L’shana tovah tikateivu.
Have you noticed all the royal language in tonight’s service?
- God the King
- God the sovereign
- Avinu Malkeinu, our father our king
- Malkhut hashamayim – the kingdom of heaven
These words are just a selection of the terms we use for God and God’s power in the Torah, the five books of Moses, and in the liturgy we’ve read tonight and we will read tomorrow morning, especially during the shofar service, and on Yom Kippur. It’s all laden with the image of God’s kingship.
Does this language work for you spiritually? For me, the language was often a barrier. What to do with all this masculine, royal language, let alone language for God?
I am hoping to make it a little easier for you.
In the last year I’ve heard a number of you espouse different beliefs in God—“I don’t think about God,” “God takes care me,” “I am not so arrogant as to refute, without proof either way, what so many people believe,” “God has a long-range, high-level plan or pattern for the world/universe.” I’m sure there are more… including certainly, “No, I don’t believe in God.” And – just like any important issue with us – 10 Jews, 11 opinions.
In my humble opinion, this is all to the good. And extremely Talmudic. The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish wisdom from after the bible until about 600 CE, contains two evocative lessons from the rabbis that help me into our liturgy: first, that the language of the torah is the language of humans and second, that God has 70 faces. The first one tells me that the torah speaks to each of us in a way that each of us can understand it, and therefore each of us might hear the words, experience the message a little differently. The second, about God’s 70 faces, tells me that each of us sees or encounters the Holy One differently.
Our liturgy is full of embodied images: God’s hand, God’s back, God’s finger, God’s nose flaring with anger. Maimonides, the Rambam, the 12th century Spanish/Egyptian thinker and physician, believed that the use of such phrases was to allow us limited humans a way to envision divinity, because anything without limits is so outside our ability to comprehend, that the metaphors of embodiment are essential for our human understanding. We used to do better with the image of the old man on the throne in the sky, and indeed, we probably needed Him.
The concept of God has changed continually since we went from a family to a tribe to a nation. Certainly the God of the Torah is different from the God of Job, and different from the God of Maimonides.
Jewish mystics viewed God as a river of light. Think of it as an energy of goodness flowing into the universe.
But now, in the age of science, when we think we know to the millisecond when the big bang occurred, and we still wonder why bad things happen to good people (I actually wonder more why good things happen to bad people…), some of us don’t know what to make of all this God language and let alone the specific king language.
At the same time, I know that many of you experience awe on a regular basis. One of you told me that when you got in the Lake the very first time, you felt a spiritual connection to the earth and a sense of peace. Another mentioned how your gratitude is triggered on every hike you take, as you stop to notice each flower, each blossom: therefore, it takes you a long time to get from point A to point B. Someone else told me that skiing down your mountain is one of the times you feel most alive. One of our kids described skiing down the mountain as being in a place with no problems, in the zone, in another world. That other world, God is there, not the God on the throne, but the God of energy.
I remember one night last winter, Sam and I were driving home from Reno on 80. It had recently snowed. The moon was full. The moonlight reflected off the snow in a way that took our breath away. All that could come out of our mouths was “Wow.” I thought “God is in this place.” This, it turns out, is not so different from the prophet Isaiah, and the psalms, and our liturgy—that tell us m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo – all the earth is filled with God’s glory–or better, God’s essence, holiness, fills the earth and everything on it. Everything. When you feel awe, it could be a glimpse of that essence.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi, talked about how religion and belief spring initially from a sense of wonder, and that wonder leads to awe, and that awe leads to belief that we are a small part of something much larger than we mere mortal humans. He coined the term “radical amazement” to express that sense of wonder. And he used to start lectures in a breathless way: “I’ve just seen a miracle, I’ve just seen a miracle!” he’d tell his audience: “I just saw the sun set.”
We sometimes forget what a miracle that is…
I don’t think there’s a person who lives in Tahoe or who visits Tahoe who does not experience a sense of radical amazement sometimes. What do you think?
Whether we can conjure that sense of awe on a regular basis may depend on whether we practice enough. And whether we really tune into those small miracles. And notice the gratitude that they can evoke… or that the sense of connection, that sense of wonder, that sense of peace.
These could be called God-moments. What do you think? Does that feel right?
While many of you may have these God-moments, do you tend to think of them as God-moments, or simply as moments of wonder? If I were to venture a guess – I’d say probably the latter…
I think God-moments don’t just happen in nature, although for many people, and again, I’m guessing many of the people sitting here, that’s the easiest place.
Watching Serena Williams win the last four games of the third set at the US Open – that’s tennis – last week, she lifted her game and was clearly in the zone, or in the flow of energy. Michael Phelps gets in the flow or zone, too. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to experience that, and you don’t have to play sports, either.
We can experience those glimpses of something other worldly in art as well: I’ve felt it at a few really stellar productions of theatre: when magic happens and we are all lifted to a different place. I saw Brian Dennehy play Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway several years ago, and when the play was over, I was still crying, because his performance had reached somewhere deep into my soul and touched some of the brokenness in my own family. God was there, in Arthur Miller’s genius and Brian Dennehy’s ability to make Willie Loman come completely alive.
M’lo kol ha’aretz kvodo – all the world is filled with God’s essence.
But how can we feel it here in this beautiful building, praying our liturgy?
Certainly, Jonathan’s voice singing the melodies from deep in our family history keeps taking me to God-moments. And when I hear us all sing together, even if some of us are off key, or challenged by the Hebrew, our community singing edges me to a place of joy.
Martin Buber talked about God as the connection in relationships. He defined I-It relationships: the waitress at Jason’s, or the bank tellers: they help us get our business done, but we don’t share the intimacies of our lives, generally. Even in our personal relationships, we often have I-It moments: Honey, please clean the litter boxes, or walk the dog, or take out the trash…
But we also have what Buber calls I-Thou moments, those moments when we really connect with loved ones, or even people we are getting to know. For parents—and children, and couples it could be those moments of intimacy at bedtime, or on a long car ride, or any moment when we truly connect: those moments can also be called God.
Poet Ruth Brin describes her visions of God this way:
I might imagine God as teacher or friend, but those images,
like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.
Judaism offers us so many beautiful ways to perceive holiness in our midst, God-moments and God images, that may speak to your idea of the divine or the holy. And yet, when we all show up, these two most holy days, we use this heavy sovereignty language. But can we do with it?
Let’s look at our creation story. It begins with God’s words that formed each thing and then evaluated them: everything was good. Good. Everything was created for the good. Everything: even the creepy crawling things. Even the bats and the alligators, even the poison oak.
The Torah tells us that God created humanity – b’tzelem Elohim—in God’s image. The midrash tells us that God tells the angels, ‘Let us create humanity in God’s image and likeness.’ But we’re created, a few verses later, only in God’s image.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains that we are in God’s image only as a sign of our potential to act in holy ways: care for the sick, lift the fallen, and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. But we are only in God’s likeness when we actualize that potential: act as God’s hands, God’s feet, God’s eyes, doing the work of a building a just world.
Another way to approach sovereignty is to look at the construction of the prayer book. Some people wonder – what’s all the praising about? Is the God to whom we sing so narcissistic, so insecure that He needs all those repetitive, redundant expressions of admiration?
The rabbis teach us that if we don’t acknowledge the gratitude we owe for all we have to the Holy One, to the force of good, to the wellspring of life, then we will start to pray to some other god or gods. Mammon, the god of money; Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty; Mars, the god of war.
Or worse – ourselves. We will come to believe that we earned everything we have entirely through our own efforts, with no thanks to the natural resources, let alone the power grid and the education and the first responders that are part of society.
If we don’t recognize that we are not the center of the universe, but rather a small part of a much larger ecosystem or world, then we might come to believe that – we don’t have to control our anger, or we are justified in hating someone else, or we are right to hit our children or our spouse. We don’t recognize how our own behavior affects others. When we believe that we have to answer for our actions—we recognize that we have responsibilities in this world to act in ways that show our caring for others. I think we do better – live a moral life that is full of virtue, that leads to deep happiness for us and those around us – when we recognize our true place in the Universe. R. Harold Schulweis shares another midrash:
“The angels, having heard that God planned to create the human being in His image, grew jealous. What does a mere mortal human have to deserve such a gift? The angels plotted to hide the image of God from the human being. One angel suggested that it be hid on the tallest mountain. Another suggested that it be sunk into the deep of the sea. But the shrewdest angel demurred. “A human,” he said, “is an adventurer. People will climb the highest mountain. They will plumb the deepest ocean. But if we want to hide it from them, let us hide the image inside each of them. It is the last place in the world that they will seek it.”
You know it’s true. How hard it is to recognize that we are often powerless in the face of our urges and desires. That the effort to achieve change is enormous. (Hence the 10 plagues, parting of the red sea and all the other miracles – and still we built a Golden Calf within two months of receiving the 10 commandments.)
Jews sometimes call our unwillingness or inability to curb our shadow side the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. It’s the voice in our heads urging us to do what we know not to do. It’s the voice that tells us we can handle one more piece of pie, or that we don’t have to exercise today, or we don’t have to look at how we treat the ones we love. It’s the voice of inertia, that tells us, we’re fine, we don’t have to change.
But today, in this sacred time, we know better. We know that we if are truly going to be in the likeness of God that we have to ignore that voice, or better yet, argue with it, wrestle it to the ground, so that we can actualize our likeness to all that is holy. It takes work, it takes awareness, it takes our rational mind, our open heart, and all our strength.
Are we willing to do that work together? R. Jonathan Sacks tells us that if we fully enter into the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, and make ourselves anew (one definition of teshuvah, the very name of our prayer book – Sha’arei T’shuvah), then we can emerge into the new year charged, energized, renewed, knowing that to be a Jew is to live a life in the presence of God, for wherever we bring blessings into others’ lives, God lives there.
I pray that by the end of the Yamim Noraim, we have each of us firmly acknowledged that we are not sovereign, that we have—each of us—made contact and connection with the face of God that speaks to us, that we have seized the day to be in both the image and likeness of God, and we have recognized at least some of the God-moments we have experienced as God-moments. So that when we hear the words ‘sovereign,’ ‘king’ and ‘majesty,’ we know what it means in our own language.