Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?
For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.
These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).
As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God?
I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude.
Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere.
Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.
It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.
In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).
I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The video message arrived as an attachment from a trusted source. I opened it and began watching. The scenes of smogless skies, clear waters, and lush fauna served as a reminder that a world was being reborn around us, and that our stay-at-home quarantine was having the side benefit of giving Mother Earth a sabbatical, the chance to catch her breath. The beauty of the world around us could serve as a silver lining of this challenging time.
The second video message arrived within a couple of hours. It came from a name I knew, though someone I hadn’t connected with in quite some time. I opened it and began watching. It depicted similar scenes of smogless skies, clear waters and lush fauna, with facts about how much cleaner our world is today than at any other time in recent history. The video, however, was not a PSA for climate change. Its final scene was a man with the title of “Rabbi” trying to reassure me that the current pandemic was God’s will, part of the divine plan to renew the earth.
I was surprised, to say the least. Did the sender of the second video actually think that I would find comfort in its message? Have I ever given off the sense that I embrace and am comforted by a God who would will the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance a plan? What then could I say about God’s role in the Holocaust? About an innocent pedestrian hit by a drunk driver? About a cancer victim? About a parent losing a child? About a natural disaster that claims dozens or hundreds?
I don’t need to rely on theologians for my answer about the nature of God, instructive though their perspectives may be. Buber, Heschel, Wiesel and Kushner (with all due respect) don’t know anything more than you or I do when it comes to God. The rabbis across the centuries have offered many paths to faith, some that even stand in conflict with one another. God is, after all, infinitely unknowable. What theologians have going for them is that they think about the question of God long enough to develop consistency. Want to be a theologian? Work at it, test your opinion against theological questions, and be consistent!
Somewhere along the line of time, well before The Wizard of Oz, we started referring to God as perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. While God does credit God’s self in the Torah as the Creator, God never uses these other descriptors for God’s self. God changes God’s mind, God admits to making mistakes, God learns and grows. At best, God says God is compassionate and loving, truthful and holy, and more powerful than other gods; at worst, jealous and judgmental, begrudging and impatient. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-good can’t withstand the test of consistency by my standards of goodness and justice. The notion that God is all-powerful but not all-good is untenable personally.
These weeks on the Jewish calendar would be a challenge to Jewish theology without a pandemic raging around us. From the death of Aaron’s sons for their “foreign” sacrifice to the command to be “holy” because “I the Lord your God am holy”, from Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), it can be so tempting to conclude that all is connected in some divine plan that necessitates God‘s intervention at certain times but doesn’t warrant God‘s intervention at others. I cannot and will not place my hope in an omnipotent god who requires the sacrifice of innocents or matyrs for the sake of learning lessons, realizing dreams, or cleaning the air. God promised us: No more floods at God’s direction to destroy the earth.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be floods.
Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that God is perfectly imperfect, as are we. God purposefully gave us free will and God intentionally introduced an element of chance into our existence. Without this measure of unpredictability, we’d be as naive as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without the ability to make choices that reflect God’s glory (and goodness) in the world. As our sages taught, “Everything is in God’s hands except for the fear of God.” God controls everything except the choices we make. Those choices have long-ranging consequences that God will not control, and those same choices can reflect well or poorly on God. But in God’s love and goodness, God has given us the infinite potential to learn, grow and change course. It’s God’s hope that we see the God-given strength within to persevere, to live, to celebrate and to spread our hope.
We have been divinely inspired to create a way of living that reveals God’s goodness in an imperfect world. It’s that very imperfection that presents us with the opportunity to rise to the level of the divine. I will appreciate that which I perceive as miraculous without understanding what merits such grace. I will bemoan that which I perceive as tragic without attempting to explain, justify or defend. I will hold onto my faith that the goodness of God, as reflected in the actions of others and in my own choices, will raise us all towards a higher plane of meaning and love.
God is hope, faith, and goodness, along with the strength to live our lives accordingly in a perfectly imperfect world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your accounting will make fifty days. — Vayikra 23: 15 – 16
When it was time to count the first day of the Omer, I was not at a second night seder. I was not standing with family and friends, turning to the final pages of the Haggadah and reciting the blessing and counting for the first time this year. I did count the first day of the Omer, but I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that something had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. Day One of the Omer. A new reality began.
I have not missed counting each day of the Omer since. No carelessness, no jumping up out of bed half asleep because I had forgotten, no catching up the morning after to save the pattern in the nick of time. Blessing and counting became serious business for me this year because the days of the Omer have entirely encompassed this strange odyssey in my life. From Day One through Day Forty-Nine (which will be counted tonight) I have experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, learning protocols for chemotherapy, and rising up from shiva and shloshim with the onset of Shavuot.
Certainly, the coincidence of time cannot be ignored. Certainly, there was much for me to learn along the way as I counted diligently each night and wondered what the new day would bring.
The Omer beat out a consistent rhythm for me. Do not despair. Count each day. There are blessings present in every single moment.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. But despite my training in the world of yogic philosophy, I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
To me, life is not a battle. Life is a precious gift and sometimes we are challenged by illness and loss to hold on to that primary Jewish belief. The Omer helped me remember each day that life is a gift.
Throughout this Omer period, God has felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and whole or if I was feeling strong and whole. I explained that the way I am behaving is because of how I feel – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. I am strong and whole.
I have found that God is present at all times. I broke down completely one of the first nights in the hospital. Rather than receive any positive results at all, I was instead receiving worse and worse news. I gave in to my fears and grief, lay in my bed weeping for all that I was going to miss. I railed against God, asking why I had to have cancer when I have so much to do, so many ways to serve God, and so many family obligations to fulfill. I asked God, “How can I do this without You?”
Just as I was drying my tears and collecting myself, my kind nurse Nadine came in to check on me. “Oh, my dear,” she comforted. “What is the matter and why are you so sad?” I told her about the diagnosis I had received that afternoon. She huffed a bit at my news, looked me straight in the eye and began to preach. “You are one of the Children of Abraham, you are God’s chosen child and God will not let you falter. Remember that God loves you and is with you. I know you have great faith. God has great faith in you.” I wish that I could remember all that Nadine told me that evening. She was speaking to me from another faith tradition but it was clear to me as I looked into her compassionate, beautiful face that she was my angel, delivering to me the answer from God for which I had just been praying.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the Emergency Room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? Why would a murderer potentially receive the same miracle as me if this were all part of God’s special gift to me? God is neither cancer nor oncology. I know. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
I have learned also that the power of prayer and positive energy is a curative. I have read research, studied Jewish texts and taught about the power of prayer. Now, I have experienced it for myself. My healing has not been easy, but it has progressed faster than one might expect. The Circle of Psalms of congregants and friends has had a profound impact on me, reminding me that I am surrounded by love. Each evening at 7:30 when I read Psalm 121, I wonder who else is reciting a psalm. I am always buoyed by the thought of just how many have joined with me in that moment. When I told my surgeon, Dr. Langan that many people were praying for his wisdom and steady hands, he responded, “That means so much to me. I have been praying for you too.”
And then, in a startling confluence of time, on my first day home after surgery, we received the shocking news that my brother Dr. Eric Mack z”l had died in his home in California. I was unable to fully ingest the reality, manage any of the decisions that needed to be made, travel to Maine for the funeral or sit in a complete shiva. In case I had any final reservations about the need to protect myself and care for myself first through this period of time, losing Eric was a complete and final lesson in this regard. I had no choice. I had to choose life – my own life.
Eric’s greatest joy in his later years was sharing insights into the weekly Torah portion with his fellow congregants at his shul, Etz Hadar in Redlands, something that he and I would discuss almost every week. How appropriate that the shiva for my brother and my days of mourning as his sister come to a completion just as we rise up tomorrow evening, for the holiday of Shavuot, to receive the Torah at Sinai. This year, Revelation will feel especially sweet with one more student of Torah studying at God’s Table for the holiday.
I will never again take for granted the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. We count up to remind us to cherish every day. Despite the great trials of these seven weeks, I have indeed felt every day heightened by gratitude and blessing. The world has felt more beautiful, people have seemed kinder, and love has seemed to be present in every moment. I have felt truly held by God.
As we all step forward toward Revelation at Sinai, may we be ready to enter into relationship with God. May we be willing to serve God with our gifts and blessings. May our hearts be open to miracles and prayer and Torah. May we always be kind.
Chag sameach, Happy holiday,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The traditional names for the synagogue–beit knesset, beit tefilah, beit midrash–connote a house of assembly, a house of worship and a house of inquiry and learning. These days, the synagogue is also considered the center of a faith community.
What does it mean to me to be a faith community? It means collectively embracing a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where faith in God, in people, and in the potential Godliness of every person shapes values, morals and personal choices. In keeping with the ethical codes of our sages, it means giving others the benefit of the doubt without taking unreasonable risk to one’s own well being.
Judaism’s prophetic tradition envisioned a world order where all people would ultimately see God as one and recognize one another as the creation of that one God. In post-Biblical times, this vision of an era to come (olam ha-ba) was transformed into an other-worldly vision, one that could only arrive through divine intervention. Some even embraced the idea that a super-human or semi-divine figure would be needed to bring about this new world order.
Our sages of Rabbinic Judaism brought us back to our emphasis on human agency. We don’t rely on divine fiat to bring about the days of the era to come. Our messianic age is not ushered in by God, but by those of us here doing the work of God.
Israel and America are two potential entities through which this new world order can be brought about. There is nothing wrong with America or Israel wanting to put themselves “first” in this new order, so long as being first doesn’t mean being exclusive. Being first in this order means leading the way for all of humanity to ultimately be a part of the same vision, the same order. If I am first, and no one is following, then I am also last. Isolation and exclusivity did not fit with the prophets’ notion that Judaism’s values would serve as a light drawing humanity to unite as one.
As a leader of a faith community, I will continue to have faith in God; in people; and in policies that move us closer to a world order where all people search for the image of God in others. Our assembly, our worship, our inquiry and learning all point us in this direction as a worldview. Your vision of where we need to go as a society, as a country, as a world or as Jews may differ from mine; but as someone (who doesn’t see the world as I do) recently told me, I must speak the words that are in my heart. They are the wisdom of my experiences and my truths, and my responsibility to espouse in leading a faith community.
I don’t seek to be political in my views or to take sides. Different times demand that different values be prioritized and championed. I will speak out against Islamic fundamentalism that threatens my security and I will call out Jewish fundamentalism that chips away at my identity. I will warn against Islamophobia and I will defend against anti-Semitism. I will advocate for the rights of women to control their own bodies and I will demand the need for people to make responsible choices. I will educate for Jewish continuity and I will explore new ways to welcome interfaith households. I will support the rights of countries to protect their citizens, and I will march to demand the protection of the stranger, the vulnerable and those who can’t protect themselves. I will teach towards a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and I will push for us to see one another as people first. I will own responsibility for my actions and I will accept the collective responsibility we have to our neighbors.
These are the values, among others, that I believe our faith community must advance in moving our world toward a better era for humankind. May that time come soon and in our day.
Rabbi Craig Scheff