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AWE: A Sermon About God

Rabbi Laura Abrasley

Yom Kippur 5782
 

GOD. The Divine Presence. My Rock and my Redeemer. The Big G. This is MY sermon about God. A sermon advocating for God. Or maybe defending God. Perhaps a commercial for God?

I’ve wanted to write a sermon about God for several years. But it never seemed like the right time. I was new to the community or there was an important social justice concern or we were in the middle of a pandemic.

And then there’s that other issue: we progressive Jews do not like to think or talk about God. At least not in public. God talk belongs in Torah study or religion classes or Hebrew school. I bet many of you think God is a topic reserved only for clergy. Like you need an advanced degree to talk about God. Do you need an advanced degree to believe in God? And what exactly is belief anyway?

So I declared that this Yom Kippur I’m talking about God. Because after living through these last few years, I need God now more than ever. I need to believe God exists. Plays a role in my life. Life during the pandemic has not been simple. Let’s be honest, life before the pandemic wasn’t so simple.

And speaking of the pandemic, if I’m being completely transparent, I might be feeling a little bit angry at God. Or rather, super disappointed. And disconnected. What I thought I knew about God has been totally blown up in the last 19 months. But can I really blame God for the pandemic? Wasn’t that sort of our fault? I wonder if we missed a God warning sign. More likely lots of warning signs. We humans can be a little too focused on ourselves sometimes.

So this summer I did a little research about God. I spent a lot of time reading.

An unexpected paragraph stopped me in my tracks. From a recent book by Rabbi Kari H. Tuling, called Thinking About God.

Tuling writes:
“Theology defines what is possible in our lives. To give an example: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen ... And if you do not, then they cannot. This is not a form of magical thinking but a statement about the role of belief. [...]Your theology, in other words, sets limits -- expansive or restrictive -- of what is possible in your world.”1

Theology, at least according to Tuling, can help us construct meaning in our lives. That makes sense, at least for me. And, of course, theology is personal. Judaism teaches of a personal God, a God who wants to be in relationship with humanity. A God who wants to make a difference for us. With us.

We just have to figure out how - or if - we want to be in relationship. How to be open to the moments when miracles, when God, can happen.

In the introduction to her book, Tuling shares her eye-opening discovery of Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. In particular, his teaching that “Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith.”2

For Heschel, the path begins with acknowledging the wonder in the everyday, in the expected, and unexpected, in moments we sometimes forget to see, to truly experience. These moments happen everywhere. Let me take you to one.

I’m in my mid-twenties, having just ended a significant relationship. I’m on a 3-month outdoor learning program. We’ve been hiking and living in the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon for 2 weeks. The terrain is beyond beautiful. And the physical effort is stunningly difficult. Every single day.

In the middle of what seems to be nowhere and everywhere, we are given two days and one night alone. I set up my camp near a small cave with ample shade. The expanse goes on forever and ever. I sit for hours. The sun sets. I can almost hear it go down as the light changes. The night sky of moon and stars fills my vision.

I make my way towards my sleeping bag. I look back up and feel a peace, a comfort I had not known my entire life. Like the universe is holding me.

Another time.

Years later, I walk into my grandfather’s bedroom. He is dying. The room is dark. Most of the family is there. Our voices are barely audible over the awkward quiet in the room. A local cantor arrives, and we begin to sing, our collective voices overpower the silence.

The air in the room shifts. Something tangible changes, I can feel it. I think I should be frightened. Instead I feel both sad and happy at the same time.

My grandfather is going to die soon. But it will be okay. Or at least I somehow know, or think I know, that it will be okay.

The comfort that things “will be okay,” that the universe in all its wisdom could hold both my deep pain and my greatest joy stayed with me for weeks. My search for more moments of comfort began in earnest after that. I opened towards awe as a guiding light, and towards being in relationship with the One who causes me to see the wonder in the world.

Like any long-term relationship, me and God have had our differences. There are times when our connection feels frayed and unsustainable. I doubt God’s love. I feel abandoned, afraid and sometimes picked on. That’s when I run from God.

Kinda like Jonah, whom we meet in the Yom Kippur afternoon service’s Haftarah portion.

You remember Jonah. The prophet who runs from God’s request to help the people of Nineveh repent.

Jonah learns the hard way that it is actually quite difficult to run from God.

Jonah gets swallowed by a whale where he sort of has a change of heart.

Recently, in a gift to rabbis across the world, a Cape Cod fisherman was also swallowed whole by a whale. He told reporters:

“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,”

“I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys — they’re 12 and 15 years old.”

“I saw light, and [the whale] started throwing his head side to side, and the next thing I knew I was outside (in the water).” 3

Jonah saw light in the whale too, the light of prayer. He uses it to beseech God to save him.

For the fisherman, it sounds like a God moment.

But for Jonah, even after God saves him, Jonah remains skeptical.

Jonah cannot let himself feel the awe and experience the whale, as a miracle of God. Jonah’s anger and discomfort blinds him from feeling God’s compassion and comfort when he needs it most.

But God never doubts Jonah.

When Jonah doubts, God teaches.

When Jonah runs, God follows.

When Jonah cries out, God comforts.

There have been many times in my life when I have felt like Jonah, desperate to run in the opposite direction, unable to let myself lean into God. I find myself in the belly of the whale, reluctant to see the light forward, yet beseeching God to save me.

Do you ever feel like that?

I wonder if in our search for the grand gesture, we sometimes miss the point. Miracles are out there. God is out there. But we must find the inner strength to resist our nature to dwell in uncertainty, to explain away the possibility of God’s existence. And instead lift up our eyes and hearts towards God. To view the world with love and curiosity and compassion, to open up to the experience of God’s comfort even in our darkest hour.

Heschel explains:
“The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life … Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”4

For Heschel, awe changes everything. It moves us out of our head, our theology, our understanding of God as simply an idea. Awe activates our heart and soul and transforms God into experience, a sacred encounter possible in everything and everyone.

The first step is tuning in, and turning on, our Awe. Call it an AWE attitude adjustment. Not a magic switch for getting rid of the challenges in our world or our lives. But an alternative way, an AWESOME way, to see the world and our place within it.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Polish Hasid, is credited with a famous story about two pockets. He teaches, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, ... one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam "The world was created for me." (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer "I am but dust and ashes." (Gen. 18:27)5

As Bunim teaches, being human is hard and complicated. When we have doubts, we try to control the outcome. We sometimes think we are better off going it alone.

The notes remind us that God, our God, is a God of relationship, of experience, of compassion. That we are not alone. We are not powerless. And that just as we seek God, God seeks us.

A few weeks ago, struggling to find the right words to end this God talk, I wandered out to our community garden to clear my head.

I sat down and took a deep breath to open my soul to the miracle of summer’s bounty. I marveled at the scent of cherry tomatoes, the resilience of kale, and the unique orange color of the zinnias. I let the universe, I let God, hold me close, comfort me. Even in the midst of challenge, my hope returned. Yours can too.

Maybe Rabbi Bunim’s story is incomplete. I trust he will excuse my hubris as I suggest an additional set of words to carry with us. Make one more pocket and put inside a note that reads, “The world is AWESOME.”

When the world feels awful and you are ready to run

When you are in the belly of the beast filled with doubt and despair.

When you wonder how to live in a world that sometimes feels so difficult ...

Look up. Look out. Look in.

God will find you. Hold you. Comfort you.

The Divine encounter awaits.

Kein Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

----

  1. Rabbi Kari H. Tuling, Thinking About God: Jewish Views (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020), xvii.
  2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 77.
  3. https://www.capecodtimes.com/story/news/2021/06/11/humpback-whale-catches-michael-packard-lobster-driver-mouth-proviencetown-cape-cod/7653838002/
  4. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 75.
  5. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (Schocken Books, 1948),  249–250 (words inspired by a sermon written by Rabbi Joel Nickerson)
Wed, June 29 2022 30 Sivan 5782