The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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