In Search of Meaningful Adjacencies – Yom Kippur 5778

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Reflecting Absence — The 9/11 Memorial

When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . . When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . .

Let me be clear.  My family doesn’t live across the street from Professor Nirenberg, any more than he lives across the street from them.  Rather, they are buried across a path from one another in Sharon Gardens, a large Jewish cemetery in Westchester County, 25 miles north of Manhattan.  It is quite an accomplishment to receive a Nobel Prize; yet until I read his tombstone, I had never heard of Nirenberg; it’s only because he’s my family’s neighbor that I became acquainted with him.  Funny whom you meet in a cemetery . . .

Ismar Lubliner's graveWhile in New York a month ago I had a few free hours before my flight home.  On an impulse I decided to visit the grave of my Uncle Ismar.  Ismar was serving in the army of occupation when killed in Japan a few months after V-J day.  He had just turned 25.  Though our son, Itamar, is named after my uncle, I had never met Ismar, because he had died nearly twenty years before my birth.  Grandma Johanna, of blessed memory, couldn’t afford the cost of a burial in a Jewish cemetery, so she let Uncle Sam pick up the tab.  Ismar’s final resting place is at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.

When I first saw Ismar’s grave, I was struck by the fact that it was but a tiny island in a sea of identical white tombstones stretching across the horizon. Despite the fact that Pinelawn houses the remains of 350,000 veterans and their spouses, it seemed that Ismar was alone, surrounded by strangers.  To his left was a fellow named Charlie Clarke from Georgia who, judging by the date of his death and division, most likely died in the battle for the Rhineland in December, 1944.  Buried on Ismar’s right was Cleveland Weeks, a Private in the Quartermaster’s Corp, who died in December, 1943.  And immediately behind my uncle’s grave is that of a fellow Jew, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Lustgarten, who served in the 491st Army Airforce Bomber Squadron. Again, judging the date of his death and the assignment of his squadron which I looked up on-line, Sgt. Lustgarten probably died while bombing Japanese forces in China in 1944.

These young men from dramatically different backgrounds lived and died hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  King David’s beautiful words about the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan do not apply: “הַנֶּאֱהָבִ֤ים וְהַנְּעִימִם֙ בְּחַיֵּיהֶ֔ם וּבְמוֹתָ֖ם לֹ֣א נִפְרָ֑דוּ — Beloved and cherished, they were never parted in life or in death” (II Samuel 1:23). My uncle and his neighbors never met in life.  Only in death will they rest side-by-side for all eternity.  If there’s meaning to be found the proximity of their remains it is that they were all part of the “Great Generation” which fought the tyranny of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire.  Perhaps that’s meaning enough.

The first time I heard the term “meaningful adjacency” was during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.  At the site where each of the Twin Towers stood, there’s a pool surrounded by a railing on which panels are mounted listing the names of those who died on that tragic date of September 11, 2001.  The original proposal called for the names of the dead to be placed randomly around the two reflecting pools marking the sites of the North and South Towers. The designers, Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained that “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”

But Arad and Walker were wrong.  In response to more than 1,200 requests from family members, they decided to arrange the names of the the nearly 3,000 victims using an algorithm to create “meaningful adjacencies” based on relationships — proximity at the time of the attacks, as well as company or organization affiliations for those working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.  The goal was to surround each victim with the names of those they sat with, worked with, those they lived with and, very possibly, those they died with.

The term “meaningful adjacency” has stuck in my head ever since.  The phrase captures what so many of us seek when we consider where we want to be buried. It is natural to derive meaning and comfort from knowing you’ll be laid to rest near loved ones.  Ask my assistant Danielle, who handles purchases for plots at our cemeteries.  The quest for meaningful adjacency is what underlies the conversation of congregants thinking about where to purchase plots: Will it be near parents, spouses, or God forbid, children?  Should one be interred by the side of one’s first spouse or one’s second? Sometimes it’s even about the folks next to whom a person doesn’t want to be buried.  Occasionally we have to deal with the difficult religious question of disinterment.  Though generally frowned upon by Jewish law, under some circumstances it’s permissible to relocate a body, but only when doing so creates a meaningful adjacency that more than offsets the disrespect of disinterment.  Where we “live,” so to speak, after we’ve died is given significance by spending eternity near the folks about whom we most cared in life.

In death we find meaning in the adjacencies of those buried near us.  In life, however, it can go both ways.  In other words, adjacency can foster meaning just as much as meaning creates adjacency.  Our values and priorities can shape our choices of where we live and why, or what we choose to own; but by the same token, our surroundings and possessions can also subtly shape our values and priorities in ways we scarcely notice, but are no less real for the lack of attention they receive.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1614)

In the Torah, Abraham’s nephew Lot chooses to move his family to the city of Sodom.  He isn’t seduced by their immorality or enticed by their depravity.  Rather, “וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת ה’ אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה — And Lot looked around and saw how well-watered the entire plain of the Jordan was, before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).  For a shepherd it was an ideal locale for pasturage.  Of course, that the bad character of his new neighbors didn’t seem to bother Lot is itself a comment on his character.  But perhaps the most fateful consequence of Lot’s decision to live in Sodom was the environmental impact on his daughters.  After Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for turning to watch Sodom’s destruction, he and his daughters take refuge in a cave . . . where they get their father drunk and sleep with him.  While justifying their incest as a need to repopulate the world in the wake of a destruction they believed to be universal, commentator Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz notes, “This explanation is untenable, seeing they had just left Zoar [a town which had suffered no devastation].  Their conduct does not admit of any extenuation; they were true children of Sodom.”  Children live what they learn; they learn by what they see around them.

In a very different take on the influence of our surroundings, a wealthy man once entreated the ancient sage, Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, to accept a lucrative position as the spiritual leader of a community with no rabbi.  Despite the promise of a 100,000 golden dinarii as well as precious stones and jewels, the rabbi declined the offer, saying, “אִם אַתָּה נוֹתֵן לִי כָּל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וַאֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת וּמַרְגָּלִיּוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם, אֵינִי דָר אֶלָּא בִּמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה — Were you to give me all the money, jewels, and pearls in the entire world, I would only dwell in a place of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:9). Rabbi Yose ben Kisma understood the concept of meaningful adjacency, even if unacquainted with the term itself.

In Judaism there is a concept of tumah, which is often translated as “ritual impurity.”  It’s an unfortunate translation, because in English the word “impurity” has a negative connotation, which the Hebrew doesn’t have; tumah is a morally neural term.  One can only become tameh through contact with a source of tumah, such as childbirth, dead bodies, certain species of animals, or various body fluids.  None of the foregoing are “bad”, they’re simply a part of life.  For Jews, cemeteries are sacred places, but they also happen to communicate tumah.  The concept of tumah emphasizes the impact of environment on our spiritual selves.  We are whom we touch, where we live, what we see.

The upper middle class family whose kids are raised in an exclusively white neighborhood attending a largely white private school are likely to grow up so immersed in white privilege as to be unable to see the ways in which it has shaped their existence.  The African American youngster raised in a ghetto neighborhood with failing schools will possess a radically different view of the police, city government, or the public school system.  The youngster who grows up in a trailer park in rural Suwanee County, Florida surrounded by adults who’ve never met a Jew may well have a preconception of Jews influenced by her surroundings.

In this way we are no different than Lot or Rabbi Yose ben Kisma whose lives were shaped by their neighborhoods.  To be sure, there are Jews compelled for one reason or another to live in a place lacking in Jewish life.  If that truly bothers them, however, they will go the extra mile to create a meaningful Jewish existence, and that extra effort may actually add unexpected depth to their Jewish identity (indeed, I know this personally from having lived in Japan for a year).  But if Judaism is important enough to them, they’re also likelier to depart for greener Jewish pastures when time and circumstances permit.

Yet if the absence of Jewish institutions plays little or no role in deciding where to live, it is not only a potential sign of Judaism’s marginal relevance to that person, it is also likely to further erode his or her link with Jewish life.  When a high school senior decides on a college with few Jews and no organized Jewish life, it’s not only evidence of Judaism’s current irrelevance to her but portends greater estrangement from Jewish life because of its absence at a critical moment in her life.  Like a photographic negative, meaningful adjacency also consists of what we choose not to live with, the experiences and opportunities of which we deprive ourselves, whether intentionally or not.


Image result for old pushkesThe concept of meaningful adjacency also finds expression in the objects with which we surround ourselves. More than 25 years ago, Susan and I were visiting the parents of a fellow rabbinical student in Rochester, New York.  Theirs was a well-to-do family and we walked around the house oohing and ahhing their art collection.  On one wall was a Chagall, on another a Rembrandt, on a third was a Picasso . . . these were not reproductions, but the real deal.  When we expressed to my friend’s father how impressed we were by his art collection, he replied, “Yeah, they’re nice, but here, let me show you something really special.”  It was hard to imagine what could possible top the incredible display of art we had just seen.  We followed him into another room and there, in a glass-fronted cabinet was a collection of pushkes, tzedakah boxes from various countries and centuries.  There is no question that the value of the artwork far exceeded the monetary worth of the pushkes, but it was equally clear that this man derived far more meaning from the tzedakah boxes than from the masterworks on his walls.  For him the latter was decoration, but the former a reflection of his own commitment to charitable giving and Jewish life.

Next time you visit Israel it’s worth taking a trip to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev.  It is here that David Ben-Gurion lived after his retirement from politics until his death in 1973.  You can visit Ben Gurion’s house, which is more of a large hut than anything else.  Everything has been left exactly as it was when he died.  If you take a tour of the site, you will quickly see that Ben-Gurion was a man of few pretensions and possessed little appetite for material goods.  You will also see that the one thing he had in incredible abundance was books.  He was a voracious reader in several languages and owned a vast library.  In the objects found in his modest home, you’ll learn a lot about the character of David Ben-Gurion.

And this is true of all of us.  If you died today and a curator were to create an exhibit of your life frozen in time, what would be found in your pockets?  On your nightstand? In your desk or wardrobe?  What payments would your last bank statement reflect, to whom would you have written checks in the last few weeks of your life?  What would your computer’s files contain, and what would they say about your character?

True meaningful adjacency doesn’t come from the person we declare ourselves to be, but from the testimony submitted by our actual surroundings and possessions.  “I am proud of my Jewish heritage,” a person proclaims.  Yet a walk through his home reveals no mezuzah on the door, no Jewish ritual objects or books on the shelves in the family room.  His check stubs and bank statements reveal no charitable giving to Jewish causes; his correspondence indicates he belongs to various civic associations, but not a synagogue.  There is no reason for us to doubt this person’s declaration of Jewish pride, but it is equally undeniable that it possesses no record and leaves no legacy.  To proclaim values for which there is no evidence of having existed is a little like being buried in an unmarked grave.

Image result for fox in the vineyardIn Midrash Kohelet Rabbah there’s a story about a hungry fox who spies a vineyard of luscious grapes.  He squeezes through the fence and greedily eats to his heart’s content, but when he tries to get through the fence, he has become too fat to escape.  To leave the vineyard he has no choice but to fast until he has returned to his original size.  Upon his departure, he stares sadly at the delicious grapes and says, “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good are you and your fruit!  All that is inside you is beautiful, but what benefit can one get from you?  As one enters you, so he comes out, hence Scripture teaches, ‘כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָצָא֙ מִבֶּ֣טֶן אִמּ֔וֹ עָר֛וֹם יָשׁ֥וּב לָלֶ֖כֶת כְּשֶׁבָּ֑א  — As one comes out of his mother’s womb so must he depart, naked as he came —  וּמְא֨וּמָה֙ לֹֽא־יִשָּׂ֣א בַֽעֲמָל֔וֹ שֶׁיֹּלֵ֖ךְ בְּיָדֽוֹ — He shall take nothing of his wealth with him’” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

No, we can’t take it with us.  But that’s just the point.  What we leave behind are all the meaningful adjacencies we’ve created, all the objects and clues which tell the future the truth about our values, beliefs, and relationships.  They may be objects or memories, but they are the actual record in real time of our true identities.

Who are you sitting next to at services today?  Who would you never want to sit with?  Which friends or family have you cut yourself off from, and who are friends your children hang out with?  Where do you spend your time and where do you not?  How do you spend your money?  What books are gathering dust on your shelves and which volumes are threadbare from constant use? If you own a pair of Tefillin do you know where it is, and if so, is it a curio in your closet, worn but a single day in your life?  What apps are on your phone, and what pictures in your wallet?  When was the last time you volunteered to help the needy or came to make a minyan?

Yom Kippur is a day when we realize how our possessions, surroundings, and the way in which we spend our time reveal our relationship to the world.  Do we like what we see?  If we are completely honest, do the furnishings of our lives match what we say is most important to us?

Time is a curator taking inventory of all our adjacencies, both spatial and temporal. In life’s gallery of art, it is the totality of our physical existence which forms the collection we bequeath to others.  Deciding next to whom you’ll be buried, that’s the easy part. The most important meaningful adjacency, however, is the one between life and death. The inevitable proximity of the hereafter and the herenow demands we think about what surrounds us in the present.  Beyond the grave, memories are the only ligaments connecting us to the earthly existence of those who go the way of all flesh.  These ligaments are the sum of all our adjacencies in this world — will the story they tell be meaningful? The decision is  yours.

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WHERE’S WALDO? WHERE’S GOD? First Day Rosh Hashanah 5778

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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.

Image result for WaldoI’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.

Image result for fraternities“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.  

Image result for search for chametzBut 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.

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“GIVE READILY AND HAVE NO REGRETS…” (Deuteronomy 15:10): Helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey

The Jewish world is blessed with numerous ways to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  These organizations will direct their efforts to helping the Jewish communities of the western Gulf region as well as the general population.  There are certainly many worthy secular organizations which are also collecting relief.  

In these circumstances I usually send my contribution to  a Jewish cause collecting for both the Jewish and larger communities.  I do this for two reasons:

1) When synagogues and other Jewish institutions are devastated we have a special responsibility to assist our brothers and sisters — no matter how noble a secular organization may be, it has no vested interest or responsibility to rebuild the Jewish community . . . but we do.

2) When distinctly Jewish organizations also give to help the larger community, their very name sends the message that we embrace the moral imperative to assist all our neighbors.  This collective statement reflects back on the cherished Jewish belief that all God’s children are created in the Divine Image.

Here are several different options for giving:

  1. Make out a check out to “Rabbi Lubliner’s Discretionary Fund” and write “Houston relief” in the memo area.  The collective amount will be donated in the name of the Jacksonville Jewish Center to recovery efforts on the western Gulf coast.
  2. Make a donation through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism by clicking on here to  USCJ Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief.
  3. Make a donation through the Jewish Federations of North America by clicking on here to JFNA Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
  4. Find out more information about  NECHAMA: A Jewish Response to Disaster, a Minneapolis-based organization raising both funds and organizing crews to help in the recovery efforts along the western Gulf.
  5. If you wish to make a more targeted donation to one specific organization, I would suggest the two Conservative congregations in Houston affected by Harvey. Click below to help Congregation Beth Yeshurun, which was seriously damaged by flooding and is likely to be out of its building for several months at least: Congregation Beth Yeshurun Flood Recovery Fund; or click below to assist Congregation Or Ami, which also sustained damage, though not as extensive as Beth Yeshurun:Or Ami Relief Fund.


-Deuteronomy 15:11

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“The good land that the Lord your God has given you”: Will it still be good for our children?

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I recently came across a real estate prospectus offering, “Good land with streams, springs and fountains; ideal for planting wheat, barley, grapevines, fig and olive trees, date palms and pomegranates.  If you want a great place to live a farm-to-table lifestyle where you can eat your own bounty without stint and lack nothing, this is the place for you!”

A confession: the foregoing was no prospectus, but a paraphrase of the beginning of chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, a passage that concludes with the famous words, “וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ — And you shall eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (8:10).

The original passage refers to the land of Israel, but that final verse partakes of a universal character.  Serving as the source of the commandment to recite Birkat Ha-mazon, (Grace after Meals), we give thanks to God for food grown anywhere in the world; our gratitude is no less in Jacksonville than Jerusalem, for  הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה — the good land — is all places capable of nourishing and nurturing life.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2050.  If God blesses with me longevity, I’ll be 87 years old; my children will be in their late forties and early fifties.  My grandchildren may range in age from 10 to 20 years old.  To put it in different terms: I will be close to the age my mother is now, and my kids will have reached my stage in life.  It’s really not that far off.  In 2050, however, a real estate prospectus is far likelier to read something like this:  “Great land offer!  Located in a formerly fertile area, prolonged multi-year drought ensures that flooding will never be a concern.”  Another ad might say, “New impressive inland ocean view due to coastal flooding of previous years.  Houses on reinforced concrete stilts afford peace of mind during all but the most severe storms.  Second floor boat mooring allows for quick evacuations when needed.”

Image result for global warmingOceanic acidity.  Extinction of species.  Coastal sea rise.  Drought.  Flooding.  More disruptive weather patterns.  Migration of invasive flora and dangerous fauna to new regions.  And if the foregoing sounds like the ten plagues we enumerate at the Seder, the association is hardly accidental — both represent examples of environmental disruption and devastation.  That one was caused by God, and the other is being inflicted by humankind upon itself offers little comfort, especially when we consider that, in a very real sense, the Egyptians brought disaster upon themselves through their own stubbornness.  Are we any less willful than they were?

This past week, 13 federal agencies, working under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences, completed a draft report regarding climate assessment as mandated every four years by Congress.  One of the most comprehensive climate science studies ever completed, its preface states that, “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.”  It concludes the United States is already palpably warmer than it was fifty years ago, with fewer cold extremes and more extreme heat; hurricanes are likely to be more intense; California, the most populous state, is heading in the direction of perpetual drought;  in other places, such as the Northeast, rain is falling more heavily than ever before; flooding related to sea-level rise is already occurring in Miami, and by the end of the 21st century, Charleston, South Carolina will flood at every high tide.  The most important finding? “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century . . . there are no convincing alternative explanations supported by the observational evidence.”

Image result for jewish protection of environmentClimate is a Jewish issue. The Torah sees the world as God’s crowning creation; “וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב — And God saw it was good” (Genesis 1:12) is more than an editorial comment; it is nothing less than a theological statement.  Preserving the environment is a Jewish issue as we learn from a midrash in which God warns Adam: “ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן — Consider My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי  — Take care not to corrupt and destroy My world; שאם קלקלת אין מי שתיקן אחריךfor if you destroy it there shall be no one to repair it after you” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13 §I).  We cannot admire an artist, yet trash her body of work; we  cannot respect our Creator while ruining creation.

We also know that climate is important to Judaism from the role it plays in our liturgy:  prayers for rain and dew during the Amidah; the ritual of hoshannot during the festival of Sukkot; indeed, there is an entire tractate of Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit, devoted to ritual and liturgical responses to disasters, primarily those related to drought and other weather-related phenomena.  There are blessings recited when one sees the grandeur of great mountains or deserts, smells the blossoms of trees in bloom, witnesses shooting stars, or marvels at the majesty of the ocean.

Judaism sees truth as God’s own seal, rejecting falsehood and despising prevarication.  Once upon a time there were scientists whose souls were bought by the tobacco companies; their job was to find as many ways as possible to explain away the addictive character of nicotine and the deadly nature of smoking.  When evidence of tobacco’s dangers became irrefutable, the industry changed gears.  They could no longer blatantly deny the facts.  Instead, they chose to fudge as much as possible, seeking to promote as much ambiguity and uncertainty as possible by claiming that the studies failed to demonstrate the extent of tobacco’s damage, or promoting lower tar cigarettes as “healthier” alternatives.

In some ways, the tactics of climate-deniers and their so-called scientific research are reminiscent of the big lie that once was perpetuated by the tobacco industry.  In a disturbing article published by Scientific American last July, the fossil fuel industry was shown to use many of the same researchers, tactics, and studies of big tobacco.  But why should anyone be surprised?  As an old Yiddish saying has it, “A nai-er melekh mit na-yeh gezayres, a nay yor mit alte aveyres — A new king with new decrees, a new year with old misdeeds.”

With America’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, the current administration has sent a disturbing message about its stance on global warming.  There is reason to be concerned that President Trump may be inclined to dismiss the National Academy of Sciences report on climate change.  But it would be a terrible mistake for us to label this a partisan issue.  The National Academy of Sciences is not a partisan front, any more than the dozens of other reputable and distinguished academicians and scientists whose work have demonstrated the reality of global warming over and over.  The threat to our planet is non-partisan and equal opportunity; its resolution will require bi-partisanship and a willingness to face the threat, not deny its existence.  It was President Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency; it was President George H. Bush who signed legislation instituting a cap-and-trade system for industry to curtail acid rain.  And it was Ronald Reagan who once said, “What is a conservative, after all, but one who conserves?”

There are no panaceas.  To make a difference as individuals we will need to buy less stuff, drive fewer miles, purchase fuel-efficient cars, eat less meat, plant more trees and cut fewer down.  Even something as simple as unplugging our devices can help — US. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when they’re off than when on! Because televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume energy when seemingly switched off, unplug them instead.  On the larger front, we have to actively campaign for legislation to support renewable sources of energy and ways to make them cost-effective.  And rather than prop up a dirty and dying industry like coal mining, whose long and inevitable decline over the past decades wasn’t caused by environmentalists, but by automation and cheaper forms of energy, we need to invest in places like West Virginia and Kentucky as they transition to a post-coal world.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma, part of Judaism’s most fundamental credo, warn us of the steep price we will pay for our self-serving hubris should we dismiss the reality of climate change.  Should we serve the false god of expedience, “The Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is giving to you” (Deuteronomy 11:17).

There is still time to make a difference; we can still bequeath a sustainable world to our children.  And if we believe that we have the capacity to hurt our world, we must also believe that we possess the capacity to heal her.  This is what Judaism teaches; this is what God asks us to do — not for our sake, but for our children’s.

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August 14, 2017 · 5:40 pm


Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss.  Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven.

Psalm 85:11-12

122 years ago this month, a former soldier, reviled by his countrymen and abandoned by all except for his family and a few loyal friends, embarked on a ship for South America. His destination: Îsle du Diable, or Devil’s Island, a harsh and barren rock off the coast of French Guyana. Sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement, he had no reason to believe he would ever see his loved ones or his country again.

Image result for alfred dreyfusThe man’s name? Alfred Dreyfus, at that time the highest ranking Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th century. Accused of espionage for the Kaiser’s Germany and convicted of treason, Dreyfus’ case quickly became a cause célèbre, galvanizing the forces of anti-Semitism in France in unprecedented ways, even as Dreyfus also became a rallying cry for a group of French intellectuals, such as writers Anatole France, Marcel Proust, and Emile Zola, who believed in his innocence.

There is no question that in 1895 the French Army was rife with anti-Semitism; without knowing this it would be impossible to fully understand the events which unfolded around Alfred Dreyfus. According to historians such as Oxford University’s Ruth Harris, author of Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, Dreyfus’ accusers, conditioned by their anti-Semitism, were inclined to suspect him as the culprit from the get-go. Rather than intentionally framing a man they knew to be blameless, the military prosecutors were predisposed to view ambiguous evidence as proof of guilt, while dismissing facts pointing toward his innocence or reinterpreting them to support their preconceptions.

What followed, then, shouldn’t surprise anyone . . . . Two experts testified that the writing on the espionage documents somewhat resembled Dreyfus’ handwriting; three others concluded the penmanship belonged to someone else, but latter’s testimonies were ignored. After Dreyfus’s arrest, investigators thoroughly searched his files and home, but found nothing. In the mind of his accusers, however, this only proved how resourceful a spy he was; it demonstrated his skill at destroying evidence. In interviewing his teachers at the École Polytechnique, the elite military academy Dreyfus attended, the prosecutors learned he had excelled in foreign languages and was remembered for having a prodigious memory, which only furthered their belief in his guilt — after all, language proficiency and good memory are clearly traits beneficial to spies.

Nearly a century and a quarter later, it’s easy for to shake our heads at such flimsy evidence and its power to convince otherwise intelligent individuals of an innocent man’s guilt. Yet before we become too smug, are we really so different? When convinced of our own rectitude, we tend to magnify any evidence that supports our view, while discounting anything that contradicts our conclusions. The term for this is “motivated reasoning”: it explains why when a foul is called by a referee against our team, we protest and jeer the call, but should something identical happen to the opposing squad, we’re likely to believe it a good call, while deriding the other side’s fans for having sour grapes.

A week ago, President Trump issued an executive order banning travel for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries. The same order closed the door for 120 days to all refugees, regardless of country, including those who had been vetted and had valid visas; and barred entry to Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Supporters claim that thanks to the President’s executive order, America is safer today. But is that factually true? The second, third, and fourth highest exporters of terror to the world — Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan — aren’t covered at all by Trump’s ban. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for the 9/11 attacks is also missing from the 7 nation list. And, in case you were wondering how many have died on American soil at the hand of terrorists from these seven banned countries . . . between 1975 and today the answer is zero.

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Ilhan Omar, elected to the Minnesota Legislature, came to America when she was a child as a Somali refugee granted legal asylum

Fact: there is no group more vetted and scrutinized by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security than refugees — not once they arrive, but up to 24 months before they are given permission to depart for the U.S. Fact: since the 1970s, only three Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by individuals granted legal asylum — killed by by refugees from Castro’s Cuba. According to a study of the Cato Institute, a think tank founded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the chance of any one of us being killed by a refugee is 1 in 364 billion in a given year — about 20,000 times higher than the odds of being struck dead by lightning.

These are not opinions, they aren’t “alternative” facts. Yet to those who are convinced that refugees are a great threat, all of the above will be dismissed as “biased’ or with an impatient “Yes, but . . .” as if facts are of secondary importance to opinions.

Of course, motivated reasoning can be found everywhere. It explains the lynching of thousands of innocent African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the flimsiest evidence imaginable; it underscores the skepticism expressed by those who reject the reality of climate change, not because the science is shaky, but because it doesn’t sit well with the outcome they desire; it highlights the spurious claim that millions of illegal aliens voted in the 2016 elections, despite the dearth of any evidence. Time and again we see instances of motivated reasoning in which truth is the handmaiden of opinion, rather than the other way around. Nor is it limited to one end of the political spectrum: when a respected civil rights leader in Congress calls the Chief Executive an “illegitimate President” — despite the fact that the latter won the Electoral College fair and square — he does what those who sought to delegitimate President Obama with the claim he wasn’t born in the U.S. did . . . the total absence of proof to the contrary.

Image result for mixed multitude in the bibleIn Parshat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, the text underscores the broad character of the Exodus from Egypt. Moses did not limit those leaving Egypt to the groups most likely to agree with his decisions or least likely to challenge his leadership. The Torah states, “וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם — A mixed multitude came out of Egypt with the Israelites” (Exodus 12:38). According to the rabbis the “mixed multitude” consisted of non-Israelites who were themselves oppressed and had made common cause with the Israelites. Apparently they were not insignificant in number — In Mekhilta, a midrashic work on the book of Exodus, Rabbi Yishmael claims they numbered 180,000. Rabbi Akiva goes so far as to maintain they added up to 240,000 persons — equal in number to more than 1/3 of the male Israelite population of 600,000. That the rabbis could envision Moses enabling the mixed multitude to join the Israelites, despite the likelihood of becoming oppositional (a likelihood which came to pass), says a great deal about a willingness to accept diversity, not just in the abstract, but in reality.

This is a valuable lesson to remember. More and more, those on either end of the political spectrum seek out like-minded folk only, using their shared views to reinforce one another’s convictions. Listen to talk radio, and you’ll find that invariably only those who agree with the host’s basic premise are given unfettered access to echo the sentiments of the loyal. True, every so often an individual representing the opposing view is given a minute or two to speak, but s/he is invariably cut off by the host or shut down with rhetoric and ridicule. Letting the other guy open his mouth functions only as a kind of prop, a foil to show the faithful what jerks the other guys are.

To quote George Orwell in his novel of distopia, 1984: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable, what then?”

But this is surely not the Jewish way. The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Hiyya Bar Rav: ‘”And the people stood with Moses from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13). Does it make sense that Moses judged the people all day long? When did he learn his Torah? Rather, the Torah comes to teach us that any judge who judges with truth for even an hour is seen as though he had partnered with God in the creation of the world. Here [in Exodus] it is written: “And the people stood with Moses from morning until evening.” while there [in Genesis] it is written: “And there was morning and there was evening, one day”’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10a). To equate truth-based decision-making with the creation of the world itself underscores its indispensability to the existence of a moral society.

Ultimate knowledge belongs to God alone, but neither have we been deprived of the ability to apprehend truth — truth that is neither convenient nor inconvenient, but simply is. Those of small mind and smaller heart will dig in and hunker down in defensiveness and rationalization in the face of truth. There remains, however, something noble and powerfully righteous in the person who is either curious enough or brave enough to want to see the landscape as it is, not as he wills it to be; to consider the cold facts and dare to say, “Perhaps I need to rethink my position.”

The true hero of the Dreyfus story was a Lieutenant Colonel named Georges Picquart. He didn’t have a higher opinion of Jews than his brother officers; like most of them, he initially assumed Dreyfus was guilty. But Picquart was different in one regard. After Dreyfus’ conviction, as a counter-intelligence specialist he had reason to believe the espionage on Germany’s behalf was still happening. He even came across new spy letters whose handwriting appeared to match perfectly the documents that had sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island. When he brought this information to his superiors, they could neither fathom their own culpability in sending an innocent man to prison nor accept that the Jew Dreyfus might actually be innocent. Instead, they fantastically insisted that Dreyfus must have trained another spy to write in a similar hand so that if the one were caught the other might escape.

Picquart didn’t like Jews, but he did believe in fairness, justice and truth. Because of his desire to see the truth prevail, Picquart was punished by being relieved and sent to duty in the remote desserts of Tunisia, and was even imprisoned for a time. Yet in the end his dogged pursuit of the truth set Alfred Dreyfus free.

Oddly enough, that Georges Picquart was suffused with the same anti-Semitic prejudices of his time and class is part of the story’s moral. Unlike his fellow officers, he did not allow his beliefs to cloud his judgment: his beliefs did not determine the facts, but the facts did determine his view of Dreyfus’ likely innocence.

We don’t need more leaders capable of insisting they’re right no matter what the facts are; those who, in the fact of contradictory evidence, simply shout more loudly or insult more vehemently. What we desperately need are leaders capable of being wrong and admitting it, leaders sufficiently secure and self-assured to believe they can change their mind when confronted by evidence, without losing face or being unworthy of public respect. We would be a better country and a society were our leaders willing on occasion to stand up and say, “I felt very strongly about a particular policy, but after much reflection, consultation with experts of varying perspectives, and a careful review of the facts, I have come to believe that my initial assessment was wrong.”

Yet to merit such leadership, we cannot expect less from ourselves. Aldous Huxley, author of yet another distopian novel, Brave New World, reminds us of a foundational truth in all societies worthy of respect “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Except in Orwellian nightmares, 2 + 2 will still be equal to 4 . . . no matter what anyone else says.

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For many weeks now my Shabbat morning walk to synagogue has taken me down a certain street bedecked with an equal number of Clinton and Trump signs. This past Saturday morning, the first since the election, all the signs were gone — a welcome reminder that the most rancorous presidential campaign in recent history was now over. There is one sign, however, that remains prominently displayed on the front lawn of a particular house, a sign that has served for months as a sobering counterpoint to the vitriolic rhetoric of this year’s election cycle. This is its message:

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For those who do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical verses (confession: I had to look up the reference myself), this what II Chronicles 7:14 states: “ וְיִכָּֽנְע֨וּ עַמִּ֜י אֲשֶׁ֧ר נִֽקְרָא־שְׁמִ֣י עֲלֵיהֶ֗ם וְיִֽתְפַּֽלְלוּ֙ וִֽיבַקְשׁ֣וּ פָנַ֔י וְיָשֻׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכֵיהֶ֣ם הָֽרָעִ֑ים וַֽאֲנִי֙ אֶשְׁמַ֣ע מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְאֶסְלַח֙ לְחַטָּאתָ֔ם וְאֶרְפָּ֖א אֶת־אַרְצָֽם — When My people, who bear My name, humble themselves, pray, and seek My favor and turn from their evil ways, I will hear in My heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land.”

America has a lot of work to do in the days ahead.

As the final results of the nail-biting presidential election rolled in, CNN correspondent Van Jones shared his thoughts with viewers about Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College: “People have talked about a miracle. I’m hearing about a nightmare,” he said early Wednesday morning. “You tell your kids: Don’t be a bully… don’t be a bigot.. do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome.”

“You have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of ‘How do I explain this to my children?’ I have Muslim friends who are texting me tonight, ‘Should I leave the country?’ I have families of immigrants that are terrified tonight. This was a rebellion against the elites, true, it was a complete reinvention of politics . . . but it was also something else.” Jones continued, “We haven’t talked about race. This was a ‘white-lash’ against a changing country … against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.” To underscore the fear that some Americans are feeling, a member of our own community told me of an incident that took place the morning after the election in this neighborhood. Having stopped to buy gas on his way to minyan, two young, white men saw his kippah and, rolling down the window of their pick-up truck, shouted triumphantly at him, “No more ‘Jew-S-A’, No more ‘Jew-S-A’!”

Of course, this is hardly the first time idiots in Jacksonville or other places have shouted anti-Semitic slurs from moving vehicles at Jews wearing kippot. I can tell you from personal experience that long before Donald Trump ever dreamed of running for the presidency, at least several times a year I’ve been the recipient of shouted words from drivers . . . who are decidely NOT wishing me Shabbat Shalom. The age of the jerk did not begin this campaign season.

In all fairness, for many the election was about the hopelessness of living in the dying factory towns that dot the landscape of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and other rust belt states, whose residents have lived lives of quiet desperation for 20 or 30 years. These folks will tell you their vote for Trump was framed by poverty and hopelessness, rather than issues of race (indeed, some were Democrats and had previously voted for Obama in the hope that as an outsider he would serve as an agent for change). As for the Latino vote, while exit polls clearly demonstrated a 2-1 edge for Clinton, some 29% of Hispanic Americans voted for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, many ultra-Orthodox Jews voted red, not blue: indeed, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Trump received 69% of the vote. The most shocking election statistic? Nearly 50% of all Americans eligible to vote chose not to go to the polls at all.

I mention all of the above to underscore the fact that the truth is nearly always more complicated than we like. Yes, there were plenty of racists who rejoiced over Trump’s win, but there were members of some minority communities who voted in significant numbers for the President-elect. There are plenty of Americans rightly concerned about the growing acceptability of a prejudice that self righteously hides behind a facade of being tired of political correctness; but there are those who voted for Donald Trump for the simple reason that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. As for women, plenty voted on either side of the partisan divide. We crave a simple take-away about the state of the American body-politic, but there isn’t one truth to have emerged from this election. Indeed, for us to come together as Americans requires we resist the temptation to engage in platitudes or simplistic judgments.

On the contrary, to heal the divide in this country will require us to acknowledge the extent to which truth has been a casualty of this grueling election cycle. It’s nothing new that American have stopped believing that politicians tells the truth. What should deeply disturb us is that so many voters act as though truth has become totally irrelevant to the election process, that candidates need no longer be held accountable for making up facts, contradicting themselves, or saying one thing and then doing another with impunity.

Image result for truthIn the moral universe that Judaism inhabits, we cannot forget that Emet, “truth” is one of God’s names, while the Ten Commandments prohibit us from lying in God’s name (#9). As the Talmud puts its, “The Holy One despises him who says one thing with his mouth, and another in his heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 113b). As Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently noted in a post-election piece found on his blog, “Jews have learned the hard way, as have other minority communities, that when those in power play fast and loose with the truth, individuals and groups who are powerless, as Jews have been in the past, are the first to pay a heavy price.”  We must banish the notion that, “If I like a fact, it must be true; if it doesn’t square with my wishes, it’s got to be a conspiracy.”

There is a time for political rhetoric and hype, and a time to own up to complexity; let’s begin by rejecting the lie that a person or group is either with us or against us. Let’s own up to the complexity of things for a change, and admit that the policies and individuals we favor or oppose are not all good or all bad. As has been true of all elections since the founding of the Republic, the promises made during a campaign are always more numerous than the promises kept afterward — those who believe the 45th President will serve as a political savior should take note that the 44th President was elected on the same premise, albeit by a different group of voters. Our economy, the role of the private sector, Congress, our international relationships, and public opinion all serve to put a brake on the power of the President. In our desperate quest for simplistic solutions, we believe that the President will either make or break America. Without denying the enormous power of the presidency, it remains a fact that there are many, many factors that work with and against the wishes of any President.

Image result for we the peopleBearing that in mind, it is our task as caring and responsible citizens to be more, not less, engaged in playing our part as members of a Democratic society. If we see something amiss, we must say something, using the power of our voice, our pen, and our protests. America is a strong and vibrant democracy; when we cultivate relationships with our congressional representatives; when we lobby and organize; when we petition and support organizations that espouse our values; we shape and influence the direction our country takes. One should never say never, but I honestly do not see the United States of 2016 morphing into the Germany of 1933. Of course, it would be sufficiently awful if we were to turn the clock back and become the America of 1933 . . . but that can’t and won’t happen if we stay engaged in the work of democracy.

While acknowledging the complexity of politics and government may serve as the first step toward reconciliation, the second is to overcome the hateful speech that has been a part of our landscape for the past 18 months. Words played a pivotal role in dividing us, through name-calling, disparagement, and smears of all kinds.

The rhetoric of “Lock her up” and “The basket of deplorables” fostered doomsday imagery and ramped up fears. In retrospect would the campaign have inflicted as much damage on our sense of unity if the candidates had espoused the same views, albeit in more respectful ways? Had youngsters running for student body president in any high school acted along the lines of the recent election campaign, candidates would have been disqualified, maybe even suspended or expelled . . . which should make us feel good about high school student government in this country, though not the way our country pursues so-called “higher” office. Shame on us as Americans that we mistake a refusal to engage in civil discourse as an admirable way to demonstrate that one is a maverick! We are now paying the price for the excesses of speech on one side and predictions of Armageddon on the other.

Jews, of course, know all about the power of speech: God spoke the world into being as we learn in the very first verses of Genesis; words are the very building blocks of creation. Proverbs teaches, “Death and life are in the ‘hand’ of the tongue” (8:21). Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina asked: “Is it conceivable for the tongue to have a ‘hand’? What the verse means is that tongue can be as murderous as a person’s hand” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b).

Going forward, we have to watch our mouths in the post-election period. No harmful speech, let alone violent action. To quote Chancellor Eisen again, “Let’s listen so well to the words uttered by people who disagree with us, that we hear what is intended and felt — even when it is not actually said.” Folks, the disagreement likely will not go away; nor should they — different ideas about how to govern is what a democracy is all about. Nevertheless, the anger and pain of those Americans who are fearful of the future need to be registered, NOT dismissed.

Image result for cain am i my brothers keeperThe very first question that a human being poses to God is: “הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי — Am I my brother’s keeper?” It may be that Cain asked that question without a preconceived answer. The weight of Jewish tradition and teaching over the course of the centuries, however, has rendered the question completely rhetorical. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have an obligation to reach across every aisle and every fence. Let’s listen hard to the anger and the pain from all sides, without forgetting that some Americans have always been more vulnerable and disenfranchised than others. This is not an opinion. It is a fact borne out by the indelible facts of history.

When Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, a group of individuals sought to cast aspersions on his right to the presidency through the not-so-subtle racist charge that he wasn’t really American. For the past several nights demonstrators have marched through the streets of American cities declaring that Donald Trump is not their President. What happened following the 2008 election and the demonstrations of the last few nights are vastly different in many ways, but they share one thing: a reluctance to accept the result of a free and fair vote that, according to the rules of our Constitution, elected a specific individual to lead our country. Like him or not, President Obama is presently our Commander-in-Chief and the President of the United States of America. Like him or not, President-elect Trump will become his successor in a little more than two months. Whether you wanted this result or not has been made irrelevant by the result of the election. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the last time a group of Americans were unwilling to accept the result of a legitimate presidential election and rejected the duly chosen President, we engaged in a bloody, civil war. That won’t happen, of course, but it is an important piece of history to remember.

It is fitting that in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lekh-Lekha God enters into a covenant with Abraham known as Brit Ben Ha-betarim. The Almighty commands our ancestor to divide three heifers, three goats, three rams as part of a covenantal ceremony between the patriarch and the Eternal. At the end of the Torah portion, God enter into another covenant with Abraham and Sarah through Brit Milah, ritual circumcision. In both cases the oneness of covenant comes from a cutting, a separation. This is appropriate because covenants are always about bringing two separate parties into relationship. In symbolic language it is a statement that, “just as we symbolically divide or cut away something extraneous to us, we simultaneously bring to our beings a vital connection joining us together.”

Last Tuesday’s election is a recognition of a separation that may yet bring us together as Americans. The covenantal promise of America enshrined in our Constitution would have been superfluous were the 13 colonies possessed of unanimity and like-minded purpose. The truth is they were anything but united, and but for the wisdom of our founding fathers, would have become 13 separate countries. The durability and sturdiness of our nation relies on our continued respect for differences of opinion,  civil and measured discourse, and a belief in the better angels of our national character.

Image result for abraham lincolnThere will be many important disagreements in the coming months and years about the best course for America to follow. Let us be honest and vigorous in our dissent, but let us move ahead with undiminished faith in the power of democracy to overcome even its own weaknesses. In the words of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, who knew far more about national division than we ever will, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”  Ken yehi ratzon — may it be God’s will.  And ours.

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Does God Care if I Eat Lobster? Yom Kippur 5777

Image result for eating lobster

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.

Image result for paul ricoeur

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.

Image result for conversations with godJust 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.

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