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Finding God — Yom Kippur

September 22, 2007

If memory is correct, I was about 14 years old and I was sitting in the magnificent sanctuary of the synagogue of my youth. It was Yom Kippur. The beautiful, soaring Moorish architecture of Temple Emanu-el was even more awe-inspiring on the High Holy Days. The sunlight that streamed through the stained-glass windows above the balconies suggested pathways on which our prayers would flow toward God.

No, that’s not correct. I was not aware of that at all. Actually, I did not want to be there. It was a requirement of my parents that I join them at High Holy Day services, just as I was required to have had my Bar Mitzvah the previous year and would be entering studies leading to my Confirmation at the conclusion of the 10th grade. I remember telling them with the certitude of youth that after Confirmation the Jewish religion would not be seeing a lot of me. That statement is a perfect example of the adage, “Man plans and God laughs.”

But as the service progressed, I found myself blinking back tears. I could not help it. Just a few days earlier, I had started to wear contact lenses. They were hard lenses and the adjustment, while not painful, was irritating. That particular Yom Kippur morning, with very little to distract me from the litany of worship, and the solemnity of the day making sustained eye contact with friends inappropriate, I was acutely aware of the edges of the lenses rubbing against my eyelids whenever I blinked. For a while I tried to do so as infrequently as possible but then, of course, my eyes felt ‘dry’ and blinking again ensued.

So there I sat in the balcony with a commanding view of where I did not want to be, and I wanted to take the lenses out but I was too self-conscious in that worshipful setting to do so. The steps to accomplish the task seemed too involved: find which pocket held the contact lens case; take it out as nonchalantly as possible; unscrew the cap and balance the case on my new suit or on the prayer book – would that be sacrilegious? – while trying not to spill any of the contact lens solution on myself or the book; and then quickly and casually extract a lens from my eye, place it in the case, screw on the top and then repeat the entire process for the other lens. I am sure that just the thought of doing so felt overwhelming, and I decided to do nothing until I could come up with a better plan. Tears filled my eyes and slowly rolled down my face, and I discreetly wiped them away.

I cannot recall at what point during the service my consternation became obvious to others, who were now observing a teenager quietly crying while seated next to his parents. My mother offered the most obvious suggestion: “Just take them out.” She clearly did not understand the difficult dynamics involved or the embarrassment I would suffer if I could not achieve the task in less than ten seconds, and so I pretended that I had not heard her. I was good at that. I sat there, tears streaming down my face, as I swept my hand below my right eye, then below my left eye, when I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder.

Through watery eyes I saw a woman of advanced age – to me at the time that probably meant she was in her mid-30s – leaning toward me from her seat behind me and to my right. I could not make out her features because everything in my sight was distorted by tears, but I will never forget what she said: “Whatever you did could not have been that bad. Trust God.” Then she patted me on the shoulder – a kind of “There, there” gesture of support – and reclined into her seat.

I never saw her again. Well, I never saw much of anything because within two minutes the lenses were out of my eyes, in the carrying case and secure in my pocket. The remainder of the service was a literal blur. The tears were gone but so too was clarity of sight. Memory, however, was intact: “Whatever you did could not have been that bad. Trust God.” What a supportive soul that stranger was! True, I had not done anything “that bad” but where was God?

Where was God Whose Name I read in the prayer book at worship services? Where was God, with Whom my father and mother maintained a relationship despite their hasty and timely exodus from Vienna just before Kristallnacht? Where was God, Who I thought I could find by simply asking for a sign – not necessarily a miracle – but Who chose to remain mute? Or was God always there and I was just on the wrong frequency?

Whenever I asked people about their relationship with God, I almost always received two kinds of responses. The first set of answers, from the slight majority of adults and my peers, was dismissive: “There is no God. We don’t need Him {this was before egalitarian language entered the liturgy} and can more easily prove His absence than His existence.” The other set of answers came from those who believed in God, but they found it difficult to articulate the difference that having a relationship with God made in their lives. Their response intrigued me: how could one have a relationship that was so hard to define?

What I also wanted to know – and needed to hear – was how people dealt with their doubts. In fact, I assumed I would hear more about doubt than I did about denial or discovery, but that was not the case. Hardly anyone spoke about their doubts! This struck me as strange. It was not until much later in my life that I read the Book of Job and discovered someone in our tradition whose faith was shaken to its core by terrible personal misfortunes. He demanded that God appear in court, Job’s court, to answer questions about applications of Divine justice and mercy, the existence of evil, and why those who are righteous suffer while evil people often prosper. Job’s anguish, his questions and his efforts to discover why travail befalls us, gave me a reference point: between denial and discovery, doubt was legitimate.

Nearly 100 years ago, Rav Kook, Palestine’s first chief rabbi – the State of Israel had not yet come into being – argued that in the face of violence, suffering, injustice, poverty and hunger, for someone not to experience at least a flicker of what he called “temporary atheism” was a sin because it demonstrated a hardened and indifferent heart.

Yet some people move through the world so seemingly sure of themselves, so devoted to their ‘cause’ or goals in life that they do not manifest doubt. They seem to be undeterred by personal setbacks, or by any roadblocks or detours that they encounter in their lives. They just carve out another path and proceed onward and upward. But what happens when one is torn asunder not by doubts about one’s abilities but rather about God’s Presence? What if God with Whom one wants a relationship is absent?

One of the most remarkable people in recent memory was someone who answered God’s call to serve by devoting herself to the abjectly poor in Calcutta. For almost 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa traveled vast distances to be at their sides because she wanted to help them live and die with dignity. Her diaries show a side of her that was never part of her public persona. While she often referred to herself as “a pencil in God’s hand,” the last 50 years of her life – she died in 1997 at the age of 87 – were spent in agonizing spiritual darkness. Called by God, she felt God’s Presence recede and then disappear, even as she continued her ministry of healing in God’s Name. “For me,” she wrote, “the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see…listen and do not hear…the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.” Elsewhere, she wrote, “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” The solace she might have found in prayer was, for the most part, absent. “I utter words of prayer,” she wrote, “and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give, but my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray.” What a startling admission! Her words offer proof texts that people of faith harbor doubt and confront despair, answers do not come easily and yet they forge ahead.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – a great philosopher, theologian and weaver of words – asked, “How does one rise from saying the word ‘God’ to sensing [God’s] realness?” {The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel: Harper & Row, New York, 1962; page 24}. His use of the word ‘rise’ is significant because born in Warsaw in 1907, reared in a devout community, influenced by Hasidic rebbes, grounded in Tenach, Talmud and Kabbalah, he was expelled from Germany in 1938. He arrived on these shores in 1939 where he first taught at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and then for the greater duration of his life at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Grateful to American Jews for having rescued him, he nevertheless judged us as being in the throes of a second holocaust which he called “spiritual absenteeism.” What would his assessment be of us today? How would he propose to help us move from where we spiritually are to where we want to be? “Where,” to revisit my question as an adolescent and at different times in my life, “is God, and where am I in my relationship with God?”

Heschel believed that religious language can train us to perceive God’s Presence and inspire people of varying degrees of belief or skepticism. He believed that God may be lost in our worship and in our dogmas, and that we are often trapped by symbols and words that limit our ability to experience and to discover. All too often, habit has frozen our awe, but then a moment arrives “like a thunderbolt in which a flash of the undisclosed rends our dark apathy asunder…the Ineffable has shuddered Itself into the soul” {Man Is Not Alone – A Philosophy of Religion by Abraham Joshua Heschel: Harper & Row, New York, 1951, page 64}. At those times, we are “struck with an awareness of the immense preciousness of being, a preciousness which is not an object of analysis but a cause of wonder. It is inexplicable, nameless…real without being expressible…In moments of sensing the Ineffable, we are as certain of the value of the world as we are of its existence…Even its imperfection admitted, the preciousness of its grandeur is beyond question” {The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel: Farrar, Straus & Young, New York, 1951, page 3}. How do we increase the possibility of allowing the awareness of this grandeur – or God, if you will – to enter our lives?

Inspiration is on its way in the form of the new prayer book of the Reform Movement. Since 1970, reform synagogues have used Gates of Prayer, our Shabbat worship book, and it has served us well but change is coming. The drive for change began in 1994 with a survey of members of reform congregations. Most of them expressed a desire to move away from formal worship to a more relaxed style, and also a way to participate actively in worship through word and song. The new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, does this in some unique ways: it offers transliterated Hebrew in order to make the service more inclusive; the language is gender-neutral; and it provides numerous options within each service through words of prose or poetry that are truly inspirational. On the right side of the page of the new prayer book you will find Hebrew text with transliteration and translation, and on the left side are alternative readings that offer different insights through poetry, contemporary prose and, from time to time, commentary drawn from the tradition as well as Reform history and thought.

New offerings, new text, different ways of presenting insights, and all in a visually appealing layout mean that Mishkan T’filah/”Tent of Prayer” comes much closer to providing you with what I have been advocating for decades: you will be more likely to proceed through communal worship in ways that are meaningful for you. If a word or words speak more powerfully to you than usual at a particular time – the word “love” in the V’ahavtah or the words “be our help” in the Hashkiveynu – stay with the word or phrase that strikes you as compelling or thought-provoking, and see where your thoughts lead you. You’ll eventually catch up with us no matter what page we are on.

We anticipate that Mishkan T’filah will arrive in November or December, and when it does you will experience the joy of this new tool for worship. We will commence using it at our more intimate Shabbat morning services in our chapel. This will enable us to ‘road test’ the various services on Saturday mornings, become comfortable with the readings, and gradually integrate the new services into our erev Shabbat worship as well. For the forseeable future, we will continue to use Gates of Prayer on Friday nights, until we phase Mishkan T’filah into those services as well. Our goal is to take little learning steps to achieve levels of comfort before we fully transition over to Mishkan all the time.

Mishkan T’filah will provide us with new paths in our quest to achieve prayer, which is something that I always aspire toward but do not always accomplish: the result of intrusive, mundane thoughts that occasionally clutter my mind – tomorrow’s schedule, thoughts about next week’s meetings, or the need to confirm a son’s dentist appointment – or outside stimulus – a car alarm, the impatient sound of a horn, or a mobile phone’s insistent tone.

I no longer suffer from tear-filled eyes caused by contact lenses, but my quest to strengthen my relationship with God continues unabated, and The Holy One hears both my doubts and desires. I far less often ask God, “Where are You?” than I presume God poses the question of me.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of Invisible Lines of Connection – Sacred Stories of the Ordinary writes, “At the end of the Book of Job, God shows Job the whole awesome pageant of life and death: Lions tearing apart gazelles. Vultures ripping flesh. Thunderstorms. Earthquakes. Everything. Then God says to Job, in effect, ‘What do you think of that? I hope you like it, because I’m in that too.’ Not just in feeling good, but everything.” {Invisible Lines of Connection – Sacred Stories of the Ordinary, by Lawrence Kushner; Jewish Lights Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont, 1996: page 138}. Kushner adds, “You may not be able to have an intimate relationship with such a God, but you are its pride and joy, its best hope” {Ibid., page 145}

Through our discoveries and our doubts, in our pain and pleasure, along the low plains and high ways of life’s journeys, God is at our fingertips…and, if we allow God to enter, also in our hearts, coursing through our veins, and in every breath we take. I encourage you to join me in new worship experiences and the possibility of a new, or renewed relationship with God.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin