Kol Nidre Sermon – Where is God?

Hineinu.  Here we are.  We have joined together in perhaps one of the most important events of the Jewish communal year.  We’re here in our sacred space…we’ve taken the Torahs out…the heart of the Jewish people and perhaps in this moment…God’s stand-in…and we’ve begged for mercy.  We’ve asked forgiveness for our sins which we have atoned. 

I think that says something about us.  I think it says that we have faith in forgiveness.  It says we have faith in ourselves and that we hear that call to do better.  We didn’t come here to ask God to fix us.  Or to fix our world.  We come here to fill our tanks and rebuild our reserves in order to right ourselves.  So that we may fix the world. 

Since we last came together on Kol Nidre, 385 days ago, many things in our lives and in our world have gone the wrong direction.  The situation with the environment is worse than we realized.  The political environment is unprecedentedly negative.  We stare at our phones more, we talk to each other less.  The gun violence plague grows daily.  Addiction is rampant.  Poverty, food and housing insecurity continues for too many.  Our collective level of happiness feels lower.  There is less kavod – respect for each other, respect for ourselves.  The list is almost endless.           

One of my favorite children’s stories is about the Aron Kodesh, the ark in which synagogues keep the sacred Torah.  The story is a true one of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner giving a tour to the preschool of the sanctuary.  He had saved the ark for last, but then got called away right as he was about to pull back the curtain to reveal the Torah scrolls.  He told the kids that unfortunately he’d have to show them another time.   Later the teacher of the classroom told him that the little ones had a great debate after he left about what was behind that curtain.  One kid argued it was empty.  Another suggested there’d be a brand new car.  One did guess correctly that it held the Torah scrolls.  But another insisted they were all wrong.  That when the rabbi opens the curtain, there will just be a big mirror.[1] 

There might as well be a mirror in there because the Torah is like a mirror in so many ways.  We read it over and over and over again.  Every year we roll it all the way back to the beginning and read the same words again.  The words stay the same, but we change.  And the world changes.  Sometimes for the better and sometimes not.    

It’s as if the past presidents of this congregation just held those Torahs up to our faces, but not because God is literally in them judging us and granting us atonement.  They held them up so that in those reflections we can remember who we are.  And they don’t just reflect us…they reflect the whole world.  The Torah, the story of our people from thousands of years ago, held up to recount and reflect and remind us of the story of our world over the last year…and right now. 

On July 27, 1656, Rabbi Baruch Spinoza was put in cherem by the Amsterdam Jewish Community, which means excommunicated.  We don’t really have anything like it in non-Orthodox Jewish culture today.  But back then it was like death.  If you were put in cherem, not only were you completely removed from the community, but anyone who maintained contact with you was in danger of also being put in cherem. 

Spinoza was cast out not because he killed someone or coveted his neighbor’s wife.  He didn’t desecrate the Sabbath or ignore some significant Torah law. 

He did what rabbis have done since the days of the Torah.  He was making sure the right questions were being asked.  In a sense, the question he asked was, “Does Anochi Adonai Elohechem…I am Adonai your God…mean what you think it means?”  Spinoza was guilty of suggesting that the reality of God in the world wasn’t like the Creator God in the Bible.  That God and nature could not be separated.  In a period of great misery and despair for our people, his thinking suggested that perhaps God couldn’t directly change the course of historical reality.  God couldn’t stop the misery.  Or at least wouldn’t.  Because if God created the world, and there was bad stuff going on in the world, and God didn’t fix it…then God either didn’t want to…or couldn’t.  Maybe Spinoza was not so different than the average member of the Jewish community of his time.  Maybe he wasn’t so different from Jews in any age trying to understand what life means and how to cope with difficult and uncertain times.  Spinoza was asking the right question at the wrong time.

There was a theological war afoot during the 16th and 17th Centuries in Europe, which led to real wars, between those who held different ideas about how God interacted in the world and what that meant for human behavior.  These theocracies made life particularly difficult for the Jewish community in the big cities. 

Jews had been exiled from England in 1290.  In the 1600’s a few were allowed return…but true English Jewish emancipation didn’t happen until the 1800s.  And there were different versions of this same history and experience throughout Europe including inquisitions in Spain, Portugal and Rome.  Jewish existence was tough.  Anti-Semitism was rampant.  Jews were not citizens of the lands they lived in.  They had few civil rights or property rights.  Only a few attained any semblance of wealth. 

Jewish extremism was influenced by Christian extremism.  In his letter to Oliver Cromwell asking for Jews to be allowed back into England in the 1600s, Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel mentioned the coming of the Messiah.  Messianism swept the Jewish community…life was so bad…it had to be a test.  And if they could just pass that test, God would have to send a reward by way of the redeemer and Messiah to perfect the world.    

On Rosh Hashanah in 1665, Shabbatai Tzvi was declared the Jewish Messiah.  Though he managed to convince a surprising number in the Jewish community that he was God’s chosen one, he was false.  A false messiah because here we sit and the world is far from perfected.  I wonder what Spinoza was thinking looking on from the world outside just ten years after his own excommunication.  This was the exact thing he had been teaching against. 

Was he surprised?  We’ll never know.  But I imagine him shaking his head in sadness that the community was still looking in the wrong place for answers to the wrong questions.  How and when will God fix the world instead of how and when will we fix it?      

The recent novel “The Weight of Ink,” by Rachel Kadish, is based in this same time frame, and masterfully weaves aspects of history and the Jewish experience.  The book tells the story of Baruch Spinoza, but Kadish tells it through the eyes of a fictitious 17th century female scribe name Esther whose life was full of existential difficulty.  The narrative alternates between Esther and a graduate student named Adam Levy in the early 2000s who was trying to save Esther from historical obscurity.  Hundreds of years apart, their worlds were different, but their desire for meaning and strength and to understand the world was no different.  In Adam’s own despair, he went to synagogue for the first time in many years and while there, observing the service goers, he had the following realization, “It seemed to him that the god these people had just prayed to was the present:  A world in which they felt compelled to act, stepping into the history flowing right in front of their feet; making choices in the knowledge that they might fail.”[2]     

This work of fiction is full of truth.  That for time immemorial, people…our people…have wondered how an all-powerful God could let the world be so full of suffering and despair.

I think it is the wrong question.  We should not be asking how God allows such suffering in the world.  The question really should be; how do we allow such suffering to exist in the world?

We live in a time with incredible access and freedom to speak our truth.  Spinoza lived in a different time and he spoke his truth and paid the price with his identity.  It we look honestly into the mirror of Torah, we can see that our identity is on the line too if we don’t speak our truth.  This moment in history feels heavy and difficult and unsure.  In difficult times like these people turn to God for help.  So let’s restore our souls together.  We join together in prayer for spiritual sustenance.  But not in the hope for a messiah.  Fixing the world is our job.     

Rabbi Menachem Menedel Schneerson was the most recent Lubavitcher Hasidic Rebbe and he died at 92 years of age in 1994.  But the Hasids have not selected a new rebbe because many people believe that Schneerson was the messiah.  And that he will return.  I don’t believe he was the Messiah…I don’t believe in that kind of messiah…but I think he was a brilliant rabbi and scholar.  In our Rosh Hashanah Machzor you’ll find his words.  He once said, 

“If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”[3]

He didn’t say God will come to fix the errors and incompletes in our world.  He taught that we are born with the ability to discern between holy and mundane…between wrong and right…and that it is we who need to do the work. 

We live in tough times, and as I said before, the to do list just feels so big and insurmountable.  And speaking for myself, I feel so small at times…like there is so little I myself can actually do.   

If you’ve read Tuesdays with Morrie, you’ll remember the story of the two waves in the Sea.  “There was a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air — until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.”

“‘My God, this is terrible,’ the wave said ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!’”

“Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’ “

“The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’ “

“The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.’”

“Part of the ocean,” he says. “Part of the ocean.”[4]

Whatever it is that keeps you up at night, I am sure it does feel at times like we are just waves crashing against the shores of history. 

But I am not a wave, I am part of the Ocean.  You each are part of the Ocean too. 

We are part of something bigger than ourselves.  And when the world seems so dark, the responsibility seems so great.  Maybe too great.  But as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes, you can “Become what you worship here today…become hope and faith and love and justice.”

God is how we are becoming.  God is in how we are coming together.  God is how we live.  God can be a verb or an adjective, not just a noun.

May we in the year ahead, in whatever way we each can…in every way we each can…bring God’s adjectives into the world…comfort, sustenance, warmth, security, acceptance and so many other descriptors that increase both humanity and holiness. 

If you see part of the world that needs repair…let’s together get to work on repairing it.  And that will be the true beginning of the perfection of our world…perfection that we have prayed for since the first prayer was ever uttered.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you speedily inscribe yourself in our collective and sacred Book of Life.   

[1] Paraphrased from “The Mirror in the Ark” By Rabbi Laurence Kushner in, “God was in this Place”

[2] Rachel Kadish, “The Weight of Ink,” page 547

[3] Menachem Mendel Schneerson, quoted in Mishkan HaNefesh for Rosh Hashanah

[4] Tuesdays with Morrie, page 179