constant attention. The most important of our prayers is Shema Yisrael, Listen, Israel. 

It's actually not a prayer at all, and it isn't directed toward God. It's a plea to our own selves -- Listen! Quiet the internal noise and listen. Because from listening comes humility, and from humility, gratitude, and from gratitude, empathy, commitment, and solidarity. Religion teaches us to recognize that it's not about me. Or more precisely, the boundaries of the “me” are much bigger than I thought. I give up the small, infantile self, to gain the larger spiritual self. Right under the word Shema in the Torah is the word, V'ahavtah, Love. When I love, I give up the smaller self and I feel the presence of a much bigger self. In love, I surrender the self to discover the self.

When I open the tightly drawn circle of the self, when I unfold my map and discover it's so much bigger than I thought, something awakens inside me. I'm filled with a sense that I matter, that my life matters. I discover the larger coherence of life, its meaning, its pattern, its purpose.

    My young friend sits back in his chair. “That's God?”
    “Yes, but there is one more step. You may not understand this today, but someday you will need to know it.”

We all carry a map. As long as our experiences fit into the picture, as long as they follow the map, the map remains unconscious and unexamined. We have no reason to look at it too carefully or to wonder where it came from. But every so often, something knocks us off the map. Life doesn't roll out the way it was supposed to. In the ensuing crisis, a sense of disequilibrium sets in, and we are forced to take out the map and take a good look at it. We ask ourselves, what map do I use now?

Twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. One doctor literally asked me if my life insurance was paid up. Heck of a bedside manner! A surgery was scheduled. I had a week to wait. What do you do during such a week? How you spend a week waiting to find out if you're to live or die?

It turns out that cancer can be a great teacher. It's a curse, no doubt. And I don't wish on anyone. But if you survive, you can learn a lot about life. During that week I learned the question that God is the answer to; the question that all my religious training had come to address. It is the ultimate religious question.

Is the core of reality death -- dark, cold, and empty -- and life but a happy biochemical accident on this tiny planet? Or is the heart of reality life -- creativity and beneficence -- and we are the vessels, the instruments of that energy?

Is death the normal state of things and life the aberration? Or, is life the rule and death the exception? Which is the absolute, and which the derivative? Which is the norm and which the exception?

In the Bible, there is a book called Job. It tells an ancient story even older than our Bible, about a good and righteous man who suffers every imaginable loss. He turns his eyes toward heaven and screams, Why me? For his entire life, he preached the justice of God, the goodness of God, and now, where was that justice and that goodness? How could he suffer so? For 35 chapters Job rages against heaven, asking again and again what so many of us ask, Why me? Finally God shows up to answer him. Not in the still small voice that comforted Elijah, or in the liberating voice that accompanied Moses, God speaks to Job from a hurricane.

Who is this who darkens counsel,
Speaking without knowledge?
Gird your loins like a man;
I will ask and you will inform Me.
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? 
Speak if you have understanding.
Have you ever commanded the day to break,
Assigned the dawn its place,
Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth?
Can you hunt prey for the lion,
And satisfy the appetite of the king of beasts?

God takes Job on a grand tour of the world of nature, and asks him again and again, who do you think you are? Who are you to question? You don't matter. You're insignificant. This isn't about you. Your suffering isn't a moral judgment, you're not important enough for judgment. In the grander scheme of things, you're nobody, you're nothing, you're invisible.

You'll never meet a Jewish person named Job. We have David's and Mordecai's but no one name Job. Because it's not a Hebrew name. It's older than Hebrew, it comes from the very first Mesopotamian civilization, the Akkadians. And in their language, Job means Everyman. John Doe. Occupant. He is a cipher for the common human experience, and the common human experience learns of life from facing nature. And  nature doesn't care. Nature is morally indiscriminate. The wind blows, the rain soaks, the earthquake rattles the righteous together with the sinful. Nature does not recognize individuals, only species.

Staring into the face of nature, my life matters very little. A precious few years, a few accomplishments, a few moments, and then nothingness. Cancer wipes it all away. It all dissolves into oblivion.

But every Biblical story has its opposite, its contrapuntal melody. The Talmud teaches that Job lived at the same time as Abraham. Abraham was told, lech l'cha

Go, from your home, your native land, your family's house, to the land I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; 
I will make your name great, and as for you: Be a blessing!
I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; 
And in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

One man is singled out to carry divine blessings into the world. He is covenanted, he is bound into a partnership with God. And he is father to us all. Each of us carries a piece of that blessing into the world. We are part of God's self. Each of us reflects the light at the center of the universe. Each of us matters.

Two stories. Both are in the Bible. Two completely different religious universes. Two alternative maps of our world. You choose. But choose carefully, because choosing makes all the difference.

I carry a map of my life. Is my map just a single page that dissolves when I do? Or is my map a tile in great mosaic that stretches into eternity? No empirical evidence can answer this question. It's a matter of orientation. We choose. Am I here in the world to enjoy my momentary individuality? Or am I a reflection of an eternal evolution of life, creativity and blessing? Am I here to enjoy some fun, to gather a few toys, to sample the pleasures of the world, and then to disappear? Or am I the hands of God bringing healing in the world?

That's the question Judaism comes to answer. Now your map isn't just bigger, it extends forever.

Believing in God isn't something you decide once. It's a journey, a process, of discovering your map. It's part of deciding who you're going be in the world, what kind of person, how you want to touch the world. That's why you need to have a Bar Mitzvah.

    “What's your Torah?”

He tells me the name of his parsha.

“No, I don't mean that. What's your Torah?”

There are 5,845 verses in a Torah scroll. 304,805 hand written letters. And if even one letter is missing, we can't use that Torah. Each one stands for one of us. Each of us is sent into the world with a word, a phrase, a sentence of God's truth. If any one of us fails to deliver his or her word, the message becomes indecipherable. You have a Torah, a truth you were sent here to announce. Go find it, and make sure the world hears you.

The Kotzker Rebbe, great Hasidic master, was so dispirited by the world, he closed himself into his room for 19 years. Nineteen years of solitude. And then on day, he emerged. He stood on the balcony overlooking the Beit Midrash, the community study hall, crowded with students pouring over holy books. Everyone stopped to look up. The Rebbe asked, “What are you doing?”

The most senior of his disciples stepped forward, “Rebbe, we're learning Torah, as you taught us.”

“No! Don't just learn Torah. Be Torah! Don't just learn Torah. Be Torah!”

Each of us has a Torah, a truth you were sent here to announce, to share, to teach. Take time this year to find it, and make sure, very very sure, the world hears you.


Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784