“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students,” says the Talmud. As a rabbi and teacher, my students often ask questions that stump me.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE it! Being stumped by questions gives me hope: it reassures me that our children of all ages are still engaged and interested in continuing our Jewish path. In a few moments I will tell you about one such question posed to me a while ago. But first, let’s ponder the purpose and scope of education.
When we grow personally, morally, and spiritually, we allow ourselves to love more, forgive wrongs, accept differences, and ultimately, accept God and moments of godliness, as a constant presence in our lives.
The more we ask, the more we learn. The more we seek, the more answers we discover. And the more we learn, the closer we get to the highest goal: acceptance and trust in this scary process called, “life.”
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character; that is the goal of true education.”
One such intelligent question recently took me by surprise. A 5-year old student (let’s call her Tammy), looked up at me from her, “Noah and the Ark,” coloring book, then just like that, out of the blue, asks: “Wabbi Meeka, where does God live? Where is God’s home?”
That question stumped me because I was unprepared. Tammy asked a question that seemingly came from nowhere, other then the fact that a few moments earlier we sang the song, “Rise and Shine and give God your glory glory” in relation to Parshat Noach.
I thought for a moment, then gave Tammy the answer that many Rabbis give when taken by surprise, “Can I get back to you a little later, after I’ve had some time to think about your wonderful question?”
“Yes wabbi,” Tammy replied, then went back to work on the giraffe in her coloring book.
And I went back to my office to think.
What do I tell a 5 year old who often hears “God this,” “God that,” “oh thank God,” baruch atah Adonai Elehonu melech Ha’olam, “give God your glory glory,” in the song, “Rise and Shine,” and so on? How do I respond to, “Where is God’s home?”
Truthfully, I needed to clarify to myself my own idea of what, or who God is, in order to respond to anyone asking about God in general, in particular a 5 year old girl’s question about God’s dwelling place.
While researching I found a story about one of the greatest 20th century Rabbis of all time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who used to travel around the world, teaching in synagogues, churches, and universities.
Whenever Rabbi Heschel gave an evening lecture, he would begin by telling the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle just happened!” People would stop to listen very carefully, wondering: “what miracle happened? Why didn’t we see or hear about it in the papers?” Then Heschel would continue, “a great miracle just happened—the sun went down!”
Some people would laugh uncomfortably. Some would shake their heads at this crazy rabbi. Others remained puzzled about what he meant. Then Rabbi Heschel would begin his lecture by discussing how a religious person sees the world. The message would become very clear toward the end of Rabbi Heschel’s lecture, “Miracles happen all the time. Amazing things, magnificent things, miraculous things are happening all around us, at all times. But most of us don’t notice. We have learned how to ignore and take them for granted.”
A spiritual person, taught Heschel, notices those everyday miracles. A spiritual person, at any age, notices how amazing things, all things, really are. A spiritual person stops and wonders at the beauty of a sunset, the power of a thunderstorm, and an act of kindness by a stranger. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the “meaning of God,” Heschel taught, is to take things for granted. This happens to so many of us, as we grow older, and too often, more cynical.
The opposite of knowing God, according to Heschel, isn’t a person who doesn’t believe in God, or an atheist. The opposite of knowing God is a person who doesn’t notice all the amazing things around us. The opposite of believing and spiritually knowing God is simply being bored and not curious.
So let’s clarify what God is not.
“God” is probably one of the greatest mysteries of our existence. The idea of God is one that no individual can truly know, understand, describe, or fathom.
Throughout all of human existence, many have claimed to be “speaking on behalf of God,” or that they know, “what God wants human beings to do, or not do, and why, and how.”
That is NOT a human responsibility to announce “on behalf of” or “in the name of,” God. It’s a very dangerous path. For example, what will you tell your child if you happen to drive through the town of Topeka, Kansas, and see picket fences, signs, and banners surrounding a Christian church pronouncing that, “God Hates Fags?”
Who are all these people of different religions in our world, who claim to know who God is, who God hates, what God wants from us, and how God wants us to behave?
Another example is one of Jerusalem’s Jewish ultra extremist anti Zionist sects, like the Neturei Karta, in Aramaic, “Guardians of the City.” They believe that the Land of Israel should be built only upon the arrival of the Messiah, and that Zionism is an actual rebellion against God. Who gave these people the right to defend God?
Or Muslim extremists, who yell, “bis’mi’llah,” in the name of Allah, God, when they deliver fire-and-brimstone speeches against Western cultures. What does “in the name of God” actually mean? How do they know what or who God endorses?
How can anyone speak in the name of, or on behalf of Allah, God, Adonai? Who gave them that authroty?
So God is not any one person’s, or one group of people’s, BFF. God, also, does not choose A Person, or A People to speak through, in first person.
For me, personally, God is a living experience. I find God when I walk my dogs in nature around the lake where we live. I sense God when I sit by the bedside of a person who is dying, holding his or her hand while chanting the Shma Yisrael, or officiate at our students’ Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
While personally I don’t know what, or who God is – I can only describe what I feel at times, when I see a beautiful intricate flower, when I smell it, when I touch it, and it feels so soft and velvety.
That moment, of appreciating every petal, taking in its gentle scent and letting it fill my entire sense of self. That silent moment beyond verbal expression in words—that particular moment to me IS God.
And something miraculous moments happen when I lead you, my congregants, in Tefilah, in prayer: I, Rabbi Meeka the individual, move out of the way when we sing together, as Temple Beth Tikvah’s community unto God. Do You know THAT indiscernible feeling you sometimes get during and after Shabbat service here in our Sanctuary? That is God’s presence, which we tap into through our prayer and song.
And I am bringing the question of “God” here this evening because I know that at some point in our lives, we have been, or will be, challenged with a simple question, “If God does exist, then why do bad things happen to good people?”
Why did so many innocent people perish during the Holocaust, including unimaginable number of children my student Tammy’s age? Why do innocent children die of incurable diseases? Why do fetuses die in utero? What have THEY done to deserve this fate?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, another of my favorite great thinkers, has a theology which says [and I quote] “I believe in God…but I recognize God’s limitations. God is limited in what God can do by laws of nature, and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom. I [don’t] hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason…. God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” [end quote]
The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part.
Personally, I believe that God gives us tools to live good and meaningful lives; even when one is given a seemingly lousy hand to begin with, like deformity or incurable disease. I believe that if we choose to, we can make our lives full and meaningful. One example is Dr. Stephen Hawking who suffered ALS most of his adult life but managed to overcome his limitations to bring us closer to understanding our universe than any scientist since Einstein.
And you know why? Because God provided Dr. Hawking with tools, and Dr. Hawking chose to make the most of them. In other words, God gives us freedom of choice, the rest is up to us.
So no, I don’t believe that it was God’s fault that millions of innocent lives were taken during the Holocaust. I believe it was the fault of humans who CHOSE to use God’s gifts in warped and evil ways. In ways that caused harm, pain, death, and suffering to other human beings. That was NOT God’s choice, that was humans’ choice.
So why DO people kill in the “Name of God”? Because they choose to live a life of anger, hatred, fear and evil-doing. God would never “Kill in the Name of God,” but humans choose to do so.
Some people argue that the Torah is the testament of God’s will and God’s love for us humans. For me the Torah is a human document, written over a period of hundreds, if not thousands of years by our ancestors who were searching for meaning and truth, trying to make sense of the world, in their time. Just like I am. Just like we all still are, in this day and age.
Our Torah is sacred because our ancestors read it, carried it, and preserved it. But I don’t believe that God wrote the Torah. It doesn’t make any sense that God would write an unchanging text for one group of people, at one time, in a particular setting.
How can anything remain stagnant and frozen in time when everything else in the universe evolves, revolves, adjusts, and changes? How can anyone claim God’s Perfection in an ancient document, when its teaching points, for example, to stoning your daughter to death if she has an affair with someone who happens to be married? Or kill your son because he happens to love another man? How can anyone claim that THAT is God’s will?
No, God does not write books, God writes universes.
I teach our children to love the Torah, and to love God, because that’s what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.
I don’t teach our children that the Torah is the word of God, or that loving God has anything to do with studying the Torah. Loving God has everything to do with truly loving oneself and one another. That kind of love, goodness, and connectedness creates more moments of godliness in our world.
Loving our Torah means connecting, with love, to our ancestors. We love our Torah because all generations who came before us have loved and cherished it. They suffered because of it, but also insured that our People would survive for thousands of years thanks to the One Entity all Jewish People have in common, wherever we end up. God, Torah and our People have the Number One in Common—One God, One Torah, One People.
And back to answering my little 5-year-old student Tammy, whom I talked about at the beginning.
After following that winding trail from God to the universe and everything, this is what I told her:
“Tammy, take your right hand. Place it over your heart. You can’t really see it, but can you feel your heart going ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom?”
“Yes wabbi,” Tammy replied.
“Now Tammy, who do you love the most in the world?” I asked.
Tammy answered without hesitation, “my mommy and daddy!”
“Are they here? I continued asking “You can’t really see them now, but you do know that you love them, right?”
“Yes wabbi, I love my mommy and daddy!”
“Now show me where in your body you feel that love for your mommy and daddy.”
Tammy closed her eyes and hugged herself with both her arms [like this]. And I said, “Tammy? You just found where God lives. God lives in your heart, in your imagination, in your body, in your tummy, and in your nose. God lives in you, and everyone else too.”
Tammy looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes and said, “I love God, wabbi Meeka,” then she closed her eyes and gave herself another big hug.
This story teaches us that “God” lives inside each of us. In the most basic form, God is a concept that we each need in order to survive the harsh and scary moments in our lives. Teaching our students to reach inside themselves to connect with that power is a great way to feel a sense of hope in times of fear, uncertainty, anger, or pain.
I will end with a poem I often read during Shabbat services:
“Teach me oh God a blessing, a prayer on the mystery of a withered leaf, on ripened fruit so fair, on the freedom to see, to sense, to breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.
Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise, as each morning and night, you renew your days, lest my day be today as the one before; lest routine set my ways.”
L’Shana Tova u’m’tukah everyone. May we all be blessed with a good and sweet new year, filled with learning and teaching. And may our synagogue, our Temple Beth Tikvah be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.
Your Loving Rabbi Meeka