Rosh Hashanah 5775 Second Day: We Work for God

There are two subjects that most rabbis seem to avoid these days, especially on the High Holidays. One is Israel. One of the 16,000 NY greetings – meaning fundraisers – I got in the last few days was from Truah, the new name of Rabbis for Human Rights, of which I actually am not a member even though I believe in human rights. It said, quoting the Times, that “debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire.” Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, they will get slammed by their “right wing congregants, who often are the ones with the purse strings, even if they are not necessarily the numerical majority.” Surprise, the Times was happy to broadcast that sentiment, which fits their worldview to a tee, and I am sure they interviewed a few rabbis. Well, fortunately at Beth El, your rabbis are not afraid to say what we want to say about Israel. Rabbi Harris’s main sermon these ten days is about precisely that, and part of mine today will be. Not to mention the many emails and It’s Wednesdays that I shared over the long difficult summer, beyond which I have little new to say. But  how could we  be silent about Israel?

The other topic that rabbis seem to avoid in sermons is talk about God. Odd as it may seem, we seldom if ever talk about that which is at the very center of our lives, maybe yours too, about that which is at the very core of our being – namely God. Beth El rabbis are different here too, but it is puzzling why rabbis do not talk about God very much.

There are a number of possible reasons for that silence.

The nicest one is that perhaps we do not talk about God very much out of reverence. I remember one of my teachers telling me that he once asked his father why he did not talk much about God, and his father said, “You don’t talk about someone in His presence.” That may be the reason. We may realize that anything and everything that we can say about God is an understatement. And so we say very little about God out of respect. That might be the reason.

Or: perhaps we don’t talk about God very much because we do not know what to say. We live in a society that is saturated with rationalism and secularism. We live in a society where only that which can be quantified, be measured, where only that which can be defined or weighed or tested or proven is taken seriously, and God cannot be measured, and God cannot be defined, and God cannot be weighed or tested or proven, and so perhaps that is the reason why we are reluctant to talk about God. That might be the reason.

Or perhaps the reason we do not talk about God very much is that we do not want to be identified with those who talk about God too much nowadays, with those who take the Name of God in vain. We don’t want to be identified with those who act as if they know exactly who He is, and exactly what He wants. When we see acts of violence committed in the name of God, as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere today, and when we hear statements in the name of God proclaimed by preachers on the airwaves here that are offensive, when we hear statements such as, “ Katrina came to New Orleans because the people there were pro-choice instead of pro-life,” or “the earthquake came to San Francisco because the people there were tolerant of gays,” we are embarrassed and we do not want to be identified with the people who talk this way. That may be the reason.

Whatever the reason, the great irony and truth is that we live in a world in which it is much easier to talk to our children about sex, or about money, or about almost anything else than it is to talk to them about God.

And so, we come here on this day, and we open the prayer book, and we recite the words – whether in Hebrew or in English – and if we are honest, we have to admit – at least to ourselves – that prayer comes hard for us, for we do not know what it means to speak to God, because we don’t know what or who God is.  And so, let me try to speak to you today, first about what I believe God is not, and then about what I believe we can see that speaks to God’s existence.

The woman who taught me what God is not was Mrs. Rachel Frenkel. Let me remind you who she is, just in case you have forgotten her name. She is one of the three mothers whose children were kidnapped and killed this summer while hitchhiking back home for Shabbat from the yeshiva that they were studying in. She said one sentence this summer that has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it, and that sentence is what led me to give the sermon that I am going to give today.

It is funny how you sometimes run across a sentence during the year that speaks to you with such power and with such truth, that you feel the need to hold on to it, and to share it with your people on the holy days.  This year, the line that took hold of me and that will not let me go was a simple sentence that came from the mouth of Racheli Frankel, when she was asked whether she still believed in God, after what happened to her child this summer.  Do you remember that event?

For eighteen long days and eighteen long nights, these three women waited for news. And all Israel waited with them. People volunteered by the hundreds to help the police scour the area in which they had disappeared in the hope of finding them. People who had not prayed for many years prayed with all their hearts during those eighteen days. And then the news arrived:  the boys were dead. Their bodies were found underneath some rocks in a deserted area near Hebron.

And when the news came out, it was like a body blow to all Israel. [Rabbi David Ebstein so described it – worst blow in all the years of bombs and suicide murderers. ]  People who were working in their offices, people who were dancing at weddings, people who were sitting in their homes – when they heard the awful news – stopped whatever they were doing, and they cried.   Every Israeli parent whose child has ever hitchhiked – which means every Israeli parent, reacted the same way: They said to themselves, “These could have been – NO, THESE WERE OUR KIDS”, because hitchhiking is one of the standard means of transportation in Israel, especially for kids. And that is why so many Israelis – people who wore black hats, and people that wore knitted kipot, and people who wore no kipot, people who were on the far right, and people who were on the far left and everyone in between – reacted with horror and with grief and with shock at the loss of these three boys.

Mrs. Rachel Frenkel, who was one of those three mothers, did three things in the days that followed the news that moved us all, and made our broken hearts pause to be grateful that we have a Land that has such amazing people in it. Some rotten apples too, but people like Rachel Frenkel are what makes Israel so unique. Anyway, the first thing that she did was: she gave the eulogy, and she said Kaddish for her child at the grave. She is Orthodox. Women don’t usually do those things in that community, but no one questioned her right to do them. No one would have dared.

The second thing that Mrs. Frankel did took place a few days later, when word got out that some Israeli terrorists, in revenge for what happened to her child and his friends, had taken an Arab teenager off the street, at random, pushed him into their car and taken him to some secluded place, and set him on fire. And then they dropped this boy’s body somewhere in the Jerusalem Forest.  Do you know what Mrs. Frankel did when she heard that this had happened?      She condemned this atrocity, and she called it a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. She said that it was a violation of what the Torah stands for. And then this bereaved mother, who was sitting shivah for her own child, called the parents of that Arab child and expressed her condolences to them!  Wasn’t that an incredible thing for her to do?  Would you, would I, have been able to do that, if, God forbid, God forbid, we were in her situation?

And then there was a third thing that Racheli Frankel did, and this is what has stayed in my mind.  The reporters and the television cameras were kept out of the house during the week while the family sat shivah, because they were entitled to a little bit of privacy. But then, when the shivah was over, and Mrs. Frankel and her family stepped out of the house in order to walk around the block – which is the traditional way of ending shivah – then the reporters and the television cameras mobbed them.  As she and her family tried to walk around the block, they called out all kinds of stupid questions. And one of the questions that one of the reporters dared to ask her at this moment was, “Mrs. Frankel, do you still believe in God, in spite of what happened?”  Can you think of a more inappropriate question to ask at such a time as this? I can’t.

But Rachel Frankel answered the question, even though it was rude and intrusive and stupid and inappropriate.  She answered it with one brief statement. She said, “Of course I still believe in God.  But you have to understand that we work for God. God does not work for us.”

“We work for God. God does not work for us”….that statement has stayed in my mind ever since that day when I first heard it, and I want to begin with it as I talk about God today.  [pause]      What does it mean to say: “We work for God; God does not work for us”? It means that God is not some kind of a cosmic bellboy. It means that God does not exist in order to satisfy our needs. It means that prayer – such an important and misunderstoof part of Jewish life –  is not a time when we come before God with our shopping list, and say gimme health, gimme wealth, gimme this, gimme that. It means that prayer is the time when we listen to God’s dreams for the world, and when we listen to God’s expectations of us. It means that prayer is not the time when we tell God our needs, for God knows our needs. He may even know our needs better than we do.  Prayer is the time when we sign up to do God’s service in the world. For, as Mrs. Frankel said, “We work for God; God does not work for us.”

So this is the first thing that I want to tell you, and that I want to tell myself today: If we think that God exists in order to serve us, then we have made ourselves into an idol, and we have made our prayers into idolatry. If we have come here today only to tell God what we want and what we need, we have perverted the purpose of this day, and we are serving our self, and not God. If we think that God exists in order to give us good things in exchange for the good deeds that we do, we have confused God with Santa Claus.

That is what Mrs. Naomi Frankel said in her own way this summer. And that is the first thing that I would ask you to understand today. God is not our servant, and God is not our bellboy! And that is not what God should mean to us when we come here to pray to God today.

What then can we say about God? What can we say today that is honest and true and valid and that makes sense?

I revisit these questions periodically.  I am a believer, I think there are too many wonders in the world, in nature (remember the bee experts who report that bees, with the following life spans – 1-4 months for worker bees, 40-50 days for drones, and 2-5 years for the queen bees –  will sting just about anyone who comes near the hive but will not sting a beekeeper who returns to their hive after a ten year absence, even though no bee in that hive could have know them), in the human body (example:  that we can talk reason argue joke around, that our bodies have so many pieces of plumbing and so many miles of veins and arteries that work almost without fail for most everyone for so many years,) in the Torah which is so clever that no human could have written it;  there are  just too many wonders to believe otherwise.  But I know it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. We have hundreds of them at Beth El. And they start with the rational question: if God exists, why is there no direct evidence that I can see? There is no visual evidence.  And it’s hard to get anywhere beyond that, the question of God’s very existence. So let me work with you on that question for the second and last piece of what I want to say today about God, w thanks to my teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner.

Judaism says that God is not a thing, God has no form or shape, not male or female, not young or old, not white black or yellow, so how can we see God? And if we can’t see God, how can we know that God exists? Right after the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses confronts God with that problem. You didn’t invent it. He says to God, in effect: “I’ve got a bunch of people down there who are having trouble believing that You are real because they can’t see You and they don’t know how to believe in something they can’t see. If it would prevent future Golden Calf incidents, could we just have a tiny peek at what You look like?” God answers: “You don’t get it. The reason you can’t see Me is not that I’m hiding, and it’s not that you’re obtuse. You can’t see Me because I have no form or shape. I’m not a thing.” But then, rather than send Moses away empty-handed, God utters what may be the strangest, most puzzling verse in the entire Torah. He says: “Wait here in this cave while I pass by, and then look. You won’t be able to see My face, but you’ll see My back.” How can that be? God has just insisted that He has no form or shape. God has just severely punished the Israelites for portraying Him in physical form. And now He tells Moses “You can see My back! ” Let me suggest that what it means is this, and what I am about to say is central to my message today: what it means when God says you can see My back is that we cannot see God but we can see God’s after-effects. That’s what the reference to seeing His back implies. All we can see of God is the difference that God makes as He passes through our lives – just as you can’t see wind, you can only see things being blown around by the wind. Hagar, in the wilderness, we read it yesterday, didn’t see God. She saw a well that saved her life, she found the world sustaining her when everyone else had rejected her, and that was enough to persuade her that God was real. We are not sure what Abraham saw on that mountaintop with his knife poised to do God’s will that we read about today. But he got the message that it was wrong to sacrifice his child on the altar of his beliefs, and he understood, the way a person will say “Oh, I see” – he understood what it meant to follow God’s ways. And the Israelites in Egypt didn’t see God either. They saw God’s impact. They saw the gates of freedom swing open, and they knew that God was at work.

In a way, we ought to be able to understand this concept better than previous generations could, because of advances that have been made in subatomic particle physics. No scientist has ever seen an electron. No physicist has ever actually seen a quark. But they are absolutely convinced that quarks and electrons exist, because when they look through their microscopes, they see things happening that could only happen if quarks and electrons were real. And that’s what I’m saying, and that’s what the Torah is saying, about God. You and I can’t see God, but we see things happening that we believe are happening because God is at work.

In much the same way, none of us has ever seen fear or anger or love. We have seen people acting out of fear, out of anger, out of love. We have seen feelings of fear, anger and love make people do things, and we have no doubts that those feelings are real.

So, when a doctor saves a life through surgery or cures an illness with a new antibiotic, he is entitled to feel that he has seen the hand of God at work. When a person is ashamed of herself for something she has done and is afraid that people will shun her but she discovers that there is forgiveness in the world, or when she finds the power within herself to love people close to her who have disappointed her, she can feel that she has met God in her life, not God’s face but God’s back. Working invisibly, imperceptibly, God has made something happen, because forgiveness does NOT come naturally to people. We can forgive and we can love because God stirs our souls. When a person finds himself alone, through bereavement or through rejection, and feels utterly abandoned, the way Hagar did in the desert, and friends rally to his or her side, that is God in action, God making things happen.

Many years ago now, Rabbi Kushner went to Oklahoma City to conduct a workshop for clergy and psychologists who were working with families who had lost loved ones in the bombing of the Federal Building. After the workshop, he met the bereaved families. He said to them, “It’s been a few months since that tragedy. What one thing more than anything else has helped you deal with your loss?” And remarkably they all gave him the same answer, using the same word: community. Community. Strangers coming up to them to hug them, to express sympathy, to bring them food to fill the emptiness inside them. And Kushner realized that they were giving him a profoundly religious answer. A 19th Century Hassidic rabbi, Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, once said “human beings are God’s language.” That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people. I would paraphrase that sentence to say that human beings, reaching out to others in need, doing good things when they don’t have to do them, are as close as we will ever come to seeing the face of God. And it happens all the time. Like with 9/11 or New Orleans, and all those who did so much in so many ways to help people they didn’t know and with whom they shared little in common.  Any time we find ourselves stirred to be more generous, more courageous, more self-disciplined, more grateful, we may not have seen God face-to-face but we will have caught a glimpse of God’s back and seen the difference God can make in our lives. That I believe.

For some people, a prayer, a comment in the course of these services will reach them and beginning tomorrow they will think a little bit differently about the place of Judaism in their lives. They will begin to do something they had not been doing before: a prayer, a ritual, a change in their eating or reading habits. They might not realize it but they will have met God in the synagogue for it is God who gives us the power to grow and change. Where else does that power come from?  For others, they will walk into shul today or on Yom Kippur feeling stained by bad habits they haven’t been able to break, and they will walk out hours later feeling cleansed and with new confidence in their ability to break those habits. They may not recognize it, but they will have met God and been changed by the encounter, for it is God who gives us the power to break the chains of habit even as God broke the chains of slavery for our ancestors. Where else does that power come from?

And it happens in a hundred little ways every day. Any time a Jew does something that calls for a blessing, we are asserting that God is present. Can you see the difference between saying “Praised are You O Lord our God who brings forth bread from the earth” and saying “Praised is God who brings forth bread from the earth”? To say ‘You” in a prayer is to claim that God is there with you. God is not in the place; God is in the moment, in the spark of gratitude for food expressed in a Jewish religious idiom. When you light the Shabbat candles, when you say Kiddush over the wine, and you say “Barukh Attah Adonai,” you are recognizing the invisible presence of God in your home at that moment. You are saying, I am doing this because God is real and God is stirring me. God is teaching me to create a moment of holiness. In a sense, we might say that one great way to observe the reality of God, to make the unseen perceivable, is by living an observant life.

Friends, let’s review. Three thousand years ago, a band of Israelites yearned to see God so desperately that they fashioned a Golden Calf and told themselves, “That’s what God looks like.” And God got very upset with them and said to them “You don’t get it. I’m not an object. I’m not a thing you can draw a picture of, or make a statue of.  I am the Power that liberated you and guided you for the last few months and will continue to liberate and guide you, even if you can’t see Me as I do it.”

Two thousand years ago, some people felt they needed to see God, so they came to believe that a young Jew from Nazareth was God in human form. And God said “No, I’m not incarnate in one person any more than I am incarnate in every person, young and old, black and. white, male and female, plain and attractive. They are all My image.”

And we today yearn to see God. We come to services on Rosh HaShanah and we virtually challenge God: reveal Yourself! Make something happen so I’ll know that You’re there. And God says to us “Forget about it. You’re not going to see Me. Nobody can see Me. I’m not a person and I’m not a thing. I’m not a calf and I’m not a carpenter’s son.” “You want to see Me? Go out and do godly things. Work for me, like Racheli Frankel would put it. Help the poor and comfort the grieving, and you will see Me in action. Watch the things you say and control your behavior, impose choice on instinct, and you will feel Me as a living presence in your life. Write a check to Tzedakah and you will feel Me guiding your hand as you sign it. Light the Shabbat candles, make your table an altar, and you will feel My presence so strongly that you will say Barukh Attah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh HaOlam. Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav… – Praised are You, O Lord, who has shown me how to bring holiness into my home and into my life.”  We WILL see God when we work for God and when we live a godly life. It shouldn’t take tragedy to teach us that.  Amen