Here we are, together once again, for the New Year. For most Jews, Rosh HaShana is: Apples and Honey, blowing the Shofar, the Cantor chanting familiar tunes, the Rabbi giving the sermon, the teenagers leading us in the Tent…
On a deeper level, Rosh HaShana is really about RE-CONNECTING: With Tradition- and the Rituals and Prayers. AND, with God.
But many Jews today have a problem re-connecting with God: Most of us just don’t take God seriously- unless we’re in trouble. As everyone knows, “there are no atheists in a foxhole”. If somebody is shooting at us, we quickly “become religious.” If we’re stricken by illness, or deep in debt, or the family is in trouble, we show up at services, we pray with fervor, we adopt all those rituals that we once ignored. If our prayers are answered, we soon go back to our non-religious life-style; if we don’t get what we want, it’s proof that there is no God and that Religion is a bunch of hooey.
That reminds me of my favorite Jewish joke: A man had an important appointment he couldn’t be late for. But there was absolutely no place to park. He circled the block several times, but he couldn’t find a spot on the street, or even a garage to pull in to. In desperation, he turned to God: “Dear Lord! Please help me find a place to park. I swear, if You do, I’ll keep kosher. I won’t work on Shabbes. I’ll come to shul three days every week to help make a minyan… AND, I’ll give a thousand dollars to Tzedaka!” Not 10 seconds went by, and another car- twenty yards up ahead- drove away from the curb, enabling the man to pull in to a perfect spot. “Yes!” he shouted in joy. And then he glanced up towards the Heavens and said: “Never mind, God; I found one on my own!”
With Life and Death on the line, we suddenly become religious. But when all is normal again, it’s back to business as usual.
The corollary of not taking God seriously is that we don’t take Tradition, or Mitzvot seriously, either. To most people, a “Mitzvah” is “a good deed.” Kids do “Mitzvah Projects” before their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. Most decent people would say: “If a Mitzvah comes my way, and it won’t put me out, I’m Willing to do it.” But that’s not what a “Mitzvah” is. The Hebrew word means “Command”- an order from God; Rules, and requirements that we are obligated to do. Remember, Moses didn’t come down from Mt Sinai with “The Ten Suggestions.” They are Commandments.
But most of us don’t see it that way. We say to God: “Look, I’ll give You 3 days in the Fall (but don’t expect me to be here from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon). And I’ll sign up for a couple of Seders in the Spring (as long as we don’t have to go through the entire Hagada!). And the Menorah lighting in the Winter is nice (although I can never remember if you light the candles from Left to Right or from Right to Left). But I’m taking the Summer off!” And that brings us back, once again, to Rosh HaShana.
I wonder what God must be thinking of us. I’m especially worried, if it’s true that God Judges us as we sit here. I can imagine two very different reactions God might have.
When I was in college, I once dropped in on my father’s place of work. He saw me and there was a big smile on his face. He took me over to his boss and introduced me. “This is my son!” You could tell he was kvelling. Maybe God is the same way: He’s just thrilled to see us; no questions asked. A proud Father happy to be with His children. Our showing up in Temple is a surprise, but a pleasant one. He’ll settle for whatever He can get. After all, there are more Jews NOT in shul today than there are Jews in the pews. Our being here makes God’s day.
On the other hand, I once neglected to call my mother for a week. “What…you broke your hand? You couldn’t pick up the phone and dial my number to talk to me? Is it so much to ask- a quick call once a day? And you couldn’t drop by for a visit, maybe once a week? And yes, I got your Mother’s Day card- but it came a day late! ” Oy! What if God is an angry Jewish mother? Boy are we in big trouble!
But maybe I’m being too hard on us. Maybe it’s not all our fault; maybe God needs to shoulder some of the blame here. After all, He doesn’t answer His e-mails. We have no idea whether He hears our prayers, and if He does, whether He even has the ability to answer them. The last time He got in touch with anybody from our tribe was with the last of the prophets, and that was back in the year 500– bce!
And then there’s that business about the Mitzvot; supposedly, God demands we live our lives a particular way- so many things we can’t do, and even more things we have to do – things that most other people we know- just don’t do.
How do I know God said all that’s attributed to Him? Ira Gershwin expressed the doubt that many of us have: Methusaleh lived 900 years? Jonah lived in a whale? Little David, shot Goliath who lay down and dieth?
“It ain’t necessarily so, The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible – It ain’t necessarily so”
God demands we only eat animals that have a split hoof and chew their cud. We can’t turn a light switch on or off during Shabbat because it’s “work.” God wants us, in the year 2018 to shake a citron and a palm frond with three myrtle and two willow branches and stand in a hut with a bamboo roof -during the rainy season A 13 year old, in order to achieve manhood, is required to sing 30 lines of a prophetic soliloquy- in Hebrew- in front of 200 people. A mourner must sit on a cardboard box for seven days. Is this what God really wants from us?
But questions about God go way beyond “quaint” customs.
A lot of bad stuff goes down on God’s watch: Volcanoes in Hawaii. Tornadoes in Kansas. Hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Drought and fires in California. Earthquakes in Southeast Asia. Is God asleep at the wheel? He created the natural world- shouldn’t He make sure it doesn’t spin out of control? And what about man’s inhumanity to man? Gunmen massacre children in schools, worshippers in church, party goers at a concert? And how can He ever justify a child who gets cancer? Why does God allow all this? Why doesn’t He do something? It’s no wonder that so many people have problems with God, and with taking Him seriously, when it seems He’s falling down on the job.
By the way, traditional Judaism raised these same questions, and has some answers.
One response is the Book of Job. Job was a good man who suffered one tragedy on top of another; his children were killed, he lost all his wealth, his body was afflicted by a horrible disease. His friends came to make a shiva call, and they told him: “God is just; if you are suffering, it’s because you did something wrong. Examine your life, repent, and you will be back in God’s good graces.” Job angrily tells them, “I’m not perfect, but I did nothing to deserve what happened to me!” At the end of the book, God came to Job and told him two things: “First, your friends are wrong; you didn’t deserve this. Second, humans can never know everything, and I’m not about to tell them all the mysteries of the universe. You have to live with uncertainty.” But at least God returned Job’s call- even if the reply didn’t answer all of Job’s questions.
Another traditional Jewish answer is “Hastarat Panim”- God is hiding His face from us, just like an angry parent who gives their child the “silent treatment.” We turned our backs on God, and now He has turned His back on us. When we say we’re sorry and change our ways, God will open His arms to us, forgive us, and restore our relationship.
And then of course there is the answer of “Olam HaBa”- the World to Come. Yes, there is injustice in this world: Tzadik v’Ra lo (There is the righteous man who suffers), and Rasha v’Tov lo (the wicked man who prospers). But eventually, everything will be worked out in the Next World, and good people will enjoy eternity in Paradise, while the wicked- who got away with murder here on Earth, will be punished.
Well, we’d all like to believe that that is true. If God would just give us a Guarantee, with His signature on it, we’d be happy to believe Him. But without that piece of paper, we don’t know if we canaccept somebody else’s word for it. “Just trust Him.” Oh? And what if it turns out that it isn’t so? In recent years there have been a slew of books from the so-called “New Athiests.” Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They explain that today, Science answers the questionsthat people once turned to Religion for. And, they offer a brutal critique of Religion. Inquisitions, Jihads, Holy Wars, Crusades, the burning of books, the burning of heretics, pedophile priests, female genital mutilation… So much death and suffering, all in the name of a benevolent loving God. No thank you!
Back in 1971 John Lennon offered his utopian vision of the world:
Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try
No hell below us Above us only sky
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too.
But there’s an alternative viewpoint, best expressed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, in 1880: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” The perversion of Religion may be responsible for much suffering, but a world devoid of Religion would be even worse. Religion, or the fear of a wrathful God, helps keep most people in line. The history of the 20th century seems to prove that Dostoevsky, not Lennon, was right.
So, it seems we have two choices when it comes to God: Accept the traditional view– on faith– that there is order and justice in the universe, and that on this very day, even as we speak, God is inscribing our fate for the coming year into the Book of Life and Death. Or, as Freud said, Religion is an illusion; and as Marx wrote, Religion is the opiate of the masses. There is no God up there to help us. We’re on our own. Those are the two alternatives; it’s one way or the other.
But perhaps there is a third possibility.
Let’s imagine that the Universe was created not 5,779 years ago like they teach in yeshiva, but 13.7 billion years ago, like they teach in High School. And that Creation began not with God saying, “Let there be Light!”- but with “the Big Bang.” And that the first people were not Adam and Eve, but some ancestor of Homo erectus who evolved from the apes. We’re here by accident, not by divine plan.
Such a world can be a scary place. What do you do when the rain doesn’t fall and the crops don’t grow, and your child is burning up with fever, and the tribe from the next village is threatening? Faced with their own inadequacy, human beings created the idea of powerful forces in nature that could be turned to for help. These gods were pictured in the image of man- only more powerful. Gods who could be bargained with: “We’ll give you a sacrifice; you give us the things we need.” Gods who became the source of law and order in society, who hold back chaos and anarchy. And, these gods, because they were created in man’s own image, embodied both the best and the worst of humanity. They could be violent warriors and sexual predators, or they could be protecting and kind, the source of sustenance and wisdom.
When the Jewish people arrived on the scene of History they adapted and refined what others had created. Borrowing from an Egyptian experiment with monotheism, the Jews proclaimed that there is One God, ruler of all peoples, not just one nation. And that God is good, and demands good from humankind. Stories of our people’s origins- of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob- were eventually written down. The Israelites then took existing laws, like the Code of Hamurabi and ratified, or rejected, or amended them. What resulted- the Stories and the Laws of the Jews-became known as “Torah”- the Hebrew word for “Instruction.” The Torah itself traced all this back to God at Mount Sinai, but the original author was Moses, or dozens of others like him. Just as the first gods reflected man at his best and worst, so did the Torah. “Love your neighbor as yourself. Care for the widow and orphan and stranger. Leave the corners of the field for the poor. Honor your parents. Show respect to the elderly.” These laws represent the very best. On the other hand, Numbers chapter 31, verse 17, where Moses orders the people to kill all the male Midianite babies- is a command that we just didn’t get right.
The Mitzvot, then, are not God’s “Commandments” or Divine Will, but Folkways, created by the Jewish people over the course of 3000 years. They include Rituals- like Passover- which remind us of our History. And Holidays- which help us navigate the seasons of the year- like Sukkot during the Fall harvest. And Life Cycle events to mark Birth, and Adolescence, and Marriage, and Death. Let me give an example of how that works: Pagans used to make loud noises at happy events to scare away evil demons. Jews liked the idea and began breaking a glass at weddings. The Rabbis fought against this pagan custom. The Rabbi says NO! The people say Yes! Who do you think wins? So the Rabbis said Fine, break a glass! But it’s not about evil demons; it’s a reminder that even at our happiest moment, we remember the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s not in the Torah, it didn’t come from God at Mt Sinai. Over the course of time, the Jewish people created these folkways, and the Rabbis gave them meaning.
All in all, our people did a pretty good job of fashioning a way of life that has evolved over 3000 years, and still brings wisdom and meaning to people who are willing to learn it and follow it.
One of the most important passages in the history of Judaism comes in the Talmud, when Rabbi Hama b’Rabbi Hanina said: “We should follow the attributes of the Holy One, praised is He: As God clothed the naked (as He did in the story of Adam and Eve), so you should provide clothing for those without. As God visited the sick (as He did in the story of Abraham’s circumcision at an advanced age) so too you should visit the sick. As God comforted mourners (as He did to Isaac following the death of Abraham), so you should comfort the bereaved. As God buried the dead (as He did with Moses) so too you should attend a funeral and help to bury the dead.” Rabbi Hama teaches us: Do what God did. Imitate His attributes.
A similar passage is found in the Midrash. There, the Thirteen Attributes of God are quoted. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…” The Rabbis teach: “Just as God is gracious and compassionate, so you too must be gracious and compassionate.” Once again the message is: Follow God’s example. Emulate His actions.
For those of us who have difficulties with the traditional notion of God, what if we didn’t see God as the All-Powerful Grandfather in the Sky, but rather as a fictional figure who represents Godliness, who embodies Goodness. As we read the Bible stories, God becomes our Role Model. We do what God did, not because He’s God and He said so, but because what God does in the stories represents what our great thinkers and writers imagined is Good and is Right.
This same principle applies to the Prayer Book, as well.
Much of our Liturgy is Praise of God. Why do we need to spend so much time telling God how great He is? To stroke His ego? To get on His good side? So He’ll be disposed to return our flattery by granting our wishes? What kind of Religion is that? But, what if all that praise of God is meant as a reminder to us of what qualities are praiseworthy, and the attributes of the Hero of the story—God- that we should emulate. Think about the Daily Amidah and its blessings. We praise God who forgives; the message is we should forgive, too. We praise God who heals the sick; we learn that we should bring healing wherever we can. We praise God who sustains the living; we should try to provide basic sustenance to those in need. We praise God who loves Justice and Righteousness; we are taught to be just and do what is right. God blesses us with peace; the point is that we too should make peace with others.
For all those who have trouble finding spiritual meaning in prayer, this may be an answer: Prayer is not Praise or Petition, or Thanksgiving to God. Instead, it’s a time we set to meditate on qualities which we attribute to God, and which we strive to incorporate into our lives.
Rosh HaShana is about RE-CONNECTING- with Tradition, with the Temple, and with God. If you believe the traditional way of looking at God and Mitzvot, then the key question for you over the course of the holidays is: “What does God require of us?” The answer is found in obeying God’s words and commandments, which God actually said some three thousand years ago.
If you’re not comfortable with the traditional ideas about God, you can say: “I don’t need this” and you can walk away. But at least be consistent: When you’re in that foxhole, or searching for that parking spot- don’t expect God to suddenly be there to help you. You’re on your own.
But there’s another possibility for the Agnostics, and the Atheists, among us. The Jewish people have created a fictional character, called God. In molding that character’s personality, they attributed to Him the very best qualities they could imagine. Left in a world without God, we created one that we could imitate. And by emulating His attributes, we bring Godliness and Goodness into our lives, and into our world.
Back in 1960, Harper Lee wrote what many consider to be the great American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s 282 pages long, and tells the events of one summer in the 1930’s, in Maycomb, Alabama, when a white lawyer defended a Black man falsely accused of rape. The fictional hero is Atticus Finch. You could do a lot worse in Life than trying to be the parent, and the citizen, that Atticus was.
Three thousand years ago, great Israelite writers wrote 24 books that were eventually collected in what we today call the Bible. It amounts to over a thousand pages of history, stories, poetry and laws. It begins at the very dawn of time, and takes us all the way through the return of the Jews from Babylonian Exile. Some people believe that the hero- Adonai- is a fictional character. So what? You could do a lot worse in Life than trying to be just like Him.
But of course, you’d have to read the book in order to know all about Him, and what you’d have to do to be like Him. (In case you’re interested, we have a Book Club that meets here every Saturday morning, from 9:45 till noon, where we read His story. Refreshments are served. You’re always welcome to join us).
I hope in this New Year we all find that parking spot- and everything else- we’re looking for.
Mostly, I hope that we each of us finds a way to re-connect to God.