Watching the swirling mass of a hurricane on a TV screen set to the Weather Channel makes a person feel small and vulnerable. Witnessing the fury of a storm first-hand does the same thing, only exponentially many more times so. In the 21st century, cutting-edge meteorology still can’t predict the tiny wobbles of a storm track that are the difference between life or death for thousands. The frailty of life as described by the Unetaneh Tokef prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy takes on extra resonance in the wake of Hurricane Matthew: “משול כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש וכציץ נובל . . . וכחלום יעוף — We are like a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower . . . a vanishing dream.”
According to the Talmud, it is during this season that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life or its opposite (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32b). Our actions are weighed and judged; our fate is decided accordingly. The good are rewarded, the wicked are punished — so tradition teaches. We struggle mightily with this notion because it flies in the face of the reality we see all around us. Fate appears random; the good suffer, evil goes unchecked. But the sages of antiquity were not Pollyannas; they were keenly aware of the vast chasm between a tidy theology and a chaotic universe. Indeed, the biblical book of Job chides us to avoid the platitudes that come with a smug view of the world. If the scales of justice are balanced, they are balanced by an invisible hand in an invisible way in a sphere far beyond our comprehension.
Yet underlying the complexities of a life in which we expect — or at least hope — that God will reward the good and punish the bad is a single, simple question: Does God care?
Some of us undoubtedly believe that God doesn’t care, either because God doesn’t exist or because God is an impersonal force within the universe disconnected from individual human beings.
But many of us believe that God does care. We pray, whether in moments of danger or gratitude, because we believe that God cares. Many of us are here today because we sense there is a Presence larger than ourselves to which we are connected . . . a Presence who cares in some ineffable, yet palpable, way.
But if God cares . . . what is that God cares about? Does God care if I cheat on my taxes? If I cheat on my spouse? Would God care if I robbed a liquor store? What if I see a homeless man standing in the rain at a traffic light and give him nothing? Does God care if I as a Jew keep Shabbat, eat lobster, put on Tefillin, or help make a minyan? Does God care if I fast on Yom Kippur?
I believe that God cares about all these things . . . but not necessarily in the way you might think. There was a time when I thought of God as a scorekeeper, keeping track of the points we earned or the penalties incurred in the game of life . . . pretty much the same way that the Talmud describes God writing our names for good or for ill in the Book of Life. My image of God was similar to that found in the lyrics of a popular Yom Kippur song, first sung by Edward Israel Iskowitz (better known as Eddie Cantor) on his radio show in 1934:
God’s making a list,
God’s checking it twice,
God’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Yom Kippur is coming to town.
God sees you when you’re sleeping
And knows when you’re awake
God knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake . . .
Okay, maybe it wasn’t a Yom Kippur song . . . It’s a light-hearted tune, one whose consequences are no more dire than not getting toys on a certain night of the year. Unetaneh Tokef is infinitely darker and far more serious, but at face value, the underlying premise of both aren’t drastically different.
And that is a God I can no longer believe in. When I was a kid this theology worked — largely because I never challenged it — but as I got older, I outgrew this conception of God much as one outgrows a pair of shoes. I just couldn’t squeeze my soul into what was an increasingly impossible fit. I became disillusioned and critical of all belief. Since God didn’t care, then I wouldn’t care, either. Yet it is very, very hard to not care . . . even the most narcissistic person cares, if only about himself.
Paul Ricoeur, 1913-2005
The 20th century French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, speaks of “First and Second Naivete.” First Naivete is when we interpret Scripture literally or take religious principles at face value. If our tradition teaches that God judges us and determines our fates on Yom Kippur, this is exactly what happens, no more and no less. Some folks never outgrow First Naivete; they accept a literal and absolutist view of God and Jewish teaching.
Many of us, of course, journey beyond First Naivete and find ourselves standing at a critical distance from tradition. The rational forces brought to society through modernity and all its cultural shifts make it hard to accept religious beliefs or literal imagery. And just as there are folks who never outgrow their one-dimensional view of God, there are people who never make it past the critical distance of faith. They insist that the only choice we have is between religious literalism and a rejection of falsehood. Ironically, this black-and-white dichotomy is almost as simplistic as the decision to take everything at face value.
But for those who dare to venture farther, there is what Ricoeur calls “Second Naivete,” because as he puts it, “Beyond the desert of criticism we wished to be called again.” We come to accept the truth of Scripture and of religious teaching as symbols, as metaphorical constructs, or to use a word that is so often misunderstood and abused, as myths.
A myth is NOT a falsehood. Indeed, the word comes from the ancient Greek meaning simply “utterance” or “traditional tale.” Myths are sacred narratives that flow from the timeless wellsprings of our tradition. They articulate eternal truths about God, the nature of our world, and the purpose of existence. They are real and they are true . . . they’re just not literally so.
That God cares doesn’t mean that the Eternal One keeps score. To understand this requires that we reflect upon God’s character as understood by the Torah, a record of the Jewish encounter with the Divine. As the book of Deuteronomy teaches, “אַֽחֲרֵ֨י ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ וְאֹת֣וֹ תִירָ֑אוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָ֤יו תִּשְׁמֹ֨רוּ֙ וּבְקֹל֣וֹ תִשְׁמָ֔עוּ וְאֹת֥וֹ תַֽעֲבֹ֖דוּ וּב֥וֹ תִדְבָּקֽוּן — You shall follow the Lord your God, observing God’s commandments, heeding the Divine voice, serving and cleaving to the Eternal One” (Deuteronomy 13:5). Reading this verse the rabbis asked: What does this mean? Is it possible for a human being to follow God’s Presence? And this was their answer: The verse teaches that we follow God when we embrace the qualities of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, we should clothe the naked; just as the Almighty visits the sick, we should visit the sick; just as our Heavenly Parent comforts those who mourn, we should comfort those who mourn; and just as God buries the dead, we should bury the dead (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).
The good Lord doesn’t do any of these things literally, but the essence of God’s Presence exists in all these actions and countless others. When we clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, and bury the dead . . . we become the personification of the Divine Spirit; it is our behavior that makes God’s Presence palpable in the world. God cares when we choose to care.
To speak the language of the Kabbalists, there are fragments of God’s light scattered throughout the universe of being; they are the supernal sparks of God’s own holiness. Yet exposed to the callousness of the world these sparks have become encrusted with the barnacles of moral indifference. These glowing embers exist within our souls as well, but there too, ego covers them with grime and complacency with a film of apathy.
We constantly hear about “spirituality.” I have heard the word used in so many ways by so many different folks, that I no longer have the faintest idea of what it means to the majority of people. Yet this much I do know: far too often spirituality is focused on the self; it is anything that inwardly gives one a certain ineffable feeling. Spirituality revolves around what sociologists call the Sovereign Self; it insists on utter personal autonomy and is self-referential. To be spiritual is simply to feel spiritual, whatever that means. It asks nothing and demands nothing of us.
But the God in which Judaism believes cares less about whether or not we feel good and far more about whether or not we are good. God cares enough to demand of us — brazenly and unapologetically — to forego self-absorption. Each time we consciously decide to move away from self-centered thinking, we make a little more room for God in the world. And this can be true of both ethical and ritual behaviors.
If I as a Jew opt to forego a lobster roll it doesn’t matter if I do it because I am honoring my ancestors, connecting with the teachings of my people, observing a spiritual discipline, or because I feel that I’m obeying God’s wishes. The result is that I’m focusing on something bigger than myself. When you make the effort to stop holding a grudge against your neighbor, whether you do it because of God, compassion, or a desire to cleanse your soul, you’re connecting with something larger in the universe than yourself. Should I see a homeless woman with her shopping cart, and go out of my way to get her some food and treat her like a human being, I am sanding away the crust from one of God’s sparks to reveal the luster beneath. Putting on Tefillin, making a minyan at a shiva house, finding time to study Torah, or observing any mitzvah, be it ritual or ethical, individual or communal, pushes us out of the cocoon of self-preoccupation.
If you want to find yourself, then you must first lose yourself. The more spiritual fulfillment is about feeling good as our ultimate goal, the less God cares about it; the more our spiritual fulfillment is defined by shrinking our egos to connect with the world outside of ourselves, the more God cares about it. This is the paradox of leading a spiritual life, a meaningful life that matters.
In English the word “sin” comes from the Latin meaning “guilt.” In Hebrew, however, the word for sin is חטא, and possesses a different nuance than its English counterpart. In various places in the Bible (e.g., Judges 20:16, Isaiah 65:20) it means “to miss the mark” or “failure to reach a goal.” There are transgressions that are terribly and deeply wrong, of course. Most of us, however, are neither desperados nor heartless sociopaths; we aren’t murderers, terrorists, or bank robbers. Our hataim, to use the Hebrew plural, are cases of missing the mark, forgetting that a caring God gives us each day as a gift, forgetting that caring human beings take that precious gift of time and give it back to God by how they choose to spend their days.
The Kotzker Rebbe, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, once asked his followers where God dwells. They were incredulous that their teacher’s question was so obvious. “God exists throughout the universe,” they responded. The Kotzker responded gravely, “No, that is simply not so. God will only dwell in those places where God is made welcome.”
Let’s consider for a moment how much of each day we spend on ourselves — 18 holes of golf, going to a Gators’ game, getting a pedicure, having lunch with friends, shopping, playing Bridge or Canasta, posting on Facebook, taking selfies, planning a vacation, getting in a few rounds of Call of Duty on XBox 360. Now think about how much of each day we spend on getting beyond ourselves to give to the larger world — time spent in prayer, giving tzedakah, volunteering, visiting the sick, even something as mundane of helping the elderly or disabled enter a door or cross a street A caring God is manifested in or eclipsed by the ratio between the two sets of activities.
If we spend the vast majority of our waking hours in the shell of self, then we live in a place impervious to the Divine Presence. The Holy One lives in the tiny space between the end of one’s self and the beginning of the rest of the world, that tiny space in which we might recite a berakhah to express our gratitude at the food on our table; the pause right before we decide to give tzedakah rather than buy ourselves a bauble we don’t really need; the minute gap in between a righteous thought and the action it leads to.
In each and every one of the 613 commandments, the mitzvot, those that are rational and the ones that are not, there is an opportunity for us to elevate our souls beyond self-concern to a place of Ultimate Significance. And should we choose to pass on these opportunities, we sin in the Hebrew, rather than the English, sense of the word. Rather than a stern judge waiting to tabulate our crimes and punish our misdeeds, we penalize ourselves in missing out on being part of something far larger, squandering the chance for a deeper and more meaningful existence.
Just before the holidays, I read Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. After an automobile accident, unemployment, and eventually running out of money, Walsch ended up homeless. After emerging from this life-altering experience, he encounters God without warning — not in some psychedelic vision, but as a presence who speaks to him conversationally, dictating three full length books to a man who had never preoccupied himself much with God before.
Was Walsch’s experience real? Why would we assume otherwise? That we are too busy to listen to God’s still, small voice within doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
But here’s the thing. The God that cares isn’t your rich uncle or doting grandmother just ready to grant you with any request you make. “You will not have that which for which you ask, nor can you have anything you want,” Walsch writes. “This is because [when you want something] your very request is a statement of lack, and your saying you want a thing only works to produce the experience of wanting in your reality. The correct prayer is therefore never a prayer of supplication, but one of gratitude. When you thank God in advance for that which you choose to experience in your reality, you, in effect, acknowledge that it is there . . . Thankfulness is thus the most powerful statement to God; and affirmation that even before you ask, I have answered.” To ask only of God is to live within yourself; to give thanks is to live in something much larger.
In a poem entitled I and You, Abraham Joshua Heschel imagines God speaking to us:
“Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine, trading, twining My pain with yours. Am I not — you? Are you not — I? Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form, hear My own speech — a distant quiet voice — in people’s weeping, as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. I live in Me and in you. Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me, from your eyes drip a tear — its source in Me. When a need pains You, alarm Me! When You miss a human being tear open my door! You live in Yourself, You live in me.”
Once there was a storm thousands of years ago. The prophet Elijah stood alone and as Scripture tells it, “There was a mighty wind, shattering rock by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. And after the fire — a still small voice. And God was there, in that murmuring sound. God will speak to you, but are you ready to listen? God will come to you, but will you invite God? If yours is a genuine yes, “I will show you then that I have always been there.” All ways, always.