A couple recently came to a colleague of mine with a serious dilemma. They had two very poorly behaved boys, ages eight and ten. Having tried every parenting help program in the book with no improvement, they were at their wits’ end. They called my rabbi friend, because he had a reputation for being successful with difficult kids.
He arranged to meet with each boy individually. The eight-year-old was sent to meet with the rabbi first. My colleague sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy made no response, so the rabbi repeated the question in an even harsher tone of voice, “Where is God?” Again the boy didn’t answer, whereupon the clergyman raised his voice to a shout, shaking his finger in the boy’s face, “WHERE IS GOD?”
At that, the youngster bolted from the room, ran directly home, and hid in his closet. His older brother followed him into the closet and asked what happened. The younger brother replied, “We’re in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we did it!”
How could the Highest-Power-of-All possibly be missing? We say that God is everywhere . . . but what, exactly, does that mean? Is God inside the sanctuary more than outside of it? If God were missing, would we even know it?
Synagogues throughout North America, including our own, are less concerned with God’s attendance at services than the presence of members. The number of people who attend on Shabbat is viewed as a litmus test of success. Regrettably, it may be the wrong way to gauge the health of shul life. To increase attendance, synagogues have made services shorter, added instrumental music, instituted special birthday and anniversary celebrations, brought in distinguished guest speakers, and advertised provocative-sounding sermon topics ahead of time. Each of these has had varying degrees of success. Yet there is a huge difference between making worship more enjoyable and making it more theologically intentional and meaningful. If you can’t feel a longing for God in a three-hour service, you’re not going to find union with the Divine in a two-hour service.
More than sixty years ago, the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed the myriad ways in which synagogues struggled to increase synagogue numbers. In his book, Man’s Quest for God, he writes, “Well-intentioned as these suggestions may be they do not deal with the core issue. Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative [or programmatic] techniques. The problem is not how to fill buildings but how to inspire the hearts. The problem is not one of synagogue attendance, but one of spiritual attendance” (emphasis added).
We have a problem with spiritual attendance — being physically present without being spiritually attuned to the ultimate significance of the moment. Let me pose a simple question to which I have no pat answers. Where is God? Is God here in this room with us? How much time do we spend in this building expressing ourselves to God, or even more challenging, trying to fathom God’s will. During services we may listen to the hazzan and the rabbi; we may dutifully join in responsive readings, we may even sing — but often they are substitutes for communication with God rather than manifestations of the conversation.
I’ve included a visual aid to this morning’s sermon. In the seat pockets in front of you you’ll find a picture from the popular series, Where’s Waldo? by artist Martin Handford. More than thirty years ago Handford came up with the idea of drawing a character with peculiar features as a focal point within incredibly elaborate pictures of crowds. And so “Where’s Waldo?” was born: an aficionado of time travel around the globe who always has a camera hanging over his shoulder, wears glasses, and is always clothed in a red-and-white striped shirt and ski cap. Sometimes it takes Handford up to two months to draw a single sketch of the elusive Waldo and the characters surrounding him. Extremely successful, Handford’s books have been published throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. The franchise has even inspired a television series, a comic strip, and a video game. What makes Where’s Waldo? so popular is not the ease of locating him amid the myriad faces, scenery and animals in the picture, but the challenge of poring over the details of the page to find him. Check out the picture of the train station and the crowds departing or returning from their journeys . . . Can you find Waldo?
Synagogues have their own theological version of Where’s Waldo? — but with one crucial difference. We spend our time closely examining the picture of Jewish life, but become so focused on the nuts and bolts we forget to search for God. Rather than the driving force behind its existence, God is often a peripheral aspect of synagogue life.
In bold letters a local church proclaims on its website, “Our mission is to glorify God and make Him known to everyone…everywhere.” Another church of a different denomination sees its goal as, “Sharing God’s love by building community; cherishing, sustaining, and enhancing the resources God has entrusted to us; and glorifying God through reverent worship.” After several hours surfing the web for Jacksonville churches, no matter where I looked and no matter the denomination, Protestant or Catholic, progressive or conservative, virtually every church’s website I visited put God at the center of its communal existence.
Yet when I looked at the websites of synagogues around the country, I found a very different story. Here’s the wording of the mission of one congregation in New England: “Temple Hanukkah is a Conservative, egalitarian, spiritual community. We honor our Jewish traditions and infuse them with renewed meaning by practicing them in both traditional and innovative ways.” The synagogue then went on to list its goals: “1) for Judaism to guide our daily lives; 2) for our children to engage in being Jewish; 3) to generate spirituality by applying traditional rituals to contemporary needs. 4) to inspire us to take action, improve ourselves, and to seek interconnectedness.”
Another prominent synagogue, this time from the Midwest, framed its mission as follows: “Congregation Sons of Falafel seeks to encourage involvement and create a special sense of belonging for all those who walk through our doors. The synagogue is committed to meeting the religious, educational, social and cultural needs of our members within the framework of the Conservative movement. Sons of Falafel recognizes its responsibility to serve the Jewish community, the wider community, and the State of Israel.”
I visited the websites of two dozen synagogues, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Many did not have mission or vision statements on their websites at all. For those that did, the buzzwords were “spirituality,” “connection,” “heritage,” “tradition,” and included phrases like “fulfilling members’ needs,” “making the world a better place,” and “educating the next generation of Jewish children.” Two mentioned God in passing; none of the others made any mention of God at all.
God, of course, could be a part of any of the above words and terms . . . but it is far from self-evident. God may have something to do with spirituality, but as used by many people, the term connotes a quality of feeling within ourselves, one which may have little, if anything to do, with striving to hear God’s voice; a Divine being who challenges us to live in a certain way; or who command us to struggle with the less flattering angels of our nature. The Jewish conception of spirituality is as much — if not more — about what God gets out of us rather than the other way around.
“Connection,” “heritage,” and “tradition” are lovely words, yet they can just as easily apply to any secular association or volunteer organization in which we invest effort. Indeed, after spending a little more time on the web checking out the mission statements of fraternities, I created my own composite based on the wording of a half-dozen Greek societies: “Zeta Zeta Zeta embraces its heritage as a fellowship devoted to loyalty, achievement, connection to others, and personal responsibility. Ours is a proud tradition of lifelong brotherhood that puts service before self and commitment to making the world a better place.” Are synagogues the equivalent of fraternities and sororities for Jews . . . or must they be something above and beyond a voluntary association of members?
I’ve placed the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s mission statement on your seat — just turn over the Where’s Waldo? picture and you’ll find it on the other side:
The mission of the Jacksonville Jewish Center is to inspire our members to live a fulfilling Jewish life. Through meaningful worship services, excellent educational and youth programs, and dynamic cultural activities, we encourage individuals of all backgrounds to grow and participate in the vibrant life of our synagogue community. Guided by the principles and values of Conservative Judaism, we are committed to meeting, everyday, the diverse spiritual and life cycle needs of our members.
These are noble sentiments and laudable goals. In all fairness, I should disclose the fact that I collaborated in the creation of our mission statement nearly ten years ago. But this morning I feel that I owe you an apology. As a rabbi, as your spiritual leader, I should have insisted that we put God explicitly and unapologetically into the espousal of our mission — not that anyone would have objected to God’s inclusion, Heaven forbid! The truth is I wasn’t thinking about God. I was so busy looking at the picture, that I forget to search for Waldo, so to speak. And what this demonstrates is that I, too, am vulnerable to being so caught up with the details that I forget the bigger picture. Yes, even a rabbi can take God so much for granted that he doesn’t notice when God is missing.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “אָכֵ֕ן אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל מִסְתַּתֵּ֑ר אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מוֹשִֽׁיעַ — You are indeed a God who conceals Himself, O God of Israel who redeems” (Isaiah 45:9). Redemption through God begins with the awareness that God is hidden. A story is told of Rabbi Barukh of Medzibozh, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement: One day, the Rebbe’s grandson, Yehiel Mikhel, was engaged in playing hide-and-seek with a group of other children. He hid himself for a long time until it dawned on him that the others were no longer looking for him. It was then that he came running to his grandfather and, with tears in his eyes, cried out, “I was hiding, but no one was searching for me!” Rabbi Barukh’s own eyes become moist as he replied, “Yes, that is exactly how God must feel. God hides, but no one seeks Him.”
God’s concealment is not about a desire to avoid an encounter with us — quite the opposite. God’s hiding dares, challenges, and above all, implores us to look for the Eternal. In last week’s Torah portion — which is always read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur — God says to Moses, ” וְאָֽנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי” — when any verb is doubled in biblical Hebrew, the intention is to add emphasis. Thus, the phrase simply means, “I shall surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18). Yet rather than accept the plain meaning, however, our mystical tradition understands the words to mean, “I shall hide the fact of my hiding.” The challenge of faith is know that God is in hiding precisely so that we have no choice but to look for God.
Yet in our complacency, in our assumption that we need not put any effort into finding God, we fall into a trap of spiritual numbness. As we know from economics scarcity is what creates value. The more rare an item, the more we esteem its being. In not thinking about God’s hiddenness, we do not feel a longing to hear God’s call, we do not seek to pursue a spiritual mission far greater than self-satisfaction.
The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked his followers, “Where does God dwell?” They reacted with more than a little incredulity that their teacher could ask such a fatuous question. “God is everywhere,” they answered. “No,” responded the Rebbe, “God can only dwell where we allow God to dwell.”
In the Musaf Kedushah, which we will chant shortly, we sing, “Kvodo maleh olam — God’s glory fills the universe.” But almost immediately after these words, the angels on high ask one another, “Ayeh mekom k’vodo — Where is the place of God’s glory?” If even the angels must search for God’s presence, how much more so must we!
God is not absent, just hidden. God may well be in this room, but we will have to search for Him. And that is why as a community we need to start thinking and talking about the role of God in our lives and our congregation. Just under our synagogue’s current mission statement I have included a revision I would propose:
The mission of the Jacksonville Jewish Center is to inspire our members to live a fulfilling Jewish life. Through meaningful worship services, excellent educational and youth programs, and dynamic cultural activities, we encourage individuals of all backgrounds to seek God’s Presence and experience transformative meaning in the vibrant life of our synagogue community. Guided by our covenant with God through Torah, as understood by the principles and values of Conservative Judaism, we are committed to meeting, everyday, the diverse spiritual and life cycle needs of our members.
This is not by adding a few words to a mission statement and then returning to the status quo. Rather, by considering the way in which we express our mission, I am extending an invitation in the year ahead to share in a conversation about ultimate significance and the ways in which we come together as a synagogue to search for God’s presence in our lives, individually and collectively. This is a board conversation, a bimah conversation, an adult ed conversation, and very much a kiddush conversation. As for those who do not believe in God, you, too, have a seat at the table. Tell me about the God you don’t believe in . . . share with us the ways in which you strive to find lasting significance in your place on earth. This is an essential conversation to have, because synagogues are the only institution in the Jewish world both designed to and capable of creating a meaningful framework in which to talk about God’s role in our lives.
I cannot find God for you. It’s not because I forgot to show up to class the day they taught rabbis how to inspire their congregants to experience God, but because no such class exists. Still, for years I felt guilty that I could not bring God with me when I walked into the sanctuary . . . until one day I realized my guilt was just inverted hubris. I work for God, not the other way around. Indeed, I am suspicious of clergy who promise to deliver you God. They may deliver a shorter service, a better sermon, or catchier music, but God isn’t a pizza to be delivered.
But here’s what I can do: I can walk with you, I can share the journey with you, and I can help us ask the right questions. Like the hametz for which we search on Passover eve, together we can light a candle, recite a blessing, and search for God. We can be open, vulnerable, excited, joyous, and sad together, because a real search for God will at one time or another engender all those feelings.
One more confession . . . If you’re frustrated at not finding Waldo in the picture I gave you . . . well, he’s not on the sheet — Handford’s picture of Waldo at the train station takes up two pages, and I opted to give you the one without Waldo. But he’s in the picture, trust me. We just need to broaden the search, which requires that we first recognize where he isn’t. And that my friends is exactly my point.
At its best, prayer awakens us to the need to search for God, a search that is scarcely begun after the final page is announced and the last hymn sung. The hunt can begin in this room, but if it ends when we walk out the door then the wide world in which we live is devoid of God’s presence. It is through prayer that we sense God’s hiddeness, and through prayer that we affirm our faith that God want us to find Him in our homes, our workplaces, our smiles, our tears, our loneliness, our joy, in the face of the person sitting beside you, and the stranger you pass on the street. The search for God is in the shaking of a lulav and etrog, in serving a dinner at the Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless; it’s in the stewardship of being a lay leader; it’s in teaching a child how to read Torah; it’s in a congregational trip to Israel (winter 2018, please God), it’s in standing up for the rights of refugees for we, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s in lighting Shabbat candles and learning how to read Hebrew, the language of God’s Torah; it’s in beautifying the synagogue; it’s in struggling with a difficult religious text; it’s anywhere and everywhere we intentionally strive to hear God’s voice as Jewish individuals and as a community.
The prophet Isaiah tells us, “דִּרְשׁ֥וּ ה’ בְּהִמָּצְא֑וֹ קְרָאֻ֖הוּ בִּֽהְיוֹת֥וֹ קָרֽוֹב — Look for God while He can be found; call to God while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). God is hiding in this room, hiding in our hearts, hiding just around the corner. Together let us look for our Heavenly Parent in that most obvious of places which is sometimes also the most neglected: the bodies we inhabit, the lives we live, the breathe we breath. Yes, God is hiding . . . in plain sight.