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Finding God

Rabbi Richard Plavin

This may not be the best of times or the worst of times, but it certainly is the most divided of times. The chasms that exist in our society are vast and deep and dangerous; they threaten the bedrock security of what makes this the remarkable country that it is.

The gap between rich and poor is shocking and getting worse. Mega-mansions are constructed in upscale neighborhoods, while in our cities just a few miles away, and right here in Manchester, more and more families are qualifying for low cost housing and free school lunch, while college graduates and many others find themselves moving back in with their parents. Driving with my grandchildren in Silver Spring, Maryland, this summer, my six-year-old granddaughter looked out the car window asked, “Why does Hashem have some people sleep on the street?” Her nine-year-old sister saved me by immediately responding. “It isn’t God. Some people can’t find jobs and don’t have money for a house like we do.”

In our government, the divide between Democrats and Republicans has become so hardened that absolutely no progress can be made in solving our deep seated and very serious problems. Our politicians must learn to speak to one another, set aside their political posturing and truly face the considerable suffering within our society.

In the American Jewish community we have a similar chasm. Every conference I attend, and I probably attend too many, I hear about the demographic woes we are facing as Jews. We are an aging population, more and more of us see no reason to affiliate with the institutions of the community, fewer and fewer are contributing to Jewish causes, our percentage in the wider American population is getting smaller and smaller, and our young people don’t feel any visceral connection with the Jewish people or the Jewish state. And then the caveat is always added, “Of course, these statistics exclude the Orthodox world.” Why? Because in that segment of the Jewish community, the population is not aging – they are having lots of children; it is not becoming more secular – if anything, it is becoming more right wing in its religious orientation.

The truth is, the same chasm exists in the Christian community. I hear from my Christian colleagues that the membership in churches is decreasing, as is the attendance at their Sunday services. Yet, we see that the conservative mega-churches are booming. The growth of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist communities is astounding, and their political sway is tremendous.

And it is no different in the Islamic world. The uprisings in the Arab countries last week were clear evidence of that divide. Moderates were holding signs decrying violence, while the extremists were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at our American embassies. Last year I organized an interfaith program first at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford and then in Manchester Memorial Hospital. In that forum we heard the voice of moderate, loving Islam loud and clear. How wonderful it would be if all Muslims sounded like Dr. Saud Anwar.

In Israel too there is a yawning divide within the population between the fervently religious and the secular. This causes real and significant economic and military problems, not to mention the resentment of those whose children risk their lives serving in the army while a large and fast growing population has children who are exempt from military service.

But I want to talk about the divide that exists right here, a divide we may not even recognize, but surely is real. Here we are, a congregation of Jews. We call ourselves Conservative, – with an upper case ‘C’ – but what does that really mean? I could deliver a long and likely boring sermon on the theological underpinnings of the Conservative movement. You will be relieved to know that I see no point in doing that. In fact, we all know who we are. We know what Conservative Judaism has come to represent in the real world. We are Jews who are passionate about our Jewish identity, proud of our religion, but not overly zealous in our ritual observance. That is the bottom-line reality. Most members of Conservative synagogues are very comfortable occupying that murky mid-ground between religious observance and total secularity.

Most of us are not even aware of any lack in our spiritual life. Like our ancestor Jacob who lay down to sleep, we just want a good night’s rest. We are not knowingly seeking an encounter with the Divine. But Jacob had a remarkable dream. He saw a ladder reaching up into the heavens, and when he awoke, he said, “God was in this place, and I, I did not even know it.” That encounter was the catalyst for a radical shift in his life. It changed him from being Jacob; he became Israel, the God wrestler, the ancestor of our people that calls itself by his name, B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel.

My contention is that all of us can have that encounter. Not only could it make a difference for the better in our personal spiritual lives, but it could make for the salvation of American Jewry. We are not going to become fervently Orthodox in our religious observance. We are going to continue to occupy the mid-ground. But unless we can bring a measure of spirituality into our lives, a certain degree of connection with the Divine, our population will continue to dwindle and ultimately will disappear from the American scene.

What stands in the way of our becoming more spiritually Jewish? In truth, most of us have no inclination to pursue a spiritual search. Most of us are so busy just managing our lives: when’s the next oil change? How will Mom manage on her own? Is my position at work secure? Do I have a payment due on the credit card? – just these little matters – that the last thing on our minds is our relationship with God. This Rosh Hashanah morning, join me in examining some of the obstacles that stand in the way of enhancing the spiritual dimension in our lives.

We live in a very secular world. Science and technology stand above all else. The remarkable discoveries of science in recent years make people wonder about the place of God in the world. I love the story about the cynical scientist and the believing astronomer. One day the cynic came into the religious man’s office and saw an intricate model of the solar system, with all the planets revolving about the sun and the moons all circling the appropriate planets. The cynic asked with admiration if the astronomer had constructed the model himself. The religious man replied, “Oh no, I had nothing to do with it. The parts all fell out of the box and this is how they arranged themselves.” We, like the cynic, fail to see the hand of a Creator in our universe. We have lost our sense of awe even as we see the many accomplishments of the scientific and technological world. We forget the Divinity that stands behind it. As the verse in Deuteronomy puts it, we say, “My might and my power has done all of this.” We have so much knowledge and so little humility.

When Moses addressed the Israelites he said, “I stood between God and you.” The plain meaning of the text is clear. But the Kotzker Rebbi, a giant of the Hasidic world, has an amazing interpretation of that verse. He says it was “I” – the ego – that stands between God and you. If I recognize that God is God, then I am not God; then I am no longer in total control, and that is so difficult for most of us to accept. One of the primary themes of Rosh Hashanah is “Adonai Melech” God is the King. In saying that, we are affirming that God exercises control over our lives. That is a humbling affirmation to make in this scientific, technological world. Yet, to accept that theological position, to let go of the notion that everything is within our control, can be exceptionally liberating. Life can turn on a dime; we see that everyday. While surely we cannot completely abdicate our own responsibility, if we would allow God into our lives we could lay down some of the heavy burden.

Another obstacle some of us have in seeking a relationship with God is our reaction when we see very religious people doing their thing. Down in Delaware this summer, in the supermarket, I saw some Amish people in their traditional garb, and I thought “How quaint! Did these people come from a movie set?” When I get on a bus in Jerusalem I almost always see men and women quietly sitting, prayerbook open, reciting Psalms. I have two gut reactions. On one level I am envious. I wish I had such an appreciation for the Psalms and I wish I had the faith they must have to devote such energy and passion to that recitation. At the same time, I am put off. How primitive! Do these people think there is some magical power in the Psalms to protect them or solve their problems? And that in fact is the problem. We see it as primitive or weird to talk to God. I want to tell you this morning that to begin a conversation with God we don’t have to wear a colorful costume, and it need not be on a bus. We can whisper a prayer at bedtime, thanking God for getting us through a difficult day, or in the morning, we can recite Modeh Ani, praising our Creator for giving us another chance and, God willing, to have a better day. And yes, my friends, you can converse with God right here today in this very place.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, some people are very attracted to so-called religious garb. It has an air of authenticity, and they have the misconception that the only valid faith is that which is 100% glatt kosher, pure faith, unsullied by even a hint of doubt. Don’t let ‘the perfect’ be the enemy of ‘the good.’ Friends, I find it hard to believe that anyone can have an absolutely perfect faith. The great Maimonides, when he was 18 years old, wrote, “Ani maamin b’emunah sh’lymah” “I believe with a perfect faith.” But when he was considerably older he wrote Guide for the Perplexed, and we see that even he, this storied theologian, wrestled with the nuances of his relationship with God.

Of course we all have doubts. I put on my tephillin every morning and say my prayers, but I confess that it is not with full faith each day. Sometimes I really wonder: Does God care if I take these precious 20 minutes to recite the same prayers I said yesterday? And yet, other days, I have a very powerful spiritual prayer experience. When I say “Mah rabu maasecha Adonai – How great, how wondrous, are Your works Adonai,” I am truly uplifted – particularly so in this gorgeous New England season. So do I have perfect faith? Some days, and other days not so much. I am so thankful that the bad days do not obliterate the good ones.

Friends, this sermon has a take away. I want you to strive to become true B’nai Yisrael – descendants of Israel. Be God wrestlers. Seek out a relationship with the Divine. It can make a remarkable difference in your life.

But how do you do it? Each and every one of us will have a different way. The important thing is that we see it as mindful God wrestling, a true spiritual journey.
Some may find spiritual uplift the way I do, through prayers and rituals. When I am surrounded by a multitude, and together we chant God’s praises in uplifting, spirited melody, I am transported to another realm. That may not be your thing. That’s fine; there are alternatives.

First you need to let go. Take a few minutes at the start of the day, or perhaps when you lay in bed at night, to recognize that not everything that happens in life is your doing. As the sages say, “Stuff happens.” The essential is how we react to it.

Recognize that a relationship with God can begin with baby steps. A tentative approach is better than none at all. Know that the relationship need not be formal, or synagogue based. Perhaps you will find your relationship with God in Tikun Olam, in repairing God’s broken world, in doing acts of Hesed, loving kindness toward other human beings. This summer I had the pleasure – the merit really – of bringing knit woolen caps to soldiers in the IDF. Members of our congregation made those caps. I hope that those holy knitters and kvetchers feel a special connection to God knowing they were doing His work by warming the heads of young men and women guarding the Jewish State.

Maybe your relationship with God can be forged through study, be it Torah study, or the study of Jewish history or Jewish current events. Perhaps that relationship can be of a Zionist bent, being an advocate for our beloved State of Israel. I have to believe God wants that of us.

Friends, we stand at the beginning of a new year, a new opportunity for a spiritual journey. I would feel privileged to be your guide on that trip. May the road ahead for you in the year 5773 be a meaningful journey. In all likelihood, it will not all be smooth sailing; that’s not the way in the real world. My prayer is that in that journey, you find God and with God’s help, you make this year truly a Shana Tova, a good one.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782