December 6, 2023 -
A nice Jewish girl brings home her fiancé to meet her parents. After dinner, her mother tells her father to find out about the young man. He invites the fiancé to his study for a little schnapps. “So what are your plans?” the father asks him. “I am a Torah scholar,” he replies.
“A Torah scholar.” the father says. “Admirable, but what will you do to provide a nice house for my child to live in?” “I will study,” the young man replies, “and God will provide for us.”
“But how will you arrange a home for your family?” asks the father. The young man replied: “I will concentrate on my studies…and God will provide for us.” “And children?” asks the father. “How to support children?” “Don’t worry, sir,” replied the fiance. “God will provide.” The conversation proceeds like this, and each time the father questioned he got the same predictable answer. Later, the mother asks “so nu? How did it go?” The father answers, “Well, he has no job and no plans, but the good news is he thinks I’m God.”
It’s Yom Kippur, a time to confess. So let’s admit it here and now: There are times when a God-complex is not something put upon us by others. Many of us are internally driven to play God. We determine to be the ones who will provide. We make herculean efforts to assure both basic sustenance and open doors of opportunity for our children. We spend a huge percentage of our waking hours focused on providing for others, burdening our already weighted-down shoulders with more to do. Is this healthy? Surely believing that only ‘God will provide’ misses the mark. But is this ideal a Jewish one? Is it even a laudable and worthy goal?
If we play God, we had better get ready to feel like God does in our Torah. Driven to achieve a perfected world for us, God is nevertheless prone to emotional outbursts spilling over on whomever is in the way, including our people. God in the Torah struggles with when to intervene and when to let things be. So if we are like God, we too will struggle. We’ll have no one else who truly understands the responsibilities we hold. So it is likely that like God, we may come to feel completely alone, isolated from sources that nourish and sustain us.
This picture of God runs counter to the typical narrative. When I look to my own upbringing, I realize my own first images of God were of power. Yes, power! As a child, I distinctly remember playing with my Star Wars toys on the hearth of our fireplace. Like the God conveyed in my religious school, I imagined that at any given moment, I could decide whether the spacecraft I was flying in my imagination cold be the one carrying Luke Skywalker to vanquish Darth Vader. To be God was to be all-powerful, at least that is how I thought God operated in the world. When I teach your children and grandchildren, I find their initial God concepts are quite similar. Not all, but many speak to me of God as a force to be reckoned with, capable of determining your fate.
The High Holy Day prayers do nothing to dispel them of this image. Here we describe God in dread-filled terms: a judge sitting in a remote and isolated chamber, defined by a power to ‘record and recount…judge and muster and number each soul…’ and decree its ‘destiny.’ As I lead you in prayer, I see how this image both attracts and repels you. God forbid, we say, to stop a premonition from becoming judged as a wish. God be willing, we say, to let me be alive for my granddaughter’s wedding, as though God has marked in the records of the court the prayerful request to keep oneself safe until at least the first week of May so that Nanna can see her little girl all grown up. When we attribute to God such super-heroic power, we have to set aside our rationality and sense of knowledge about how life and death operate. This gets tiring.
As we mature, we are less willing to set aside our rationality. I know of few adults who wish to encounter a super-powerful God, a force that is with you or against you. Our adult experiences just don’t seem to bear out belief in a God who constantly creates, destroys and intervenes. But that doesn’t end our search for meaning. Jews still want to know that God’s grace and kindness are near. We still want to believe that holiness is possible. This is why many seek a source of prayers to help them face life transitions. While preparing for a job interview, while waiting for a friend to respond to an urgent message, when discerning whether a loved one should take a chance on beginning or ending a new relationship or a new treatment for an illness, many of us would ache to know hope to feel that a God of some kind is with us and not against us.
This is not a new feeling. Our rabbinic sages also hoped for God to accompany our acts of caring for others. To their minds, the Torah was end-to-end chesed. A God of lovingkindness, they taught, was the first to tenderly clothe the first human beings. A source of healing visited Abraham when he recovered from surgery, sending angels to be at his side, who helped him recover and brought laughter and rejoicing to his bride Sarah. A caring and loving Adonai assured Moses was buried with dignity and eulogized with respect.
This is what chesed looks like to the rabbis. It was imitating God’s ways, mindfully practicing God’s goodness in our day-to-day lives. This is such a popular idea because it asserts that we matter. What we do matters. And we Jews have long acted on the idea that we have something unique to contribute to healing the world. It is probably that belief that has made Jewish parents somewhat obsessive about the achievements of their children and in-laws. Our families have long encouraged their children to become scholars, scientists, doctors and Nobel prize winners.
This reminds me of the story of the first Jewish President of the United States. The story tells that when the election night returns came in, the first Jewish president called his mom He was very proud and invited her to come to his inauguration. His mom said ‘no thanks’ for she really doesn’t like dealing with the airlines. Well, the newly elected president explained that he would send Air Force One to pick her up. She further explained that she didn’t know what she would eat. He replied, ‘Mom, I’m the new president, I’ll have a wonderful chef in the White House who’ll make you whatever you want to eat. Please come.’ His mom replied, ‘I don’t even know what you wear to an inauguration.’ ‘Mom, he says, it’ll be cold in January and you can wear a beautiful jacket outside at the inauguration. Remember that one in your front closet?’ At that point, his mom realized her son had a point and so she agreed to come.
Well, when Inauguration day came, he arranged that his mom would sit in the front row, right between the Chief Justice and the Speaker of the House. She watched with her own eyes as her son was sworn in and then called up to speak as the newest US President. At this point, his mom nudged the Chief Justice and pointed in the new President’s direction. She says to him: “You see that man up there, the one who is speaking. His brother is a doctor!”
Now, this is a hospital town, and I don’t want to question the stature of doctors or medical personnel. But when I visit the hospital, I have come to see that in addition to patients, there are numerous doctors and nurses, p.a’s and p.t’s, individuals whose transfer patients or who bring an extra blanket. What I see in their eyes and hear in their voices is that they too are wearing down and hurting. They struggle as do all kinds of caregivers to accept the gravity of their daily encounters with suffering. Not long ago I was at Metro, when I came to visit a patient whose nurse was standing outside the patient’s door with his hand balled up in a fist.
I had never met the nurse before. Yet I felt drawn to speak with him. He was protective of the patient’s privacy. But he did tell me that what was clenched in his hand was the medicine for the patient I’d come to see. What I could see with my own eyes is that the nurse was trembling, and composing himself to enter the room. I was there when the nurse finally did come in with medication. I realized then what had triggered his nerves. The nurse and I both knew that the medicine he was about to convince a nervous patient to take wasn’t going to help. The patient was going to die. But in this moment his job was not about death in the offing. In this moment his job was to alleviate pain during what might be a person’s last afternoon in this world.
I know that kind of loneliness. I know pain of such utterly difficult moments. I bet you do too. When someone is hurting and alone, you tell them they are in your prayers. You call them, cook for them and walk with them. If you are married to that nurse, you know he has faced lonely days at his work. But there are other times, when you have know idea who is facing loneliness.
-Your neighbor may be lonely since the death of her partner. Friends who once had dinner with her every Thursday night have stopped calling, and now, even on her night off, she eats alone in her apartment.
-Your grandson may be lonely because he doesn’t think there is anyone in whom to confide that he doesn’t fit societal categories around gender and sexual orientation. He knows you love him. But he fears you’d reject him if he ever got the courage to tell you his feelings.
-Your best friend could be lonely too. She doesn’t seem to know how to answer the question, “how are you?” So caught up is she in the sandwich of supporting aging parents, while also being good to her own children, she feels wiped out, and doubts the feeling will ever end.
Loneliness is not just one thing. But for many of us, it causes us to stop making decisions that reflect well on our integrity. When you are lonely you might feel as though you have a permanent obstructed view of the events happening right in front of you. You might seem unfeeling toward others. Small slights feel like major grievances. You feel untouched and unworthy, and ask yourself, who really cares? Who really notices whether I am here or not?
On this Yom Kippur, I want to posit something that has been on my mind for a good while. There may be no more understanding force of loneliness in this world than God. Yes, God: Adonai Echad. God is all alone. If it seems that at times we are alone in a silent, unfeeling cosmos, consider that God, if there is a God, feels this way just about every day.
Two weeks from now I will take more than 40 of our members to the Wailing Wall, the Kotel in Jerusalem. When we arrive, I’ll encourage each traveler to listen for the wailing as they pray at the wall. For the wailing at the wall is not simply coming from the the people around you, praying around you and placing notes between its stones. The wailing there is not even the sounds of all the faiths and cultures whose people have pleaded to make a sacred pilgrimage such as yours. No, if you listen carefully enough, what you hear at the wailing wall is God’s own wailing.
Why? Because the wall is not in and of itself a whole place. It is a fragment of a place that was once whole. God feels the brokenness there, and joins the wailing at a place in the universe where unchecked hatred destroyed something whole, pure and true. In other words, according to Judaism, God feels our pain.
There is even a Talmudic teaching that says, when God learns of hurt sustained by humanity, the Holy One feels sympathy pains, complaining that both Gods arms and head are weighed down and burdened. I had forgotten about that teaching until recently, when I saw it in a new book written by Rabbi Marc Katz. In The Heart of Loneliness, published just last week, Rabbi Katz shares the idea of God feeling sympathy pains to illustrate God’s shared feeling and empathy for our hurting spirits. His book helped me remember something important: that for us to truly understand let alone imitate Adonai is to imagine that like God, you are a force that without the love of people, is not just invisible, but entirely inconsequential and in fact nameless.
Rabbi Katz explains, “When the biblical Adam finished naming all things on earth, Adam named God [as well.]…True, the angels sang praises to God. But Adam…could see God enough to give God a name and an identity.” I take this to mean that God needed us. God needed us to be named and apprehended in this world. And so maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to feel so alone, not one of us, not any of us. We are not alone. We are with God. That is a whole lot to take in on a Tuesday night that this year just happens to be Kol Nidre. So please don’t feel you have to contemplate it all in one night. In fact, keep this idea with you as you continue to pray tomorrow morning.
At Yom Kippur morning services, you will hear in our Torah a beautiful clue as to how to hold on to the frailties and fears brought on by loneliness. The clue I am talking about is found in our Torah when Moses is conveying the central values of our recommitment to the covenant. There is a marvelous phrase in the passage that invites our interpretation. The phrase is: V’lo Etachem L’vadechem. My whole adult life I have read that phrase as, “It is not with you alone…[that I renew this covenant.]” That is in fact what it says in your prayerbook! It says God needs our ancestors and our descendants, all who are and who will yet be, to join the covenantal promise.
But this year…this time, for the sake of all who suffer loneliness, I pray you will hear it differently. This year, when you read v’lo etachem l’vadechem I want you to hear the Torah conveying what can be so hard to admit: V’lo etachem l’vadechem. God is saying “I can’t do this alone.”
I can’t do this alone. God needs each of us to hear such words and respond by saying, each in our own way: “God, you don’t have to be alone.” That is in effect what I came here as your rabbi to tell you. On the most awe-filled holy night of the year, I’m here to say: You, me, God, none of us can do it alone. Lonely, hurting, vulnerable, we sense that nothing we do matters. It is like we are bleeding but with our emotions. But our rabbis, our Torah, and the convictions in our own heart can help us realize that it matters whether we are wounded or hurting. Judaism tells us that what we do and what we say and what we feel matters.
It is safe here. You don’t have to do it alone. This is a safe place to be as strong and as weak as you are in this moment. You are an individual, yes. But you are also part of a tribe and a culture. It is safe here- to say that you are lonely in your workplace- like the nurse I met at Metro, who knew that he could not show his pain. Or perhaps you might feel alone when surrounded by people in your life, and begin to wonder, “If something happened to me, who would notice?” I want you to know: we would notice. Your life matters. You are part of a people, our people, and our hands outstretched to you if you’ll grab them and let us lend you our strength to rise up.
El Ha-Rachaman, O sweet God, the One who sees our distress and alienation like no other, we pray to you this Kol Nidre night. Be with us O God. Help us still our fears of loneliness in the hours, weeks and months ahead. For strengthened by your resolve, buoyed by your promise, we can be your companions, even as you will always be ours, Amen.