“Who is the Lord that I should heed him? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go!” These words, spoken by Pharaoh in Egypt to Moses at the end of the parsha last week, set the stage for all that we will read in the Torah this week and next week. As a polytheistic nation, Egypt had plenty of gods to appeal to. Every aspect of life was determined by one god or another. Moses has come before Pharaoh with a new God, one that is not bound to one place or time. A God that is not limited in power before other gods. The Egyptian gods had invested Pharaoh with the divine right to rule Egypt. Who was this “new” God to tell Pharaoh what he should do?
What the God of Israel has set up, in this week’s Parsha, is a test of what a God can do and thus why God should be obeyed. Slowly, as Egypt suffers from plague after plague, Pharaoh begins to realize that there is a new God in town and that God is driving Pharaoh, and Egypt to their knees. Even Moses will start this “war of the Gods” with great doubts. After all, the People of Israel have suffered so long that even they are unsure about the power of their God. In the face of all this uncertainty, God says to Moses, “Just wait, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” and the contest is on.
What is the purpose of this contest? To prove to Pharaoh that there is a God more powerful than the gods that he worships already? What difference does that make to us? We don’t live in a polytheistic culture, we don’t rely on a pantheon of gods to protect us as we move through the day. Why do we need to have this story? Why do we need to study this story? Why is this story of the battle of the gods, one of the foundational stories of Judaism, repeated each year around our Seder table?
First of all, while we may look at polytheism as an ancient problem, it may not be as far in the past as we might think. Certainly, nobody holds that there are many gods that protect us throughout the day. We don’t make an offering to the commuter god before we leave the house for work each day. We don’t pray to the god of health before we go in for our annual physical exam and we don’t say a prayer to the parking god when we go to the mall. Still we place our faith in many things in this world that are not really gods at all.
We have faith that our financial system of capitalism, in spite of its problems, will give us the means to have a fairly stress-free life. We have faith in our government that in spite of its flaws will keep us relatively safe. We shop with a faith that our food and water supply is safe in spite of news that tells us, from time to time, that there may be problems of contamination. To be sure, we don’t have special rituals and prayers to make sure that our money or homes or our food is safe. We also believe that if there is a problem, we would be able to detect it and avoid any consequences.
We do believe in God. The number of Americans who believe in God is consistently high. But the real question is the one asked by Pharaoh last week. Who is this God we believe in and will we answer to God’s demands? Or maybe, we might understand it better if we just ask does our belief in God make any real difference in our lives?
On one level, we can say, “Sure!” after all, we are in shul today. We came to pray and to study Torah. We gathered as a community to affirm our beliefs and to hear a lesson from the Rabbi. If we didn’t care about God, why would we be here? We could be like so many other people who don’t bother checking in with God at all.
While other religions are about one belief or another, Judaism is about how we live our lives. Our faith is not about what we are doing at any given moment, it is about how we live our lives at every moment. So many people complain that their lives are empty and shallow. Do we stand back, look at the bigger picture and see our lives as God sees us?
Do we make the time for what God wants us to do with our lives? Do we pause to lend a hand to someone else? Do we thank God when suddenly we see a beautiful sunset or a colorful flower in the darkness of winter? Do we end our day with the realization of all the blessings in our lives? Do we understand that the siddur that we hold in our hands is not filled with words that have to be said correctly, with bowing in the proper place and standing and sitting on cue? Do we understand that prayer is a map to help us locate our lives in the vast universe in which we live, helping us to see that what we do really matters, and we indeed make a difference because we are here?
When we believe in God we see every word we read in the Torah as a mirror that helps us see ourselves as we truly are, not as we imagine what we want to be. We are stripped of whatever fantasy we’ve inserted into our lives and see ourselves as we really are. Do we care about what is important in life or are we distracted by what is insignificant? Are we prepared to put aside what is annoying in our lives, so we can accomplish something that will make a difference to someone else?
The issue for us is to be free of that which limited the vision of Pharaoh. It is not enough to just “know God” we have to let our knowledge of God change the way we live our lives. When we are searching for knowledge of God we are on a journey that will take us to important and significant places in our own souls. And it will open our eyes to see the universe in a new and unique way; one in which all of life is bound together.
I know that there are people who feel that they need to “put in their time” in shul so they can feel connected to the Jewish people. There is nothing wrong in that. There are people who feel good when they say the prayers the right way, just like their parents and grandparents said them. That too is a worthy goal. Everyone comes to synagogue for their own reasons and it is not for me to judge someone as to why they are here and what they should be getting out of the prayer experience.
But I would not be a good Rabbi if I did not teach that there are more than just these facets to the practice of prayer. Over the course of a lifetime, there can be moments where we can experience God in our lives and it is the prayers that we are familiar with that make that experience possible. They are the foundation upon which we can build a place to see our lives from a different perspective and understand the meaning of life from a whole new point of view.
So, let us not just recite prayers together, we need to let the prayers move us in ways unexpected and new. It is not that the words in the siddur will change, but we can change the way we see, feel and hear the words that we say and the words that are said by the people around us. The cantor is not looking for complements when she reaches deep inside for a melody for prayer, she is looking to help all of us touch that spot that is deep inside our souls as well.
Who is this God that we worship? Each of us had to find the answer to that question for ourselves. It is possible that it may arrive in blinding flash where everything will suddenly become clear and wonderful, but it is more likely that it will arise in us slowly and naturally as we lovingly recite the words of pray that have become the focus of our loving attention. Prayer may or may not change what is happening in our lives, but it will certainly change what is happening in our souls. And that will change everything.
I close with the words of a very famous prayer that we recite each week: “I place my spirit in God’s care; My body too can feel God near. When I sleep as when I wake; God is with me I have no fear” Does it sound familiar? Perhaps you know it in Hebrew:
Beyado Afkeed Ruchi, B’eit EEshan v’A-eerah, V’EEm Ruchi G’Veeati, Adonai Li
God is with us – may we have no need to fear as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 13, 2018.