There was a cartoon going around Facebook last week that I really related to. It showed Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard. But instead of writing “I will not pull my sister’s hair” or “I will not eat my homework,” this time, Bart had a little kippah on his head, and he was writing: “I will not count the pages left in the machzor.”
I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood – flipping through the book, counting how many pages were left. (Then starting my stopwatch as the sermon began so that I knew precisely how many seconds of my life I lost to the rabbi.) I suspect those practices hasn’t disappeared, although I’m not asking for a show of hands….
This is the time of year when we get up close and personal with the prayerbook. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we hold a siddur or a machzor in our hands. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we read from it, pray from it, sing from. And never more than during the High Holy Days do we struggle with the ideas behind its words.
Yom Kippur is hard for us – not only because we’re hungry and services are long – but because so many of us are uneasy with what the prayerbook has to say about God. We struggle with God as creator of the world. We struggle with Torah as divine word. We certainly struggle with the book of life and the idea of God rewarding and punishing for sins. And so we are left counting the pages of the machzor.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where does God live.” He answered, “God lives wherever we let God in.”
And as nice as those words sound, the truth is that in today’s world, more than ever, we struggle with God. We are, after all, the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust and of the Enlightenment, and those event which have forever changed our ability to believe in what traditional Judaism tells. And because we struggle with God, we struggle with the prayerbook and with the act of prayer itself.
Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme write:
Today, there are large numbers of Jews who avoid speaking about God altogether. Unable to accept the notions that have been presented to them as authoritative, they read themselves out of their religion in a theological sense.
But struggling with God doesn’t have to mean rejecting God. The beauty of Judaism is that it has always given us the freedom to form our own beliefs.
According to tradition, there was one moment in history when God appeared to all of our people. At Sinai, our ancestors are said to have heard God speaking. But the Midrash doesn’t tell us what they saw and heard. In fact, what it tells us is that the 600,000 people present that day had 600,000 different experiences of God. No two people saw or heard the same thing.
Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim. Two differing opinions can be reflections of the same God.
Earlier this year, a group of our congregants learned a similar lesson, as we undertook to study what are termed “radical” Jewish views on God. We learned about God as found in nature; about God who is accessed through morality and through relationships. What we discovered was that the radical wasn’t so radical. We discovered that the God that we sometimes have trouble grasping is not the only Jewish possibility. We discovered that we struggle because, to paraphrase an old song, we’ve been “looking for God in all the wrong places.”
Today I want to share with you the ideas of three of those thinkers that we studied. I do so in the hopes that we modern Jews can begin to view our own beliefs as authoritative and authentical. I do so in the hopes that perhaps we can stop counting pages and start seeking new meaning in the act of prayer.
There is a story of a man who was told that he would find God at the top of the highest mountain. He climbed to the top and began to wait. After what seemed like a long time, he noticed a sunset: reds and purples and blues filling the sky. But the man raged at the sunset, “Stop distracting me! I am waiting to see God.” And the colors were silenced by the night.
Sometime later, a flock of birds flew directly overhead. Their sound filled the earth like the music of an enormous orchestra. But again the man raged, “With all of this noise, I will never hear God.” And he scared the birds away, and continued to wait.”
And again time passed, until the man felt a tap on his back. He turned around to see that his family and friends had come to be with him. But he was angry – “You cannot be here. I am waiting to encounter God.” And his family left. And the man continued to wait.
After much, it was time to descend the mountain. Disappointed, the man returned home and lived out his life – but he never found God.
The tragedy of the story is that the man looked God in the face and didn’t know it. He didn’t find God because God is not to be found in some high up and far away place. As this morning’s Torah portion says, Lo Bashamayim Hi – Not in the heavens, but inside of you, inside your heart.
Mordecai Kaplan was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the middle 20th century. He is best known for being the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. And whether you know what that is or not, odds are that what he had to say about God has probably influenced your own beliefs.
He taught that God is to be found in nature. But not only in the way that we might think – in the beautiful sunsets and the vastness of the universe, but specifically in the human ability to make sense and to make meaning out of that universe.
God, he said, is “the sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile.” God is “the Power that makes for the fulfillment of valid ideals.” God is “the Power that impels man to become fully human.”
For this great thinker, and for many of us, God is not an all-powerful creator and enforcer, but a power in the universe that gives meaning to our lives.
What, then, is prayer? Prayer is our attempt to acknowledge that there is meaning in this seemingly chaotic universe, even if we have to make it ourselves. Prayer is a source of strength in difficult times, and an expression of our thankfulness in good times. It is an act of looking inward.
Believe it or not, the Talmud actually expresses a similar idea. It teaches us that not only do people pray; but God also prays – for mercy and fairness. To whom does God pray? To Godself, of course. Who else is there?
For us as well, prayer can be an act of self-training and self-discovery, an act of finding meaning in our own lives and our own choices. This is a particularly powerful message during the High Holy Days. What is it we hope for by the end of Yom Kippur? Not some vague sense of forgiveness from on high, but rather the strength to better ourselves and our lives.
It has been said: “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers have been answered.”
But it would be selfish to say that prayer is all about us. And would be self-serving to assume that God is only inside of ourselves. In fact, for many of us, it is in relationships with other people that the divine is to be found.
As a teenager, I once heard a rabbi tell a story about his own life that stays with me to this day. He told about being in a terrible car accident. He told about being in pain, about the deep sense of fear as the paramedics lifted him off the ground into a brightly lit ambulance. And he told about a man – probably one of the paramedics – who accompanied him into the ambulance. Who held his hand and stroked his head and whispered “It will be OK.”
“That man,” he said, “got me through the terrible ordeal. I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. But as far as I am concerned, I met an angel of God that day.”
It has been said that God is not in you and not in me, but in the space between us.
It was Martin Buber who taught that God is what we encounter when we enter into true relationship with others. That there are two types of relationships, he said. One is the type in which we see other people as “It,” as serving some function in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need people to bag our groceries and deliver our mail and fix our cars. But every once in a while we enter into a relationship in which we see the other person not as “It” but as “Thou” or “You,” not as a function but as a human being. And every Thou, he says, “is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou,” that is God.
Rabbi Larry Kushner puts it a different way:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Everyone carries with them many pieces to [others’] puzzle[s].
And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High
The Hebrew word for messenger is malach, or angel. So in truth, Judaism tells us that we are all angels, all messengers of God. When my rabbi told me that an angel spoke to him in that ambulance, I believe he meant it quite literally. Think of how many people have touched your life in different ways. How many people have taught you something or given you something or sacrificed something for you?
Every person is a reflection of the divine. And it is by gathering together in community, by praying together, by striving to see people as people, and by working together that we bring God into the world.
We bring God into the world.
The Bible tells of another Jew on a spiritual quest, much like the one in our original story.
In the book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is told to stand on a mountain and to find God.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks; but God was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake — fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12 )
Elijah found God not in the great and the loud and the terrible, but in the still small voice that told him what was right and what was wrong. For us as Jews, God has often been in the still small voice. The still, small voice that told Abraham to leave his home and set out for the land of Canaan. The still small voice that told the prophet Micah that we needed to do a better job doing justly and loving mercy. The still small voice that told Herzl that “If you will it, it is no dream.” The still small voice that told Rabbi Heschel to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a voice inside each of us telling us wrong from right. Where is God if not in that voice?
It was the great philosopher Hermann Cohen – one of the fathers of Reform Judaism – who wrote about God as the “ground of the moral universe.” Within each person, he says, there is is an innate knowledge of morality, an unlearned and un-learnable ability to tell right from wrong. That, he said, is where God resides.
And if God is found in the difference between wrong and right, in the difference between this world and the world as it should be, then prayer exists to motivate us to go out and repair the world.
When we say “Sim Shalom – Give us Peace,” we are really saying, “Give us the strength to make peace ourselves.
When we say, “Kol Nidrei Ve’esari – may my unfinished promises be forgiven,” we really mean, “Give me the ability to complete the work that I have begun.”
Page after page after page in the prayerbook we beseech God to do things that are really our job. Visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, feeding the hungry, repairing the world. God is found in the actions of those people whose actions make the world a better place.
Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields,
Nor mend a broken bridge,
Nor rebuild a ruined city;
But prayer can water an arid soul,
Mend a broken heart,
And rebuild a weakened will.
The Talmud tells that the great Rabbi Joshua once met the Messiah. He asked him, “When are you coming to redeem the world.”
The Messiah said, “Hayom – today.”
So Rabbi Joshua returned to his yeshivah and he told his students to stop studying, stop praying, stop working, because the Messiah is coming! But the Messiah didn’t come that day. And so Rabbi Joshua returned to ask him why not.
And he answered: “You didn’t let me finish. If you had, you would have heard me quoting Psalms – ‘Hayom im b’kolo tishma’u’ When will the world be redeemed? “Today, if only you can listen for God’s voice.”
It is in our hands to bring God into this world. God is not on top of a mountain, or in the depths of the sea…. but rather in each moment, in each person, in each day… if only we can listen closely enough.
Where is God? Wherever we let God in.
May we hear God’s voice in the wonders of this world, and in the command to build a better world.
May we see God’s face in the people we love and in the mirrors that reflect our true selves.
May we do God’s work through our loving relationships and our acts of Tikkun Olam.
And may the pages of this prayerbook be for us a wellspring of tradition, a source of inspiration, spurring to spend the new year building, and seeking, and loving, and dreaming, and searching for God in the moments of our lives.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.