Rabbis Without Borders
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I was asked recently: “Do you believe God is really listening?”
It is interesting: We rabbis talk more to children about God than to adults. But that is often where it stops. A pediatric understanding of God, a God we leave in our childhood.
The summer between my fourth and senior year of rabbinic school I served as a chaplain. It was one of the most formidable summers of my life.
In the middle of that summer I met a classmate who was serving as a chaplain at another hospital. We were traveling together to go to a classmate’s wedding in Cleveland.
From the moment we got on the plane, we didn’t stop talking about our experiences as chaplains. We didn’t stop talking about God. About a half hour before we were to arrive in Cleveland, the pilot made his perfunctory announcement to thank us for our patronage and to buckle up for landing. I don’t exaggerate when I report that it was only about five minutes later that we landed.
There was a precipitous drop. I was shaking and shivering and trembling and sweating. My friend Dan could see the fear in my eyes. He grabbed my hand and said, “Matthew, it is okay, God is with us.” I continued to shake. He grabbed both of my hands and said: “Matthew, it is okay; God is with us.” I said, “Dan, that may be true but we are going to die anyway.”
It was in that moment that I started to grow up theologically.
The part of me that wanted God to stop the plane from crashing, was the same God I was taught about in my childhood. I think many of us were brought up with that same notion of God. God was the old man with the long beard, the one who judged us like Santa Claus. Eventually we learned that Santa wasn’t real; the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. And so, maybe God wasn’t either.
We might tell our kids to pray for a new bike for Hanukkah. And it works if we make it so. But the truth is, when they try to use that same mode when their grandparent is dying, it doesn’t work out as well. The grandparent dies and too many times so does our relationship with God.
Those children become us. We grow into this day and age where almost anything can be proven; where the microchip rules supreme. If we can’t prove God, then God must not exist.
Somewhere between our childhood notion of God and the rationalism in which we invest everything, is the crossroads of our belief system.
Privately and regularly, my congregants tell me about experiences of the elusive; the mysterious, the wondrous. And I sense a tension inside of so many. They want to embrace the part that feels the intangible and at the same time they feel the struggle to have to concretely prove what they are feeling.
The great theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that when we doubt the existence of God, all we have to do is take a good, long walk in a place like the Redwood Forest. He taught that we could know God through the awe of nature.
Many winters ago, when the first snow fell, two nursery school teachers took their children out to play. Hearing their joyous voices, I stepped out of my office and the first thing I saw was a young Israeli child who had just arrived to the States. He was terrified. He didn’t know the culture, the language, anything about America; and he certainly had never seen snow before. He had such glee on his face. He said in Hebrew: “What incredible snow, Rabbi Matt.” In this beautiful child I was reminded of the miraculous essence of nature.
Children are literally closer to the ground than we. They are are aware of leaves and rainbows or the ways in which their bodies function. Everything, to them, is a miracle. They have not yet become numb or sanitized. They feel grateful simply waking up in the morning and experiencing the world.
We are stuck in our frenetic routines and don’t always notice the world around us. The sun comes up every day. The waves don’t stop. Do we notice? There are trees that have lived hundreds of years before we came to be and will live hundreds of years after we cease to be. The sands of the desert; the water of our oceans are endless to our eyes. We are small in the face of it. Do we notice?
Have you hiked a glacier; taken in a double rainbow; watched the sun rise over the glistening mountain top; hiked to unthinkable peaks? As a result of your experiences, did you have tears; or chills; or did your hair stand on end? If you did, Heschel would say that in those moments you are radically amazed. In other words, perhaps you are feeling God’s presence.
Sometimes we analyze so much that we rob ourselves of the meaning for which we yearn. We want the depth; but our questions can act as a disguise from our search.
My dear friend and mentor Rabbi Alan Kay taught me so much before he died. I called to check in on him during one of the bitter cold winters we had a couple of years back. He asked, “How are you, Matt?” “Ooh”, I said, “It is freezing, Alan. My skin can’t feel a thing, my bones are cold. He said, it is really cold, isn’t it? It is bitter. Isn’t it just delightful?
Alan taught me so many lessons in that one answer. On one level he was telling me that even the parts of the world which sometimes feel cold and harsh, are at the same time so rich and so full.
And he was also saying to me: Matthew, don’t wait. I am 68 and I have Stage IV lung cancer. I didn’t expect it but yet here I am, dying and even the bitter cold feels so good. “You know what it’s called, Matthew?” he asked. “What, Alan?” “It’s called God.”
Is God listening? Perhaps. I can’t prove it to be true. But if we feel that it might, then maybe we should be a bit more open to the possibilities. That relationship might end up being one we call eternal.