What follows is the sermon I gave on the holiest night of Jewish Year, Yom Kippur. It is what I believe about God.
Last year I began with a poem by Robert Frost. It was one of his more famous ones, “Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening.” Tonight let us begin with one of his more obscure poems. It calls out our task for this evening. It is entitled “Revelation.”
We make ourselves a place apart Behind light words that tease and flout But oh, the agitated heart Till someone find us really out. Tis pity if the case require (Or so we say) that in the end We speak the literal to inspire The understanding of a friend But so with all from babes that play At hide-and-seek to God afar, So all who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.
An Endless Game of Hide and Seek
Often, in our daily lives, we hide behind what Frost calls “light words that tease and flout.” We ignore our “agitated heart.” Tonight is when we speak out. We stop hiding. We put aside our fears, our anxieties, our complacency, and find out where we are.
Tonight we stop playing hide and seek with God, because God is with us every second of our lives. Some of us do not believe this truth. I would estimate that at least 50 percent of those of us here would say, “Rabbi, I like Judaism and the community and the values. But God isn’t a big part of it. I can’t really get my hands around it. The prayers are nice, but I don’t really believe everything they say. I’d be fine if we really didn’t discuss God too much.”
I get this. I appreciate the intellectual struggle behind it. But tonight I want to challenge it. I want to challenge you. I want to challenge you to give God a chance. As an incentive to do so, we’re going to confront the most difficult obstacles to a meaningful relationship with God.
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The first is theodicy. It is the question of why bad things happen to good people. This question confronted us starkly after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut last December. How could God allow such a tragedy to occur? How could God not protect innocent children from a deranged killer?
Some would answer this question by saying God could have stopped it but is punishing us as a society for something we did. Others would say the children are in a better place, enjoying eternal life. Others would simply say God has the power, but for some mysterious reason, chooses not to use it.
But I say—If we believe God has the power to stop these murders and chooses not to use it—then we can and we must give up belief in God. I certainly would. But this kind of God—this cosmic puppet-master pulling the strings of humanity—is not the kind of God I believe in. Neither is it the God of the Judaism I profess and teach.
God does not determine the course of human events. God, according to the Jewish sages, does not say these plants will grow and these will not. This person will suffer and this one will not. God is not all-powerful. But God is not powerless. God’s power does not rely on control. It lives inside each of us.
Change the Question
To see this truth, we need to reframe the question. We need to rethink what we mean when we ask why bad things happen to good people.
Hebrew actually has two words for why: lamah and maduah. Maduah means “From what cause:” Let’s say the lights went out. If we asked “Maduah did the lights go out?” the answer could be “Someone flipped the switch.”
Lama is different. Lama combines two Hebrew words l’, meaning to, and mah, meaning “what.” Lama means “to what end?” Lama did our lights go out. To set us in the mood for the holiday, perhaps to bring us closer to one another, to create a shared and memorable experience we could get through together. Lama demands a response. It orients us to the future; it relies on us to give the event meaning.
The same English word—why—needs two Hebrew words. And each word fits unique situations.
God’s Hands Are Our Hands
When tragedy strikes—when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a car wreck disables a friend—and we turn to God, we gain no comfort when we ask maduah, what caused you do to this: that’s imagining a God in which we don’t believe. That’s seeing God as one who flips a light switch and someone dies.
Instead we ask God lama, why, to what end? How can we shape what happened? This question puts the power of choice in us. We decide that answer. Deciding is not always easy. We can decide the purpose of a tragedy is to make us miserable, or to punish us for something we did. Or we can decide the purpose is to call out the best within us. There is no objective right answer. The answer is the one we give with our lives.
Where is God in all this? God’s presence is found in our choice. When we choose to bring comfort to the mourning, when we choose to love, when we choose to lift up the poor and do the right thing when the wrong thing is easier and cheaper, God becomes real. God’s hands become our hands.
In an article after Newtown, the New York Times Maureen Dowd quoted a priest who described the way this works. He wrote,
“One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at his funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.”
When I look out into this sanctuary, I know God is here. I know the hands who have held up those in mourning, in despair. I have seen God through the love we have given one another.
Is There a Supreme Being?
“Okay, rabbi,” you may be thinking, “I get the God as connection, as the support of others. I can believe that. But what about this supreme being idea? Tonight we asked God to forgive our vows. Is there really someone up there recording what we say? If so, what does He (or She) look like?
We are not the first generation to ask these questions. 1000 years ago a great medieval rabbi said, “If I knew God, I would be God.” God’s nature is a mystery. We talk about God as a person because we are persons. If elephants talked to and about God, they would probably picture God as an elephant. Our language is our best approximation of reality. It is not reality itself. Just because we cannot take a picture of God does not mean God is not real.
Sigmund Freud knew this, and this is why he saw God’s abstraction as Judaism’s greatest gift to humanity. Freud talked about the ego, superego, and the id. Could we take an x-ray machine and say “Okay, there’s the ego.” Of course not. But it is real nonetheless.
When we ask God to comfort the mourners of those murdered by the hideous violence in Syria, when we say a prayer asking God to bring them healing, we are not asking God to wave a magic wand and reach down, touch and heal those who are ill. Rather, we are acknowledging our own pain and expressing our hope that they will survive their own. We are recognizing our common humanity. We are asking ourselves to do what we can.
And we know it matters.
Prayer does not have to rely on God to violate the laws of nature in order to matter. And just because God cannot tell a doctor how to heal a patient does not mean God is irrelevant.
Did Einstein Pray?
Even the world’s greatest scientist believed our faith, our prayers addressed something greater than ourselves. In 1936 a sixth grader wrote a letter to Albert Einstein asking if scientists pray. Five days after receiving the letter, Einstein wrote back. While he did not answer the question directly, he revealed a profound insight.
“Scientists believe,” he wrote, “that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature…
“However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”
Einstein knew something many of us forget. We need God. We need God to make sense of the universe. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” Hamlet said, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Why Does Matter to Me?
“Okay Rabbi,” you might still be thinking, “I can appreciate God as the mystery within the cosmos. The universe is infinitely complex. Perhaps a divine being lies behind it. But does that have to with me? I’ve gotten through life just fine without really having much of a sense of faith. Even through difficult times I managed. God may be fine for others. But I don’t really need it.”
Here is where I can only speak personally. God is not an objective fact we can prove or deduct from the universe. I cannot tell or mandate what you should believe. I can only speak about what I believe…. And I believe we can go through life just fine without God.
We can also go through life without hearing Beethoven’s ninthsymphony, without falling in love, without touching the hands of a newborn infant. The God I believe in brings a richness and depth to life. The God I believe in makes it possible for us to be fully human. To rise from despair to hope; to transform bitterness into love; to move the world as it is a little closer to the world as it ought to be.
I feel God when I hear the soaring voice of our cantor. I feel God when I stand next to a Bat Mitzvah, wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl), chanting the 3000 year old words of our people. I feel God walking through the streets of Jerusalem, capital of a Jewish state reborn after 2000 years. I see God when I see people work hundreds of hours and devote enormous resources to make this sanctuary, this synagogue possible.
God Has Faith in Me
And in my own life, I may not know how God works or what God looks like or whether God hears my prayers; But I do know that God has faith in me. I know I can survive times of pain and loss. I know I can respond with courage when life does not turn out the way I thought it would. I know that when a person comes to me in pain, with inexplicable tragedy, I can be their rabbi. I can tell them God has not abandoned them, that there is a meaning and purpose to their lives. We may not always have faith in God. But God has faith in us.
This one realization makes all the difference. We can smile through the tears. We can hope against hope. We can overcome prejudice and baseless hatred. We can survive the professional disappointments, the broken relationships, the failed promises life inevitably brings. God has faith in us because true faith, as Jonathan Sacks puts it, is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty.
Knowing this truth may not answer all our questions about God. It may even open up new ones. But the great American religious thinker, William Sloane Coffin, who also happened to be a good friend of our founding rabbi Arnold Wolf, once said that God cannot be known dogmatically. God can only known devotionally.
From a Jewish perspective, I would say God cannot be known by the proofs we give. God can only be known by the lives we live. All the rest is commentary.