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Mishpatim 5783                          February 18th, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Our parsha this week, Mishpatim, follows the great revelation at Sinai. After the people have heard God speak, we can ask, what is left to know about God. This week Moses enters the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai to learn the details of the Law. It is easy to teach the Ten Commandments; it is harder to fully understand what they mean and how we are to live by these commandments. Moses now goes before God and when he returns, he will bring down the Torah, the basic laws by which God wants us to live our lives.

In spite of all there is to talk about with the revelation of God and the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I let myself get distracted by last week’s Haftara. It too is a revelation of God. Only this time it is not to the entire people, but to just one man, Isaiah. And the revelation he experiences on that day, will result in his call to be a prophet of God to a sinful generation.

This part of the Book of Isaiah contains a very famous verse for all of us who pray on a regular basis. This chapter of Isaiah contains the verse that is a very important part of our liturgy, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, H’ Tzevaot, Malo Kol Haaretz Kevodo” “Holy, Holy, Holy is the God of the Divine host, the entire world is filled with God’s glory.” According to Isaiah, this is what the angels sing as they perform their service before God.

Isaiah, standing in the Temple of Jerusalem, behaves much like the Israelites behaved at Sinai; he reacts with terror and fear. He feels as if he has seen God and, being mortal, it is a sign that it is time for him to die. But God asks him why he is afraid, and he proclaims that he is unworthy because he does not have “pure lips.” A coal is taken from the Divine fire of heaven and is touched to Isaiah’s mouth and thus his speech is purified, and he is given a mission to speak to the people of Israel about their sinful ways and how God will punish them for their neglect of the law.

Just like any other part of the Bible that speaks about revelation, there is a lot of room here also to attempt to understand what Isaiah saw and the meaning of the declaration the angels are making in his vision in the Temple. To Isaiah, this vision is a gift to him so that he knows that what he is told to say, is, in fact, a prophecy from God. But there is a different question that later Rabbis ask about this vision. “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, H’ Tzevaot, Malo Kol Haaretz Kevodo” “Holy, Holy, Holy is the God of the Divine host, the entire world is filled with God’s glory.” What are the angels singing and why are they singing that verse? We repeat it in our Amidah because if that is what the angels sing; it must be something God wants to hear. But what can we learn, what are we supposed to understand from this mysterious verse from the Book of Isaiah?

My friend and colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein looks at this enigmatic verse and goes to the most enigmatic Rabbi from the early Hasidic movement. The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the grandson of the founder of Hasidism, Nachman of Breslov, directs our attention to this verse so we can understand the different ways people relate to God. We like to think that our faith is enough to carry us through our personal experiences of God. But according to Rabbi Nachman, relating to God is never simple. Rabbi Silverstein explains:

“Still, relating to God directly is not a simple matter. Some assume they have a relatively advanced relationship with God, while for others, God’s absence is their normative experience. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, saw in Isaiah’s vision a map for how these two types of individuals might navigate their relationships with God.

The first type of person, according to Rabbi Nachman, like Isaiah, has “beheld” God and, in consequence, thinks he or she “knows” God. For finite human beings, this mindset can lead to a false understanding of God. The other individual has a sense that they may never have an experience of God’s presence.”

What Rabbi Nachman is teaching is that there are two ways to approach the idea of God. Some people experience God in their lives. They see the Divine in everything that surrounds them. They think that they “understand” God. But there is a problem when it comes to “knowing” God. We are finite and God is infinite. The more we know about God the more we understand that we don’t know anything. It is impossible to really “know” God.

The other approach is taken by those who don’t see God in the world at all. They look out at the miracle of life on this planet, the wonders of nature and the glory of the heavens and they don’t see anything. Such people only see a world empty of God.

Rabbi Silverstein then explains what Rabbi Nachman is trying to say. He writes, “In other words, in order to get at the “truth,” each person must continuously challenge themselves religiously. The “knower” must ask him or herself “what it is that they have seen” and what is the nature of the “glory” (kvodo), so that he or she not become religiously complacent. The person with no experience of God must take on the challenge of the latter part of the prophetic verse “the whole earth is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

For those who believe they have experienced God in their lives, they need to be constantly examining what it is that they know about God. They have to challenge themselves. Such people study the idea of the “kavod” the “Glory” of God. What does this mean? What aspect of God is revealed when we talk about honor and glory? This learning must be constant lest this person becomes complacent, thinking they already know all there is to know about God.

For those who have no conception of God in the world, the verse from Isaiah comes to teach that the entire world is filled with the Kavod, the Glory of God. Rabbis and teachers must find a way to open their eyes to the wonder of nature and awe that exists all around us. God’s glory fills the world, it is everywhere. This is compared to fish looking for water. The water is all around them, their bodies flowing through it. It is so pervasive that the fish don’t even see the water anymore. Human beings live in a world where every stone and each blade of grass testifies to the glory of God. How can we open the eyes of those who can’t see this?

Rabbi Silverstein concludes: “The Isaiah vision, then, serves to prompt each of us to constantly challenge ourselves religiously. Through this process, the knower will come to appreciate how little he/she really knows and the one who has little knowledge has the potential to grow in faith.”

This verse from Isaiah that we say multiple times a day in our prayers is a challenge that the prophet is placing before us. No matter who we are and where we are in our faith, this one verse is designed to keep us busy trying to improve our connection to God.

For those who feel they have a close spiritual connection to God, that their prayers are part of an ongoing conversation with the Divine, they should never rest thinking that they already have all the answers. The more they learn, the more there is to learn. The more they know, they realize how little they really know. Their learning about God might be multiplied, but they realize that what there is to know about God grows exponentially. We have to keep striving even if we understand that such learning will never come to an end.

For those who have no spiritual connection to God, who feel that their prayers just go out into an empty void, they need to find a way to open their eyes to the spirituality that surrounds them. God may not be located in any one space. God is located in all of space. There is so much of God that surrounds us that there is an infinite potential for such people to grow their faith. It reminds me of the story about a king who was searching for God. The king searched all through the kingdom, and never found God. One day he met an old man who told the king he was looking in the wrong place. That God is found not in the physical world of his kingdom, but in the relationships he builds with the people of the kingdom. The king could find God in the many acts of kindness, the acts of support, the acts of love. These are the building blocks of faith. Once we see God in the eyes and hearts of those around us, we can’t help but see God everywhere.

I find that I don’t worry about the spiritual people of the world. They know what they are looking for and are constantly experimenting with new ideas and ancient teachings to help them expand their understanding of the Divine in their lives. They have a great faith that they know will continue to grow as they grow.

For those who are searching for God in their lives, who don’t know what they are looking for and where they should be looking, it is the Rabbi’s work to open their eyes to what surrounds them every day. When I teach about Hesed/kindness, Rachamim/compassion, Simcha/Joy, or Shalom/peace, I am teaching them to find God in the eyes and hearts of others and to find God in their own souls. Once a month, the two chairpeople of our Social Action committee, Susan, and Debra, come to our daily minyan to address their prayers to God. At the end of the service, they spend some time together, planning new projects to help all of us understand how we can make a difference in the world. On those days, the service does not end when we sing Aleynu and recite the Mourners Kaddish. God is still present; God can still be found in the projects they are planning. There are so many ways to find God; all we need to do is pick a place, and do one act of kindness, and we are bringing more of God into our world.

No matter who we are and where we place ourselves spiritually, may God always open our eyes to the potential to know more about the Divine through our actions, actions designed to help make our world better. May God always be with us in all that we do as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784