December 4, 2023 -
This post is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Shabbat Ki Tisa, March 1, 2013, at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. It is based on this article, “What We Mean When We Say God,” published by Rabbi Joseph Meszler, and Chasidic teachings on yearning for the proper way in which to serve God. We encourage you to post your comments below, or to share this post by Rabbi Nosanchuk or the original post by Rabbi Meszler to engender meaningful discussion in our community.
My colleagues, Rabbi Joseph Meszler and Rabbi Julie Zupan in Sharon, MA, tells the story of singing the Sh’ma at bedtime with their children, and of a night-time ritual that started a little dialogue.
“Mom, God sees everything, right?”
“But God has no eyes.”
“Right.” We were very impressed he had already discovered the power of religious metaphor. Well, almost.
“And God is a baby.” “Huh?”
“God is a baby.”
“Uh… why do you think God is a baby?”
“Because God is 1 — and I am 4, and Samantha is 5.”
“Oops. So much for transmitting deep theological truth.”
But in an article he published, “What We Mean When We Say God,” Rabbi Meszler went on to make a point that is as real to me teaching here in Cleveland and at various settings in our synagogue as it is in that precious space of night-time truth telling, and perspective sharing between parents and children, praying that they lie down in peace and rise up to life renewed. It is that something is deeply missing when we hold on, even sentimentally, to only the childish definitions of God and meaning and holiness. Those beliefs we carried as a toddler are not enough. It is important for us to allow our concept of God in our life to become filled more with depth, more detail and more growth as we grow and mature.
Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once asked his teacher, a great tzaddik known as the Seer of Lublin, to show him the one way we can best serve God. His teacher replied: “That is impossible. For one way to serve God is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting and another through eating, and so on. Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this path with all of his or her strength.”
This Chasidic teaching sounds very much like the way we describe to our maturing young adults the meaning of Reform Judaism, a path of study of all the ways we might lead Jewish lives of depth, but which encourages us to follow our kishkes into observing our personal way of being modern and Jewish with everything inside of us. Yet our Torah portion this Shabbat, Ki Tisa, seems to warn us against that oh-so-subjective method.
In our portion, we come across one of the dangerous pitfalls of the path our kishkes often lead us. In one of the most well-known images of God encountering humanity, we see our forebears get flummoxed, leading them to become an angry, impatient mob surrounding Aaron and demanding and he assenting to their building a golden calf,. They build what you might call- their own childish depiction of God based on their upbringing. However comforting it was to them, the calf was still an abomination in the presence of Adonai, depicted in Torah as an invisible source of creation, revealed wisdom and hopeful guidance toward liberation from Egypt.
For many of us, thrown into a new situation, we like the impatient Israelites at Sinai cling to what seems most immediate to our senses, our comfort foods that help us to swiftly respond to the cravings of loneliness, doubt and fear that prey on our spirits. We urge our leaders to respond quickly to our abruptly offered views, and so it takes a good deal of patience and resilience to serve in a position of Jewish leadership because of this behavior. In our Torah portion, God reacts angrily to this type of acting-out on the part of the Israelites and rebukes Moses and the people, threatening their extinction. But God ultimately relents after Moses intercedes to destroy the Israelites for their apostasy and for the lack of willingness to have faith in a new singular source of meaning for them.
For others of us, facing a confounding new situation like a leader not communicating with us for days on end, and wondering what will happen to our tasks and ambitions and projects, this makes us imagine a “third place” – neither the place where we live, nor the place where we currently toil, but the place we long to be, an Oz-like space we start to yearn for, even if we’ll only find it somewhere over the rainbow.
To tell you the truth, this concept of “third place” has undergirded the branding and business plan of the genius leaders of Starbucks Coffee company. They built a model of a place that people would seek to go from work or from home. We in the synagogue world have occasionally dabbled in trying to become a kind of “third place” to our community. But what I am speaking about here is often a third place more exotic than the nearest place to load up on a café mocha or a frappucino, or even a meaningful class, or service, or action project.
The “third place” is a yearned for space that builds up in our minds as the place where we would be most happy, whether that is truthful or not, we gloss over the details. This is the conversation that begins as you fly over the water in an airplane and begin to discuss with your friend, your loved one or even a stranger how much simpler and more fulfilling life would be if only you lived by the lake or the ocean. During this conversation, we forget that even at the lake-house, there are mundane chores and bills to pay, tax documents to finish, and cravings and yearnings to fulfill. At the beach, even when you are dreaming big, you can mistakenly misunderstand the questions thrown to you and oversimplify like the child who says God is a baby because God is only one. Surely, God is no baby, you realize. But maybe God’s oneness makes God lonely and not want to be secluded by the waterside. In other words, even at the water, you can yearn for fulfillment in a new “third place,” a destination you might imagine you’d treasure your friends- perhaps an urban center or a place of exotic music, art or culture.
Rabbi Meszler in Sharon, MA, says that in a common lesson plan, he will ask his students to draw how they picture God in their heads. He has them fold a piece of paper into four sections. In the first corner, he tells them to draw God as they pictured God when they were a child. In the next corner, he asks them to draw God as they think of God when they are in synagogue. In the third box, they should illustrate their everyday idea of God, such as when they are on the street, at school or in nature. Finally, in the fourth box they should draw how they think they might picture God in the future.
What is revealed through this exercise? “The childhood picture of God is almost always an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud. The synagogue picture usually focuses on some symbol found in the sanctuary, such as the Torah or the Eternal Light. The everyday picture often has people holding hands or the sun or the trees. But there is no real pattern for the fourth picture [which is what makes it] the most exciting, for it captures the idea of God as an infinite mystery and unknown.”
I wonder what would happen if you tried this experience, not here and now, but in your home, or at the place you rent by the beach, or the next time you are on a long flight, or even, if you are willing in the company of a dear person in your life, perhaps of another generation, a child if you are an adult, an adult if you are a child. In that encounter, and in the honest sharing that you might do about the meaning of the fourth picture, you could hold each other’s hopes and dreams and spirituality ever so tenderly.
My one warning: in folding up the paper, in sharing the various impressions of God and meaning, try to keep your feet on the ground. Don’t rush off, at least not in the beginning of such an exercise, to a heavenly abode, or to the place you’d get after you win the lottery. Stay real. Stay true, even while imagining what God and meaning and holiness might look like to you in the future. Ask yourself, what would be evidence for you of some force of existence other than human beings and animals and vegetation? What would help you summon a faith in all creation, your gratitude for its very existence and renewal?
I’m not the first rabbi to warn his congregants to keep themselves grounded in their vision, not by a longshot. The Chasidic rebbes used to tell of the story of Rabbi Eizik, the son of Rabbi Yekel of Cracow. Apparently after many years of great poverty which had never shaken his faith in God, Rabbi Eizik dreamed that someone told him that in the far-away city of Prague, under the bridge which leads to the king’s palace, there was a treasure.
He would’ve ignored the dream once or twice. But when that same message came to him in a dream for the third time, Rabbi Eizik prepared for a long journey, and set out at some distance for the long trek to Prague. But the bridge near the king’s palace was guarded day and night and he dare not just walk up to the area under the bridge, take out his spade and start digging. Nevertheless he went to the bridge every morning and kept walking around it until evening. Finally, the captain of the guards, who had been watching him, asked in a kindly way to Rabbi Eizik, whether he was looking for something or waiting for somebody.
Rabbi Eizik went ahead and told the captain of the guards of the dreams which had come to him three-times in Cracow, and how he decided to come hear to this bridge and find the treasure that waited him. The captain laughed scornfully: “And so to please that dream, you wore out your shoes on the long journey to come all the way to Prague!
As for having faith in dreams and night-time messages, if I had it, I should’ve had to get going myself when a dream I had told me three times in three straight nights to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew- Eizik, son of Yekel, so said the voice in my dream! Eizik, son of Yekel! I can just imagine myself traveling all the way to Cracow, and what it would be like, how I should have to try every house over there, where one half of the Jews are named Eizik and the other Yekel!” And he laughed again. Rabbi Eizik bowed, traveled home, walked inside and took off his shoes from his long journey. But then he went over to his stove, and took out his spade and began to dig. There in his own home, the place where he had been yearning for some imagined third place of fulfillment, there beneath his own feet, all along, he dug up a vast and rich treasure.
Tonight I told you two night-time stories: one of a child imagining that God is a baby, and another of a grown man willing to risk everything to travel as far as his feet can take him, just to see if his childlike fanciful notion that God has buried a treasure for him at some distance would be fulfilled.
I pray we can learn to grow together a mature, deep and abiding picture of what an adult’s faith in God, consistent with Jewish belief and with Jewish struggle, looks like and sounds like.
I work to achieve that- day to day, moment to moment, failing to achieve quite often, but striving any way not to let the moments in between our lifelong learning study sessions, our worship opportunities, or action projects, to pass me by in the search for God’s meaning and relevance to our lives today. Because very often it is those in between moments, the ones where we are simply waiting for our leader to come down from the mountain, or the ones after our children or grandchildren have settled down and lay their heads to their pillows and are imagining how the universe ought to work, that the greatest treasure is right in front of us, if we will grab a hold of it.
Now I have never been to Prague. Of course I’d like to go. It sounds like it would be quite an adventure. But right here in this place, in your company, on this Shabbat I am blessed to call this moment and this place, home. In this place I pray, we lie down in peace and rise up to find our lives renewed.
Hashkivenu Adonai, Eloheinu L’shalom V’ha’amidenu Malkenu L’chaim.