Monthly Archives: January 2019

God’s Ears

Funny what people remember, what catches their attention.  It was virtually a throwaway line in a Friday night sermonette.  I was talking about the importance of having faith in prayer.  My point was that faith in prayer and faith in God are not the same thing.  Faith in prayer, at least to me, means that when we pray we believe the experience can be transformative.  In other words, we believe engaging in prayer can make a difference in our lives, in how we relate to one another, and in how we understand who we should be.   That is faith in prayer – believing in prayer’s potential power.

This is not to be confused with faith in God.  Those ideas – faith in prayer, and faith in God, do not necessarily have to be connected.  They might be, in fact they often are, but they don’t have to be.  And one of the things I worry about today is that we’ve lost faith in prayer.  That is to say, fewer and fewer people today believe that engaging in prayer can make a difference in their lives.  I  believe prayer can be transformative – I have faith in prayer! – and that was the point of my remarks.

But in the context of what I was saying I mentioned that I am not sure if God ‘hears’ our prayers.  By way of illustrating that I briefly talked about the concept in Judaism of God’s incorporeality.  Incorporeality is a big word which means ‘lacking physical substance.’  According to Jewish tradition God is incorporeal – in other words, God does not have any physical qualities. Maimonides made this quite clear, and in fact codified the idea as one of his 13 Principles of Faith.  Those principles were incorporated into the siddur in the form of the Yigdal, a beloved song often sung at the conclusion of Friday night services, or on the holidays.  Here is the germane line in Yigdal – אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף – God has neither bodily form, nor physical substance.

And now we come to the crux of the matter:  if God has no physical body, God has no ears.  This means, by definition, that when we ask the question ‘does God hear our prayers?’ we are asking a question that doesn’t really make sense.  If God has no ears God can’t hear, at least in the conventional way we understanding hearing.  This does not mean that our prayers can’t in some way be received by God.  I think they can, and if you engage in prayer in a regular basis, and if you have faith in prayer! you’ve probably experienced the sense that your prayers have in some mystical way connected with God.

But how that works is a mystery, at least to me.  Minimally it is not a normal, human, conversational process, where one party speaks and the other hears the words, and then responds.  Prayer to me is more of a reaching out into the infinitely deep mystery that is at the heart of the universe, and a reaching in to the infinitely deep mystery that lies at the heart of each of us.  Sometimes in the course of our prayers, in those moments of reaching, we are granted an insight.  It might be a moment of connection, of feeling with surety God’s presence in our lives and our world.  It might be a profound and overwhelming sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.  It might be a deeper understanding of ourselves, of who we are and who we should be.

Of course regular prayer has many other potential benefits.  It clears the mind, focuses the spirit, and helps us live in the world in a more positive and productive way.  It is true, we are hoping for those ‘ah ha’ moments, when something suddenly becomes clear, when we are truly and deeply touched by God’s presence.  In my experience those moments are few and far between.  But they are worth seeking, day in and day out.

From the beautiful poem written by Solomon ibn Gabirol in the 11th century, often chanted as part of the Shabbat morning service:

“At dawn I seek You, Refuge, Rock sublime;  My morning prayers I offer, and those at evening time.  I tremble in Your awesome Presence, contrite, for my deepest secrets lie stripped before Your sight.

My tongue, what can it say?  My heart, what can it do?  What is my strength, what is my spirit too?  But should music be sweet to You in mortal key, Your praises will I sing so long as breath’s in me.”

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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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A Thin Blue Line

A paraphrase of the title of the 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ about the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events the film investigates took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police in essence form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty and integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  All of these ideals form, each in their own way, a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed, still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington DC.  If you’ve followed the news you know that Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record earlier in the week in an interview with the NY Times, stating “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the isle condemned King.  He also was stripped of his committee responsibilities.  Just a few minutes ago as I type this the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning King’s comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is there are certain commandments that are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them.  This week Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?

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