Parashat Vaera 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Vaera 5776

God Talk

I had this kind of strange experience as a child in Hebrew School.  The scene could have been from Roth’s story “The conversion of the Jews,” a short story that depicted Hebrew School in the 1950’s by the way that made me realize Roth was a profound author and observer of American Jewish life.

Here was my experience that I had and I shared with about twenty other twelve year olds. We were sitting in a Hebrew school class one afternoon. It was in September or October, one of those hot Indian summer days. The building was not air conditioned and the windows were opened wide.

Our teacher was a recent graduate of Stern College, a young orthodox woman. And as she was teaching a local thuggish kid from the neighborhood threw a rotten apple through the open window and it narrowly missed Mrs. Kosowski. To add insult to injury, the hoodlum screamed “dirty Jews!” We were aghast. And felt afraid for a moment. Mrs. Kosowski said: Ignore this! Don’t be afraid! And repeat after me: Adonai Li v”lo Irah (the closing words of Adon Olam)

We repeated together; Adonai Li V’lo Irah.

Here’s what I remember transpired next.

We continued to learn. She didn’t respond to the remains of the rotten apple dripping down the blackboard, and we didn’t feel afraid as we continued with our lesson.

What was in that moment?

A word of assurance from a religious teacher. A sense that there was protection. And, now I realize, there was a sense that in life when we have faith, we are not alone.

Now, I know this may not have been rational…or reasonable. But, I know there is an affective component to the sense that we are not alone. We are not always protected. Stuff, bad and painful and dangerous stuff happens, but faith although it can’t prevent it can carry us through it. And although, we cannot always explain why…We understand it is experienced by many.

God talk is difficult. Particularly for reasonable and rational people. We can examine the texts and understand its narratives, interpret its meaning and find metaphor. That’s what we do. But God talk is difficult for critical modern thinkers. I, as a rabbi, as your rabbi find it challenging.  But, every once in a while understand that we owe it to ourselves and owe it to our community and our tradition to do so…to engage in learning a conversation about God and faith.

After all God is the main actor, the central character, in our Book. In the text that has been the basis of Jewish communities for 2500 year. He plays both the protagonist and at times the antagonist.

I remember years ago when speaking about God returning to a public conversation, Rabbi David Wolpe, to his father’s distress mentioned that he never remembered speaking about God at his table as a child growing up. His father, as many of you know, was a leading Rabbi from Har Zion in Philadelphia.

And I want to assert that speaking about God can be not only difficult but presumptuous and even dangerous. Because we know that God’s essence in unknowable and by very definition, God is not definable. Because to define is to limit, definitions create boundaries and God is without limits and boundary.

And it’s dangerous because God has been used to promote particular ideologies and as motivation for behavior that is oppressive and repressive and even, as we have seen, murderous…

I choose to speak about this this week for a number of reasons. Often there are conversations and events in my life, personally and as your rabbi that presents themselves so clearly that they become signals to me…I have to talk about this.  Especially, when they connect clearly to the words of the parshah.

Such was my experience.

The lecture on faith by Donniel Hartman that many of us shared this week from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage series, this week’s parshah and the sharing  grief and mourning with a family, and I had two separate conversations: one with a man who just came back from the unveiling of a fifty five year old son-in-law and the other, an email exchange with a congregant who is terminal…these have motivated these words this morning.  In fact, just as one can’t hide from the omniscient, omnipresent God…I could not NOT speak about this today!

God talk is difficult.

So I begin with the source, the Torah as we begin to know God; in this week’s parshah. Our people are in slavery and God has chosen a reluctant leader to bring the people out of slavery. Their work has become almost unbearable and they are about to break.

And we read: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai I did not make myself known to them by my name Yud-hey-vav-hey. Adonai. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land where they lived as sojourners. I now have heard the moaning of the Israelites and I have remembered my covenant. I am the Lord: I will free you, I will deliver you, and I will redeem you….I will take you to be my people, I will be your God…

When Moses told this to the people, they could not listen. Their spirits were crushed by the work.  Sometimes God’s presence cannot be received.

The theologian Karen Armstrong speaks of faith like art. She claims there are people who have a propensity to be good artists, they are talented, and they are inclined. Similarly there are people inclined towards faith. There is something in them that makes them receptive to God’s presence. The very word EMUNAH comes from the same root AMONUT – ART – Faith is an art.

And neuroscience has shown us that there is a part of our brain that is active when we are in a spiritual mode…For some that part of the brain is larger and for others smaller. And interestingly, the older we get the more that part develops.

In the text, clearly God is appearing as Adonai…and the people cannot hear it. But there’s something so powerful. I am with you in your pain. I am with you as you struggle. I am here.  And that be the most powerful dimension of God.

That’s what we want and need in the presence of sorrow, and in life’s most difficult moments. We want the presence of another in the most difficult times. Knowing there is a present God…is knowing comfort.

I’ve spent a lot of time with people at the end of their lives.  When I am with people who are dying I ask: Are you afraid?  Do you feel like you are dying alone? And inevitable the people who feel the greatest fear feel the most alone.

But when we sense Adonai li V’lo irah…God is with me and I am not afraid…are condition changes.

I said at a shivah this week that I believe there are two places in life where heaven and earth touch. They are the moment of birth and the moment of death. And both are moments where we experience that which is beyond, we sense the mystery in life and the spiritually inclined can feel a Presence and a Power in that mystery.

And we move back to the story of creation. The beginning of life. And there we see God as a force, a creative force for life and it is that force we can experience as a child is born. I remember so well the moments of the births of my child. And after born, living with an intense sense that life is a miracle…and way beyond that which  can ever be seen or even fully explained and understood.

And God doesn’t simply appear without our capacity to bring God’s presence. I remember recently being with an observant friend, who was also a very spiritual person. And he took a glass of water and he stopped before he drank and he closed his eyes and said a brachah…She’hacol nehiyeh bidvaro…and then he drank the water…WATER!…and I saw that he had transformed a moment from the usual to the transcendent and he brought something deeply spiritual and beautiful to that moment. God’s presence in the form of a brachah.

And you know how that is done?

It’s done by retracting ego and self, you ignore your thirst and attention beyond and say a brachot.…because brachah is from the same root as birkayim which means kneres. We bow with our knees and we retract ego when we bow…and that’s when we can find the ONE GOD.

If you look carefully at the parshiyot we are reading, from the very beginning of Exodus, what astounds is not that Moshe was great, but that Moses may have been average or normal. No special skill set. In fact his greatest quality is known as humility. And he does important things…but they are spoken to him, directed by God. And that may be the root of in our text, the essence of monotheism is that we don’t worship the great leader or his representatives, we don’t worship nature except as a manifestation OF THAT WE DON’T SEE. And in our most glorious nation moment the human isn’t found. Compare to other ancient mythologies when we look at a story like the splitting of the Red Sea…there’s not a great figure of power, it’s just represented as God.

And, of course there is more. And as reluctant as I might be to speak of God or as insufficient as I feel, I can go on and on.

I thought about God in our text some more. The first time that he appears in Exodus is in relation to the decree of Pharaoh to throw every first born son into the Nile. Two women, midwives, go beyond themselves and their safety and they save the baby, the little Moses. And there is one reason given…they had yirat shamayim; they experienced the awesome nature of God, perhaps they realized a fear of God that motivated them to go beyond the orders of the human tyrant and they did what was right. And that is another dimension of our God…God is the source of law and morality…And our job is to get to learn it, know it, feel compelled by it and help it evolve to meet the challenges of the day.

Earlier in the Torah when Jacob awoke from his dream he said: Achein, yeish adonoi b’makon hazed v’anochi, lo yadati.

Behold God is in this place with me, and I didn’t know it. And that describes most of our experiences. So God is here and we don’t always see, and we certainly don’t always know but we are challenged to open are eyes and our hearts and let God in.

God the source of life, God the one who comforts, God the power that commands, God the source of strength and of blessing…

Can we question?

What better, you don’t question when you know it all or when you are a simpleton. We’d either be God or of little knowledge if we didn’t question. Our faith should never be blind. It must have meaning. It must be rational and it must be reasonable.

In truth, I cannot tell you where to find God or what is God. But, I know with you I am on a God journey…and in that journey I stumble at times and have fallen and have found the most wonderful moments of spirit and joy and love and comfort.

And that’s what I…search for…

So God appeared to Moses as Yud-hey-vuv-hey…here. It’s a God of mercy and comfort. But it’s also not the only manifestation we have of God in the Torah. There are about nine other names of God and each reflects a different dimension of God…stern and punishing, judgmental, compassionate, commanding, law giving and life giving.

The rabbis said when God appeared at Sinai he was perceived differently by everyone who stood there. To some he was a teacher, to others a healer, to others a judge, to others source of love.

And when Moses begs to see God, he is told ehiyeh asher ehiyeh…I will be that which I will be…What does that mean?

Just what the rabbis said…and perhaps more. Perhaps it means that we have a God who will continue to reveal Himself and will be known in more ways as time moves on and we evolve…uin mind and spirit.

As we build a community of love and responsibility, learning and prayer we never lose sight of our search for God and always remain open to a God who searches for us. May God comfort you. May God bless you, May you know good health and strength and May you know peace.

He’s given us a few covenants over time…the rainbow, the sign on our bodies in the brit…but also none as beautifully shared and experienced as this day…Shabbat is an everlasting covenant between God and His people.

And on this day we can experience inspiration and learning, we can know something of the spirit and we can learn and we can find rest.

Shabbat Shalom