[This morning, the rabbi is out. So a friend and I will lead Shabbat services. The friend has skills and will do all the hard stuff: Hebrew, music. I'll do what I do best: distract people throughout the service. And I'll give the sermon. Here's the sermon.]
Shabbat shalom. The Rabbi is off the bima. You are about to learn that this would have been a good time for you to leave town. Here we go.
It's been more than a couple months since Simchat Torah, when Jews everywhere rewind every Torah scroll in the world. And we start over with Genesis.
We've read about creation and the patriarchs and matriarchs. This week, in the portion of the Torah called Vayeishev, starting with Chapter 37, we still have Jacob and we are turning to Joseph and his brothers. The stories are interesting and, frankly, with Joseph, his brothers, Potiphar, Tamar and Onan, among the most salacious reality television the Bible offers.
This week is a religious school teacher's dream. The stories are fascinating to parse and debate. Why are they in the Torah? What do they mean for those of us who attempt to live Torah-centric lives?
There are great questions.
But I'm not going to discuss any of that.
I'd like to step away from those stories and contemplate the question: Where is God?
This seems like the time to do it because, as Gunther Plaut points out (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 244), this portion's long literary unit — which could be televised as Survivor: The Coat of Many Colors — is notable in a number of ways. One is the the increasing absence of divine revelation. Except in one small part — though the role of God is no small part — God has left the stage.
So the question I would like to explore today is: Where is God?
Ask yourself: Is God near? What does it mean, "God is near"? What are the signs and your feelings that God is near?
Ask yourself: Is God far away? And what about "God is far — or gone"? What are the signs and your feelings that God is far or gone?
In the Torah, God starts near and gradually moves away. The sole actor at the beginning, God creates the earth and populates it, speaking directly with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Some years are spent in training the people. And then, God steps away. Eventually, later in Exodus, God retains a lawyer, Moses, who serves as local counsel in God's place.
God seems like a parent; humanity, the children. God creates humanity, raises them, then steps away and let's them live their lives.
What do you think? How is God like a parent? How is parenting not like being God? When is God a good parent. When is, if I might ask, God not a good parent?
However we might judge our Parent, God, like a parent, starts out all powerful, or at least seeming all powerful. At the end, parents are left only all loving. The power is gone, eventually or sooner. God is left all loving, whether you look to the original Chasidic tradition or Christianity, which are both traditions based on an all loving God.
A Disclaimer on Belief
When I was 12 years old, it was time to meet with the Rabbi for the first conversation about becoming Bar Mitzvah. Back then, as I recall (which might not be accurate), fewer students than today led a Bar Mitzvah service. So the rabbi started by asking my intentions.
Rabbi: What are you thinking about Bar Mitzvah?
Artie: Would it be wrong to do just for the presents?
Artie: Would it be wrong to do it if I don't believe in God?
Artie: Well then, Rabbi, I'm 0-for-2.
Within a few years, I had completely walked away from Judaism — a walk that spanned 26 years before returning in my late 30s.
What About The Professional Jew?
One of the few things I've learned about Judaism is that the Rabbi might have overstated the answer to the second question. Today, as I understand it, belief in God isn't a prerequisite to being a Jew. In fact, this is a case where some of our best, don't.
Years ago, I asked a beloved Rabbi, "Do you believe in God?" I was expecting the simple answer of a true believer.
"May I speak frankly and confidentially?" the Rabbi asked. I nodded. (I think enough years have passed for me to tell this story.) His answer: "That is a complex question."
Wha? "Do you believe in God?" is a complex question?
For me, it's a simple question when the answer is "no" and it's a complex question when the answer is "yes." Because for anyone whose faith is on-again/off-again, "yes" needs a complex qualification.
Personally, I don't consider my religion a faith. I consider it an ethical tradition that — from time to time — might achieve moments of faith. So, I think the Rabbi of my childhood, the one who told me that belief in God was necessary to be a Jew, offered me an easy exit.
Here's what I believe now:
- Whether or not one believes in God, it is better to live as if (a.) we are all related and (b.) we are never alone. This way, even without belief, we won't abuse our neighbor and we won't behave as if our actions have no meaning.
- The mind of God is very big. It's inconceivable that any one of us would know the one true way. As Mrs. Isaac says, "It is conceivable that everyone is right." That is, everyone except those who sacrifice people, literally or figuratively. This has led me to a humble preference: I prefer to believe in everything, rather than to believe in nothing.
- Facebook is, in at least one important way, playing God. (Here is my Theology of Facebook.)
So, where is God?
I don't know. But I know what I feel like when I feel that God is near or far.
Does distance make the heart grow fonder? Or as the Roman poet, Sextus Propertius put it: "Always toward absent lovers love's tide stronger flows."
As God and humanity see distance growing between them, so must parents and children.
This year has one of our children off to college. I know how helpless I sometimes feel to have my power diminished by distance. It leaves me all loving, with little I can do about it.
In the late of the night, when I cannot sleep, when I am consumed with worry for our creation, all I can do is wonder if I still enter into my child's prayers.
God is near when we pray for the well being and healing of our friends and family.