Rosh HaShana Morning 5777
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
This morning’s Torah reading has Abraham learning a lesson on the top of Mount Moriah. In fact, most lessons Abraham, and many of our Biblical antecedents, learn take place on the top of a mountain. There may be something to this….
I am a rabbi today in part because of two different skiing trips – one taken in 1998 and the other in 2014. I am, I believe, a better rabbi today because of those skiing adventures. . . . Allow me to explain.
In my third year of rabbinical school I was having a particularly tough semester emotionally, wondering whether or not I had made the right career choice. I found myself distracted in class, annoyed with my peers and becoming a general pill to my wife. And so, in the middle of the semester I disappeared and spent several days at my best friend’s house in Colorado learning to ski. Those days on the slopes helped me to clear out the cobwebs of my brain and allowed me to focus on my desire to become a rabbi and reconcile myself to the rabbinical school process.
Skiing became my passion and my muse; from those days on, I would count the days until I could return to the top of a mountain, breathe in the cold, crisp air and hear little more than the sound of snow moving under my skis. More often than not, I was able to take all of my stored up frustrations and questions and work them through on the slopes, returning to my day to day life refreshed of body and spirit.
So it was in March of 1998 that I found myself again on the top of a mountain, on a beautiful clear, sunny day, skiing with Marianne and a group of friends. Whenever Marianne and I used to ski together in those days, it was our habit for me to allow Marianne to progress down the mountain as she skis with style and grace but rather little speed. I, on the other hand, in those days was given to bombing down the mountain and so I let her get about three-quarters of the way down and then I would begin my rapid descent. As I was coming down to the last ridge, I launched myself into the final set of steeps and when I came down, instead of hitting snow, I hit a patch of mud and rocks, lost control and probably appeared to the masses at the foot of the mountain as little more than a technicolor blur. I tumbled down, head over ski, landing in a heap that skiers often refer to as a “yard sale” as most of my equipment was spread evenly across that part of the mountain.
It slowly but painfully became clear to me that something was wrong with my left knee and soon a medical toboggan arrived, my skis were removed, I was strapped into the toboggan and began my descent down the mountain to the medical center.
As the sun shone in my face and the sound of the snow being crushed under the toboggan filled my ears, the words of the 121st Psalm occupied my mind: “Esa eynai el heharim mayayin yavo ezri ezri mayeem adonai oseh shayim va’aretz, al yeetayn lamot raglecha, al yanun shomrecha.” (“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. What is the source of my help? My help comes from God who made heaven and earth. God will not let your foot give way, Your Protector does not slumber”)
In the hospital emergency room I prayed, “Please God, don’t let my leg be broken” over and over again as if it were a mantra. In the next two beds were individuals who had torn their ligaments and so I added into my prayer, “and by the way, please don’t let my ligaments be torn.” I was wheeled in for x-rays and then a CT scan and the diagnosis came. I had shattered my tibial plateau and surgery was in the offing.
16 years later, skiing with Marianne and my now adult children, on a warm up run, a nine-year old girl lost control at the top of the mountain and skied into me, causing a rupture of my ACL in my right knee. Many of you know that it took 6 surgeries over the course of 13 months to repair my knee cap which shattered during the first surgery. The story now can be shortened considerably. As all of you can see, I am standing here before you this day and walking around pretty much normally. I survived both accidents. And, in fact, I hope to return to the slopes soon.
The sum and substance of both of these experiences can be found in the words of the 121st Psalm: Esa Eynai. There I was, lifting my eyes to mountains, searching for my help. There it says: God will not let your foot give way — well, my knee and my ACL certainly did. There it says: Your Protector will not slumber — well, where was the answer to my prayers both times, wasn’t God listening? And like the author of the 44th Psalm I wanted to call out: (Psalm 44: 24-27) “Rouse Yourself; Why do you sleep, O God? Awaken. Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face, ignoring our affliction and distress? We lie prostrate in the dust, our body clings to the ground. Arise and help us. Redeem us as befits your faithfulness.” There I was twice on the mountain and multiple times in the hospital, looking for God to answer my prayer that my leg wasn’t broken, that my ACL wasn’t ruptured, that my knee-cap wasn’t destroyed forever — but God must have been taking a nap, my prayers were surely not answered.
Many of us have had this type of experience at one time or another. For some of us it is the relatively benign circumstance of breaking a leg or praying to pass a test. For others it is life altering events such as the serious illness of ourselves or someone we love or the experience of an unexpected death. At these times we ask — is God truly a shomayah tefila (one who listens to prayer) or is God’s ear deaf to our pleas? Or, some of us even ask — is there God at all?
These high holydays are the days when all Jews, not just those with broken legs or facing serious illness have the opportunity to consider ourselves, our wishes and desires and whether God plays any part in the outcome.
For many of us, the question is not whether God hears our prayers or why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the manner we had hoped — the question is why pray at all . . . because we may have already reached the conclusion that there is no one listening.
Some of us reach this conclusion as the result of our experience of the power and majesty of humankind. Look at how powerful we have become. Look at what humankind has created, what miracles we have wrought — we who can split the atom and clone a life, we who stand poised to map the entire genetic code of the human being and have broken free of our own atmosphere to begin the exploration of the heavens above. It is in this context that some of us conclude that perhaps even the idea of God is a throwback to our primitive selves when our ancestors knew less and were weaker of intellect and spirit than we are today.
Some of us look out in our society and see those religious fanatics who give faith a bad name and conclude that to reject faith is the morally and intellectually superior position.
For others of us, living without faith is part of our expression of self sufficiency and our need to have the “final say” over our lives.
And for others lack of faith is simply the “easy way out” — it involves less energy to conclude that God does not exist than to search for evidence that God does exist.
One of the great critical thinkers of our day, Leon Wieseltier, in the first book he wrote, entitled Kaddish, chronicled his year-long experience of reciting the Kaddish daily in the wake of his father’s death. As part of the process of reciting Kaddish he confronts his own lack of faith and reaches some surprising conclusions.
At one point Wieseltier makes a breathtaking statement: “When Nietzsche lost his faith, he concluded that God is dead. This is not critical thinking. This is narcissism. I understand the idea that if God exists, then you must believe in Him. I do not understand the idea that if you do not believe in Him, then God must not exist.”
That is the ultimate challenge that is posed to us. We are often so filled with doubt that we allow our that doubt to overtake us and become disbelief. But that is, as Wieseltier points out, little more than narcissism.
A corollary of this, is the process many of us undergo when we find ourselves discussing God or considering the existence of God — we over-intellectualize the process and allow the details to derail us. In that connection I recall a story related by one of my teachers at HUC, the late and great Dr. Eugene Borowitz. He described the experience of giving a workshop in which he went around the room, asking for volunteers to describe their concept of God, to which one of the participants, a young man responded, “Well, if you’re talking about an old man in the heavens sitting in a great throne looking down upon us, I don’t believe in God.” And Rabbi Borowitz countered, “I wouldn’t believe in that god either.” We expend our energies determining what God is not, instead of looking for what God is.
Our Kabbalistic – mystical – literature provides a remedy to this condition. As you all know, the Torah opens up with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” The question was raised, “Well, what happened before that?” And so the Kabbalists recount that before the creation of the universe, there was nothing but God. God was everywhere. But if God was everywhere, there wouldn’t be any room to create the heavens and the earth. So, in order to make room to create the heaven and the earth, God had to do what our mystical forebears called “tzimtzum” — God contracted upon God’s self. God literally had to become folded over, made smaller and more compact in order to make room for the creation of the heavens and the earth.
This process of tzimtzum is a process that each of us must go through in order to create the space necessary to let God into our lives. We need to make room for the possibility of God’s existence. We need to “fold over” and make smaller our egos, and our excuses and intellectualizations and rationalizations. We need to make room for the notion that God exists and use our intellectual and emotional energies to find God in our lives. We need to let God in.
You may have noticed that when you joined this congregation, or took a look at our website, no-one ever asked you what you believe. This is what sets us as Jews apart from most other religious faiths and practices. Judaism begins with the notion of action. The fact that you’re all here is a step in the right direction. Faith can come in the process of living your life as a Jew but is not a necessary precondition of being Jewish. In other places you would be asked to make a declaration of your faith before you joined a religious institution. Here, we ask only that you “be”, that you act Jewishly.
Faith can come in the course of time when we have disciplined ourselves enough to be open to the possibility of God and God’s impact in our lives.
I suggest to you that in the course of our search we may well come to learn that God is not always found in the big things, the big questions, the crises. The answers to prayers, that legs aren’t broken when physics would dictate that they must, will often be “no.” And God’s existence isn’t tested by our prayers to stop the course of nature and restore to health one we love who has cancer.
The great philosopher, Martin Buber, reminded us that we cannot expect to change God by our prayer, for God is too great for that. We cannot expect God to give us only what we request. Maimonides, that great rationalist, understood that like all rational beings, if we are to accept that God is, it is part of our natural tendency to blame God for the evil all around us. He writes in his Guide to the Perplexed (Part 3, chapter 12): “It is because of our own deficiencies that we lament and call out for aid. We suffer because of evils that we have produced ourselves of our own free will, but we attribute them to God. May God be exalted above this, just as God explains in the Book of Deuteronomy. Is corruption God’s? No. God’s children are the blemish. King Solomon also explained this, saying ‘the foolishness of a person perverts his or her way and then that person frets against the eternal.’”
If God may be hard to find in the climatic events of life, where can God be found? The answer may be: start small. God is certainly present in the small kindnesses of life. If you want to find God, consider: a caring touch; a moment of genuine warmth and concern; the miracles contained in the lives of our children and parents; the simple blade of grass that pokes through a crack in the concrete defying us in our attempt to control nature. And God is certainly to be found in that still small voice — that voice of conscience, that voice of our better selves that rises to the fore and taps lightly at the window of our minds — if only we are willing to listen to it. God is also found in the accumulation of small steps that lead from Moses to us here today. The traditions that have tied one generation to the next and allows us to be part of a chain that stretches back to a miraculous redemption from the hands of the oppressors to the revelation that came at a lonely mountain in the middle of the desert that gave our people form and direction for hundreds of generations.
On this day we confront our past and in looking back, despite all the evil that has befallen our people, we marvel at the miracle that we have survived and we have prospered. This is a day that we confront ourselves and our lives and there isn’t a soul in this room who cannot say that at one point or another they have not felt blessed. It is on this day that we confront the future. We express our hopes for the next generations and the generations that will come after them, that they will learn from our experience and profit from our good deeds and not be hobbled by our inadequacies. And in that prayer, we see ourselves as part of shalshelet hakabbalah–the sacred chain of tradition. And by looking back and ahead, we recognize that we were made more powerful in those moments in which we expressed our faith.
“Esa eynai el heharim mayayin yavo ezri ezri mayeem adonai oseh shayim va’aretz.” (“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. What is the source of my help? My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”) And so I bring myself to those two accidents on the mountains and though the answer to my prayers each time was “No,” I know in my heart of hearts and deep within my soul that as I lifted my eyes to the mountains, I knew my source of help was God, perhaps not doing what I asked of God but making me feel so much less lonely and so very lucky to be alive.
Shana Tova u’Mitukah!