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
Hevel: vanity, futility, meaninglessness, pointless striving. We may acquire wisdom; we may amass physical comforts and playthings. We may seek pleasure in food and drink; we may build palaces and establish monuments to our accomplishments. It’s all hevel, however, because ultimately everything has its season, and every person has his or her own time. This is the message of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the megillah (scroll) that we read in conjunction with Sukkot, our festival of joy.
What if we read Kohelet as a treatise on love? After all, the megillot that we read on our other two major festivals are love stories! On Passover, the corresponding megillah we read is the Song of Songs, a story about unrequited love. On Shavuot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ruth, a story about consummated love. Moreover, Passover celebrates God’s courtship of the Jewish People; Shavuot celebrates the wedding of God and the Jewish People. I see this parallel progression from courtship to consummation as intentional. If so, what can we deduce about Sukkot and its relationship to Kohelet? How can we read hevel into the next stage of this relationship, into our attainment of joy?
Perhaps Kohelet’s conclusion–that life “under the sun” is meaningless–refers to the temporal, fleeting, finite pieces of ourselves and our relationships. The purest joy, however, is not connected to pleasures of food or wine, acquisitions or edifices. As exemplified by our experience of the sukkah, our greatest joy is found despite—if not in—our vulnerability, our authenticity, our simplicity. On Sukkot, we build a sukkah aware of its fragility, porousness, and temporary nature; we embrace it, love it and live in it anyway.
On Sukkot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ecclesiastes, a story about enduring love. Sukkot celebrates the journey the Jewish People took through a desert, with God as their ultimate shelter. We remember that the love at the heart of God’s relationship with the Jewish People is not sustained by the fireworks of courtship or by the pageantry of a wedding night. It is the love that emanates from a relationship that is resilient, that withstands the highs and the lows, that survives the wilderness wanderings, that thrives without necessarily reaching a promised land.
This season of our joy is rooted in a deep, enduring and timeless love that transcends what we build or acquire. It is the kind of joy that brings us peace and tranquility, and provides us the resilience and strength to go on dwelling in the midst of a tumultuous world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The Talmud teaches that those who don’t mourn ancient Jerusalem’s destruction will not merit rejoicing with her at her redemption. I have always understood this statement to mean that we can only truly appreciate the greatest joys in our lives if we have truly engaged with the sorrows in our lives. As the two extremes seemingly travel together within us, our saddest moments are buoyed by the knowledge that we have known—and will know again—pure joy. Similarly, our happiest moments are tinged with the knowledge that such joy can’t last forever, and that we will no doubt come to know sadness again.
One of the ancient rituals of the holiday of Sukkot is the celebration of water drawing and libations that took place in the time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud describes this ceremony as the epitome of joy, as water would be drawn from a well and poured over the sacrificial altar. As the rains fall today, on this third day of the holiday, we have the luxury of moving indoors; but our prayers for rain at this time despite wanting to be outside in the sukkah underline this sense of anxiety with which we live. We don’t control the weather—no matter what Rabbi Drill tells you about her powers—and we are dependent on a force beyond our control to bring just enough rain to be a blessing, a source of sustenance and joy. The same source of that joy, however, can also be a source of destruction and sadness. When it is time to draw from the well, there is no guarantee the well will be filled. We want to find the well filled when we need it, but not at the expense of the joy that is meant to accompany this holiday.
I liken this well to a well that exists within each of us. That well holds all our love. It is filled by how much love we give, and by how much we allow ourselves to be loved. In our times of greatest celebration, that love is easily drawn and poured out atop our offerings of joy. And in times of our greatest sadness, that love is similarly drawn up from the well, to be poured atop our altar of tears. Only those of us who have drawn from the well in sadness can truly understand what it means to draw from the well in joy. And only those of us who have known such complete joy as to cry in happiness can fully appreciate the profound nature of our loss.
To paraphrase a line from the movie Parenthood (the original with Steve Martin, not the TV series), we must choose whether we want our lives to run like a rollercoaster, with all its exhilarating highs and frightening lows, or like a merry-go-round, never really getting anywhere. Jewish living invites us to ride the rollercoaster–to be exhilarated and frightened, joyful and sorrowful, in the same breath.
May we be comforted in knowing that the feeling in the pit of our stomach is simply a wellspring of love.
In gratitude for your friendship,
Rabbi Craig Scheff