I Believe | Congregation Beth Am

I Believe

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
October 9, 2000

A couple of years ago a Reform synagogue in the Pacific Northwest surveyed their third graders to see how they'd answer a very important question: "God -- what is He or She like?" The answers were charming. Here's a sampling: "I see a big huge man that we can see through him, and he has a big beard." One young man struggled with some theological contradictions: "God helps people. He looks like us, but bigger. He is in people but also he is all around the world, but still in heaven." Another was a poet: "God is a flower, a yellow flower. It blooms only at Jewish holidays." One was a philosopher, with a sense of humor: "God is something that some people can see, but not with their eyes. God smells like the air. God probably eats something small, like peppermint." And one wrote: "Dear God: Sometime I'm very scared in my room at night. I know You are there to protect me."

Have you ever heard of Sturgeon's Law? It was formulated by the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, and it states: "95% of everything is nonsense." Science writer Lee Dembart comments: "To Sturgeon's Law I would add Dembart's Corollary; namely, that there appears to be a dominant gene causing people to believe the 95% rather than the 5%, so widespread is the bunkum that afflicts the world. Belief in foolishness takes many forms: astrology, spiritualism, ESP, stock market projection, faith healing and religion, to name a few. These belief systems... share a common thread, which is that people do not want to hear that the answers they crave are unknown. Instead they invent and believe fairy tales."

Is he right? Is it true? Is the little girl alone in her dark bedroom comforting herself with a fairy tale? And what about us? What about grownups who lack a third grader's sweet and trusting heart, but who know what it is to feel alone? What about us, on those dark nights when we find ourselves lying awake, anxious and afraid, wanting so much to believe that someone is in charge, that everything will be all right? What about us?

And when we gather here on this dark and solemn night, the holiest night of the year -- is it all a lot of bunk? Did we make it all up, a long time ago, to keep from facing the unpleasant truth that we're alone?

God is hard for so many of us. Even conversation about God is difficult -- we are plagued by that Abraham Joshua Heschel calls "religious bashfulness." We pick it up in the years after third grade, when we begin to sense that modern, rational, sophisticated people -- epecially when they're Jews -- follow a theological policy best described as "don't ask, don't tell."

We sit in the synagogue, prayerbook open in front of us, reading these ancient prayers of praise and thanks and petition -- prayers which assume we have a close working relationship with God -- and maybe we're not sure we have any relationship at all, let alone one that works.

So often, God gets in the way. Wouldn't it be great if being Jewish were just about wonderful foods and warm, self-deprecating wit, and a haimish sense of family, and a magnificent history of survival, and a treasury of moral wisdom, and stirring calls for social justice? That's a religion you could love! But it isn't just that, is it? Even though we sometimes pretend it is. It's something else. There's that word that's all over the prayerbook -- the word that gets in our way.

That word is what we're here for tonight. The essence, the very core of Yom Kippur, is teshuvah -- turning. Turning ourselves, quite specifically, to God. That will be our business together until the final shofar sounds tomorrow night. That is the challenge that faces every Jew on Yom Kippur.

Driving up Highway 280 on a summer afternoon the weather was perfect -- clear and sunny, with a gentle, refreshing breeze. You get off at Skyline Drive, and as the road winds up the hill it turns misty and cool. By the time you're at the top if feels like the middle of winter. And there you stand, at Skylawn Memorial Park, with a little knot of people -- family and friends -- and next to the grave are two very small coffins, for stillborn twin babies. And the wind is whipping at your clothes and all around you the fog is swirling, gray and chaotic. You stand there, and your remember the other day, when you first went into the hospital room and saw the young Jewish couple there, with their lost baby girls in the cradle next to the bed, and the father said to you, "Hello, Rabbi. Maybe you can make some sense of all this."

Gray fog swirling all around you. That's what it feels like when there are no answers and nothing makes sense, when nothing you can say will make it all right, then you come face to face with the anguish that is part of everyday life.

Last week we read the story of how Abraham took his son Isaac to the top of a mountain to lay him on the altar as a burnt offering. The Midrash offers a melancholy coda to the story. Isaac comes back down the mountain, alive, and goes to his mother Sarah, and tells her the whole story. She reacts with shock. "You were nearly slaughtered?" she says." If it hadn't been for the angel's call, you would have been gone?" And right there, in mid-sentence, she dies of shock. Not shock at her son's death. But shock at how close he came -- how precarious and fragile is his life, and all life. "Vatamot Sarah mei-oto tza'ar," says the Midrash. "Sarah died of that pain" -- that pain that can barely be put into words, the pain of looking into the abyss. Existentialist pilosophers called it "vertigo" -- a sense of the randomness, the absurdity, the terrifying uncertainy of our lives. [See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, "Cries and Whispers: The Death of Sarah," in Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the Hight Holy Days.]

The sense of vertigo comes in different ways to all of us. We read about the slaughter of innocents in Nazi concentration camps. We look into the face of a good friend struck by cancer in the prime of life. Something happens to us, or to someone we love, and the bottom falls out of our life. And we wish there was something firm and solid to hold on to, but there's only the fog, the cold suspicion that no one's in charge of the world.

"Ba-ma akadem Adonai," asked the prophet Micah. "With what shall I come before the Lord? How shall I approach the Holy One?" And that's our question, too, on this Yom Kippur night of turning. How shall we come to terms with God, we who are grown-up realists, who see the world with open eyes and don't believe in fairy tales?

One day last August, just about a year ago, I was sitting at my desk at the office when I got a funny feeling in my left ear. It felt the way it sometimes does after swimming -- stuffed up and blocked, and I realized that no sounds were coming through. I picked up the phone and put it to my left ear -- there was no dial tone. I thought it would clear up in a few minutes, but it didn't. That night I went to the emergency room, where they gave me antihistamines and nasal spray. By that time there was a kind of white noise in my blocked ear. Late that night my head began to spin and I felt sick -- as if I were turning over and over in space. The dizzyness and nausea got worse, and I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where I stayed for several days. A month later, after consultations with specialists and treatment with steroids, the dizzyness had diminished, but my hearing had not returned. It was gone for good.

So I know something about vertigo, and how frightening it can be. And I know about questions you ask in the dark.

This experience made me think about a traditional teaching that I'd never before understood. "Said Rabbi Alexandri: To an ordinary person, broken vessels are a disgrace. But the Holy One uses broken vessels, as Scripture says, "God abides with the broken in spirit" (Ps.34:19).

It is a kind of promise -- that God is with us even in our brokenness, that we can come closer to God in those moments when the gray fog is swirling around us, when we're most aware of life's pain and fragility. It is a promise that even people like us -- grownups, hard-headed realists, men and women well aquainted with the night -- even we can find a way to say: I believe.

So here's a story that tells you what I believe. It's a true story described in the testimony a German engineer gave in the Nuremberg trials, after World War II.

Once, the engineer said, he saw rows and rows of naked Jews lined up in a forest at the edge of a pit. Standing there among them was an old woman whose hair was white as snow. In her arms she held a one year old baby. She stood at the edge of the pit, that mass grave into which she and the others would soon be pushed, shot down and buried, and in her arms was a baby boy. The baby was crying. Where was his mother? Where did he belong? The German engineer testified that he saw the old woman cuddle the baby close to her and sing him a song. Then, as his crying subsided, she tickled him and made funny faces -- and the baby laughed with delight. He was laughing then the Germans came forward and, with Teutonic thoroughness, finished them off.

You may ask: what difference did it make, really, if that baby boy spent his last moments of life sobbing in fear or laughing with delight? After all, he was going to be shot in the end either way.

To me, it makes a difference. To that old woman it made a difference -- so much that she somehow, miraculously, found the strength to give love and comfort in the midst of her own pain.

That is why I can hear this terrible yet beautiful story and say: I believe. I believe that God acts through people. I believe that God was with that little boy at the end of his life because a woman's loving arms cradled him.

It is a new way of seeing the world. In the words of Deuteronomy -- words that we will read tomorrow --"Lo niflet hi mimkha / v'lo rekhoka hi -- It is not too baffling for you, not remote and beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, nor is it across the sea. No, this Teaching is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart -- and you can do it" (Dt.30:11-12). God is not "out there" -- not far away, remote, inaccessible -- but close at hand, speaking through our mouths, dwelling in our hearts.

God is here; cries are answered. But it all depends on us. A colleague of mine wrote that "God has no other hands than ours. If the sick are to be healed, it is our hands, not God's, that will heal them. If the lonely and the frightened are to be comforted, it is our embrace, not God's, that will comfort them. The warmth of the sun travels on the air, but the warmth of God's love can travel only through each one of us" [R. Kirschner].

What I'm describing is an ancient Jewish idea about God. "Atem edai -- You are My witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God." The midrash puts a radical spin on this verse from Isaiah [43:12], commenting: "When you are My witnesses, I am God; and when you are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God" [Sifre 44a and Pesikta 102b].

It's something like the old conundrum about the tree falling in the forest: if no one is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound? Our midrash suggests that a sound exists only when there are ears to hear it, and God exists only when there are people to act as conduits for God. What a stunning, extraordinary idea: God comes into the world only by our actions. It means we have to learn to see ourselves as God's witnesses, as instruments of God, channels and vessels for transmitting Divine blessings from place to place and person to person.

Lo rehoka hi -- Opportunities for bearing witness, for bringing God into the world, are close at hand, all around us. And we can do it. Through our love and care for one another we can make God's loving, healing and comforting power real and tangible. We can have a relationship with God that "works" -- once we make the decision to do God's work.

Two sad young parents stand at the top of Skyline Drive, lost in a gray fog of confusion and despair. A woman with cancer fights with all her strength to hold fast to life. A man loses his beloved wife and struggles to go on alone. Or maybe it's you, facing your own dark night, your own personal moment of loneliness and vertigo. And so it is written: "God is the Healer of the broken-hearted, and the One who binds up their sorrows" (Ps. 147:3).

For God is with you in your brokenness, right here and right now. God is here... in the people who are standing around you, holding out their arms, sharing your tears -- trying in their own way, sensitive and tender or stumbling and awkward, trying as hard as they can to help you get through this, to show you that they care.

"Dear God: Sometimes I'm very scared in my room at night. I know You are there to protect me."

Are we going to let that word get in our way?

A boy was flying a kite on a misty day; the kite was invisible in the fog. A passerby wondered what fun there could be in flying a kite that could not be seen. To which the boy replied: "I cannot see it but something is tugging."

Most of us, trying to fathom what this service is all about, are flying kites in the fog. The open prayerbook is like the end of a string: we do not see anything, but, occasionally, at least, we sense that something is tugging. [Rabbi Dow Marmur]

Here at prayer with our people; or home with our families -- at the birth of a child, the death of a parent, the coming of age of a young man or woman; standing alone by the ocean or under the stars -- at these moments we sense a powerful mystery. Through the haze of doubts and confusion, something is tugging. And tonight, of all nights, we should pay attention

Dr. Gershon Rosenstein, a prominent Russian scientist, a specialist in the chemistry of the brain, dicovered religion as an adult and prevailed on the Soviet government to let him go to Israel where he could practice his newly claimed faith. Shortly after his arrival there, he was interviewed about how a scientist could suddenly accept religion. He said, among other things, "I remember the first time I tried to pray, to probe the depths of my heart and reach God. My scientific mind said to me, 'You fool, what are you doing?' To this day, I have a great fear about what would have happened to me if I had not overcome my intellectual hesitations at that moment" [Harold Kushner, Who Needs God].

When all the prayers are said and all the songs are sung, what will we take home with us this Yom Kippur night? I hope you will take home the image of a 12 year old Jewish girl. Her name is Leah, and her story is told by Robert Coles in his book The Spiritual Life of Children.

Leah was a leukemia patient at Children's Hospital in Boston -- a quiet young girl with auburn hair, raised in a Conservative synagogue. Her doctors and nurses marveled at her remarkable faith, and at the religious life that unfolded daily in Leah's hospital room. Her mother brought the Bible and read from the book of Psalms. Leah loved to listen; she loved reading psalms aloud herself. Once, during a visit, she told Coles this: "It's hard for the Jewish people... We'll keep going, though, and we'll remember our God; and if you read the Bible, God is there, talking to us, and like my daddy says, and my mom, God touches you mightily'."

"I remember my last visit to Leah," writes Coles. "She was not far from death...She was jaundiced and feverish. At her bedside was her father's Bible. Nearby, her mother sewed and sang softly to Leah... I saw a child intensely attached to her family's religious and spiritual life, its prayers and foods and ceremonies... its remembrance of what God and God's people had experienced together in the past and were still undergoing together in that hospital room."

"I'd like to go to that 'high rock'," Leah told her dad just before she slipped into a final coma -- and from then until her death, her heartbroken but proud and strong father could be heard by nurses and doctors, by visitors and family members, reciting the 61st Psalm: "Hear my cry, O God; heed my prayer. From the end of the earth I cry out to You, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I." The rock for Leah, and for her family, was a Judaism that would not break or yield even at the death of a young girl. [Adapted from Coles]

When you leave here tonight, take home the heartbreak of Leah's life. Take home, as well, its astonishing beauty. Take home the memory of a family that had no religious bashfulness -- only their hunger for God and their love for one another. "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." Take home with you the image of that rock, and the proud, strong family that reached for it. Take home with you the courage to say: I believe.

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