by Rabbi James Prosnit
Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre 5778/2017
A boy was flying a kite on a misty day. The kite was invisible in the fog. A passerby wondered what fun there could be flying a kite that could not be seen, to which the boy replied, “I cannot see it, but something is tugging.”
As we gather to experience the power of this holiest of nights, many of us may be like the child, flying kites in the fog. We can’t quite see what exactly it is that compels us to be here – but we sense there is something. Our new machzor with its engaging readings, the chanted melodies, the visuals of scrolls dressed all white provide a string; if we concentrate and give ourselves permission, we may just be able to share the boy’s experience. God remains invisible, but holding on to the line and sitting next to people engaged in the same process leads to something transcendent enabling us to feel the tugging.
I think it was the philosopher Ferris Bueller who said, “Life moves pretty fast.” Many of us spend our days caught up in a world where we are always on call thanks in no small part to the technologies designed to make our lives more manageable –but end up raising our levels of anxiety.
Yet somehow we still manage to find moments we call sacred time, when the spiritual calendar kicks in and enables the search for something that while elusive is still compelling. Some of us choose to do that each week at this time in a majestic holy institution called Shabbat – most of us do not. But most of us do see this night – this Sabbath of Sabbaths as that time in our liturgical year when we can center ourselves through time honored rituals to consider larger truths about our lives.
I realize some of you may be skeptical and may not have had much experience flying spiritual kites. For we bring to this place certain baggage which can call to question religious experience and view the whole enterprise as harkening back to a superstitious age. Some have rejected the hierarchical and punitive images that we remember from religious school in synagogue or church. And certainly some of the metaphors in the classic prayer book do not help. A God on high who reviews our book of life, keeps score of our assets and debits and then determines who makes the playoffs or who gets sent home is not a theology of mine even while I acknowledge that it is part of our tradition.
From time to time I meet people who either sheepishly or proudly say to me that they do not believe in God. Sometimes I say oh, okay, thanks for sharing that! And sometimes I try to engage by asking them to tell me about the God in which they don’t believe. Usually after they respond – I tell them that if that is there notion of God then I’m with them and don’t believe either. We are too frequently trapped in ideas from our youth or from a static tradition underscored by fundamentalist thinking that we think is the only path.
The Second Commandment teaches us not to make graven images. Graven images are not only statues; our conceptions and ideas can become just as concrete. Maimonides perhaps the greatest thinker not only of the early Middle Ages, but for that matter of all time suggested that we shouldn’t say what God is – we can only say what God is not. To try and describe God, in any terms other than metaphor is to create an idol – and that’s the one thing the commandment teaches us never to do. It’s ironic that some while rejecting God hang on to a broken commandment by institutionalizing and defining the infinite. They take what was once meant to be a wide expanse and reduce it to one landscape.
I teach our confirmation class students a famous lesson drawn from the avot prayer that we recite at every service. Why does the text say elohei avoteinu v’elohai emoteinu; elohai Avraham, elohai Yitzhak va’lohai Yaakov elohei sarah elohei rivkah, e’lohei Rachel va’lo ei leah – God of our fathers and God of our mothers; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; God of Sarah. God of Rebecca. God of Rachel and God of Leah? Why so redundant? Wouldn’t it have been more succinct and as correct to say God of our fathers and mothers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – why all these God ofs?
The answer: God remains the same, but each of our ancestors understood and came to terms with God differently. So it can be for us.
So with this as a rather lengthy introduction – perhaps it’s time to consider this G word, this God idea that tugs at us this day.
For those here on Rosh Hashanah morning, I mentioned that in reviewing past sermons delivered over almost thirty years, I had never preached on anti-Semitism –the topic that was on my mind for most of the summer. But I also realized that there was another topic about which I haven’t spoken all that often.. And that’s God. Now, while I’ve referenced God in just about every sermon, I don’t think I’ve ever thought to tell you what it is that I believe. Perhaps because while I have a strong belief, I have long realized that that belief is not static. It has evolved. It’s changed and even wavered at various times. I’m reassured because I know that Jews have always been in search. Questioning and doubt is not alien to Judaism. We are blessedly without catechisms and doctrines of established certitude.
While many may see the Divine presence in the transcendent awe and magnificence of the world outside – my connection comes from a more intimate sense of a God within.
Within me exists an ethical mooring and sense of right and wrong that guides and inspires the decisions I make. I don’t always live up to the best of those intentions, (hence the need for Yom Kippur) but God is aware of the choices I make and urges me on toward the good. God is the anchor of my decency and the foundation on which I make my moral decisions.
I believe that there is a power greater than we, who cares about our actions urging us on in a climb for holier living. This is different than the all judging God in the sky who opens the ledger or surveys the sheep as they pass before Him; This God is a moral compass available to and part of us all. It is at one in the same time an intimate and personal and an ethical code of behavior that has evolved from our people’s pursuit of the good and true.
At its core is Hillel’s famous instruction to the would be convert, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor, that is the Torah – the rest is commentary – now, go and learn it!”
I believe that because there is a God who is the foundation of ethics, our Jewish moral sensitivity has authority and provides a standard by which I can judge myself. With no need for false humility there are times when I can say to myself -“Good job, Jim, you nailed that! Or “you are nowhere close to being as good as you should be!”
Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance provides a powerful Yom Kippur teaching. He presents the idea that we should consider the entire world to be equally balanced between good and bad, and that each of us as an individual is equally balanced between good and bad. Then, it is clear that our very next action can tip the balance not only for ourselves, but for the entire world. My next act if for the good, can bring salvation to the world. 1
But even as I climb in my quest to achieve ethical stature I also believe that God comes down to share tears with those who struggle and is the source of our resilience and strength. This may conflict with the classical view of the omnipotent omniscient God in control and aware of all things. Omnipotence and omniscience are the fruits of the Greek philosophical search for the Absolute, that by definition is beyond human reach. I am drawn more to a biblical view that seems to understand God in more relational and interactive ways, tied to us by a covenant. Our history, especially what we witnessed during the Shoah, makes omnipotence and omniscience difficult, almost untenable. Perhaps there is another “omni” more suitable suggests Rabbi Herman Schaalman and that’s omnipresence. God is present available, not as Ruler, or Redeemer or Victor but as a presence in times of pain and suffering. There is ample precedent in our tradition which depicts the shechina, this Divine presence as weeping over the people’s destruction and accompanying them in their exile. It identifies God as sharing the pain with those who suffer. 2
As blessed as my life has been I have watched many of you bear incredible burdens with grace and determination. I sometimes wonder from where do you find the strength and the ability to move forward. Your ability to do so is ample evidence of God.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive known for encouraging women to “lean in,” lost her husband suddenly and tragically at the age of 47. At the conclusion of Sh’loshim, the first thirty days of mourning in posting and then in a very powerful book that I know many of you have read entitled Option B she speaks of suffering and resilience. And while she may not see her ability to cope and lean forward in such theological terms –it does speak to my sense of faith.
I think when tragedy occurs, she wrote, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breath. Or you can try to find meaning. … I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.” 3
That after all is the text we’ll read from Torah tomorrow. Uvarchata v’chaim,, Choose life and live.
When those monstrous moments occur to us or to ones we love; God is there to insure that we are not alone. As Clifford Geertz writes, “Chaos does not undermine faith in God; chaos makes faith in God necessary.”4 When days of sadness overwhelm us so that we can’t imagine our lives ever getting better consider the last line of Adon Olam, “Into your hands I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake and with my spirit my body also Adonai li v’lo ira, God I beg of you to be with me so that I will not be afraid.
To speak of God may be difficult. About now some of you may have wished that I was discussing something more topical like anti-Semitism or the environment, my focus on Rosh Hashanah. Goodness knows there are any number of compelling issues that need addressing. But tonight is timeless not timely and to be a Jew is to be a God wrestler like our ancestor Jacob. Not to speak of God; not to engage in that search, diminishes the long arch of our experience. I believe that God is not a delusion or fabrication or a crutch. To quote the avuncular priest in the movie Rudy, I only know two things –“there is a God and I’m not him.” I’m not God, but I was created in the divine image and that thinking about that image is central to how I best see and lead my life.
Our religious quest need not be for philosophical certainly but for an awareness of God’s presence. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim once said that to be able to talk to God is more important than to believe in Him. We learn to love God not by debating God’s essence, but by recognizing our own deepest needs and yearnings.
The God I believe in does not thunder at us from Sinai, although it’s a great story, worth telling and retelling. The God I’ve been talking about speaks less audibly and more obliquely. From time to time it’s good to cut out the noise and the static that surrounds us so that we can hear the voice and feel the tug.
So I invite you share some thoughts about God in your life; with me or Rabbi Schultz; with your kids to someone you care about — maybe not to someone on line at the supermarket, that might be weird; but some God talk need not be as hard as it sounds. Tonight take the risk and give yourself permission to fly the kite even though it remains out of sight. Why not lean in to the tug — a tug that keeps us honest, supports us when we cry out and connects us to a faith, both ancient and modern. Is it too much to hope that this aspiration, this receptivity will become apparent? Not if we are prepared to open ourselves to the possibilities that this day provides for us all.
2 Schaalman, Herman E. Hineni: Here I am; KTAV2007, pp. 66-7
4 Quoted in Hartman, Donniel, Putting God Second, Beacon Press, 2016