God is missing - and they think WE did it!"
I always wonder if, on Rosh Hashanah, when we sit together in this shul, on such an auspicious night, what it is that we are looking for.
Let me tell a little story then that encapsulates what we are about tonight.
A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.
They boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.
The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?".
They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"
The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"
The younger brother, gasping for breath, replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time, dude. God is missing - and they think WE did it!"
If God is missing, AWOL, dead , then we have to face the music, like those two boys,”we did it.” So, we can’t let God be missing, or we are in trouble.
So, on this Rosh Hashanah, we are in on a game of hide and seek. God hides; we seek.
That is why we are here tonight, Rosh Hashanah, as we usher in our sacred Jewish year. We are all seeking the something which hits the spot, the something which fills the emptiness inside us human beings, and emptiness that chicken soup alone does not fill. We seek the sacred in life, we seek the Shechinah, God’s presence, we seek the ruakh hakodesh, the divine inspiration in our lives.
Many years ago, Dennis Prager used to host a weekly talk show, Religion on the Line. Some of you may remember it. It was on the graveyard shift of KABC, somewhere around Mid-night of Sunday to Monday. I appeared on it a few times and was always surprised to get feedback from people I knew who were up long enough to listen in.
The lead question by Prager for that evening was-
“In what way are you different from a non-religious person who is just as nice or good as you are?”
We were quite different that night - Catholic, Mormon, and Jew- but what was most astonishing is that the answers of the three of us were quite similar. Each one of us made a similar claim, that life is more than just being nice or doing good, that each of us seeks to find meaning and purpose in our life, and that religion serves to give us that deeper sense of purpose in our existence.
We spent our session trying to determine what was the great malaise of modernity. It all boiled down to one central concept-- Our entire sense of the Holy is missing. In our contemporary lives, there is nothing to help us distinguish beyn kodesh lekhol-between the holy and the profane. Modern life does not glorify the sanctification of the profane, and too much of what we see is designed to profane what is left of the sacred.
You know that for many years, there has been a travelling exhibition, last here is LA only a year or so ago, of preserved human bodies. It was purportedly a scientific endeavor to teach the public about the wonders of the human body. As Jews, we encourage the use of the bodies of those no longer living if it makes possible saving those who are still living but this went many steps beyond. Bodies were opened, hung, posed, as if this were an art exhibition. I intentionally never went to see it. I may be exaggerating but it is evocative of a far more evil version, of the use of the human body, for scientific purposes, in the hands of the sadistic Dr. Mengele at
Auschwitz. It turns out that I am not alone in this
perspective—there were accusations of body parts stolen from China, issues of
legality, and issues of morality leveled at this display.
I thought of the Jewish attitude to the body. The body, while alive, is sacred, to be cared for, kept clean, kept healthy. Yet, the body of those no longer alive retains its uniqueness. It becomes, ironically, tamei-impure-- yet the impurity is not due to evil—it is a rather a method to force us to properly care for and respectfully set aside the vessel which once held life, not to be abused or disposed of as yesterday’s newspaper.
In the absence of a sense of the sacred, museum exhibits of bodies at an exhibition is a matter of artistic choice. Some paint the body with oil, some sculpt in marble, and others “plastinate” cadavers. Its simply a choice of the medium.
Perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps there should be no sacred. Modern society was shaped by creative people like Thomas Edison, who declared “Religion is bunk” or Freud who considered it an “illusion”. Maybe we are letting bunk get in the way of usefulness.
But I stand here as a Rabbi. I represent some 3500 years of what
Edison called “bunk”.
I can not speak for Protestants, Catholics, Moslems, or Buddhists, I can only
speak for Jewish “ Bunk”. And I know, that our sense of the sacred means a lot
in this world.
America is a very Biblical nation at its roots, and when it has been at its best, it drew its political force not just from the secular European enlightenment, but also from our side of the Bible.
Our Torah speaks of freeing of slaves, of fair ownership of land, of free loans to help those in poverty pull themselves out, and of giving a part of one’s bounty to help others out.
It is our Torah which provided the theme for the Liberty Bell- Ukaratem Dror-Proclaim liberty throughout the land.
All of these great ideals are stamped with the declaration “ I am the Lord your God”. It is that sense of sanctity that gave power to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was that sense of sanctity that infused the thinking of a Lincoln as he justified the blood that had been shed because this nation could not be half free, half slave.
So where, shall we, as Jews, find our sacredness?
We, as Jews, have a very special perspective. It is that the realm of the sacred is not limited to what is above but must be grounded on what is here and now.
Our Jewish idea of the Holy -kadosh-- is not some weird mysterious halo in heaven- Rather holiness is to be found and made, here on earth, when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up. It is in the day to day, the nitty gritty, that we find our uplift. That has always been goal of our mitzvot, of our observances. It is what my teacher in Rabbinical school, Max Kadushin, called” normal mysticism”, the sense of the sacred that is found, not in the monastery nor in the Ashram, but in the mundane act of eating a toast with jelly. The Holy is to be found in the cell, in the molecule, in the elements of the universe which make us up. We express our connection to the sacred, as we appreciate “ the miracles that are with us everyday”, the sense of wonderment at the universe around us that comes with the mornings dawn. We consider God as “mehadesh bechol yom Maseh bereshit”—every day, the world is being created anew.
The old Kabbalists taught that every action, every mitzvah , affected the very universe. The doing of the good and the right repaired the universe and elevated the lowest of the lowly to the highest realms. They said we are created for Zorech gavohah—a higher purpose, to restore unity between God the creator and the world, the creation.
We are, by our teachings, forced to recognize the divine, the holy in our fellow human being. A sense of the divine, a sense of shared sanctity must guide us in our attitude towards every human being. Rabbinic tradition reminded us that even the most hardened criminal, who deserves and should have punishment meted out, is still not to be debased in the eyes of his fellow, and he is still in the image of God.
From a Jewish perspective, each of us is invested with inherent holiness. We are of great value and therefore, must care for our selves with dignity, with respect, with love. We therefore have the obligation to keep physically well and mentally well, to avoid serious physical danger, to avoid serious mental danger. We are not a curiosity to be hung in display.
There is a debate in the Talmud, about How many Mitzvot there. It starts with the count of 613 commandments and then chips away at that number, to find what is the most essential distillation of all of the Torah. The debate whittles down from 613 to 18 to 11 to 6 to 3 and to 2. The ritual commands, of ritual purity, of sacrifice, of kashrut, are ignored. Finally, it is all boiled down to one single idea, "in the words of Amos,"Dirshuni vihyu"--God calls to us with the words, "Seek me and live." If we indeed learn to seek and see God's presence in our fellow, in ourselves, in the world about us, then our lives take on meaning, take on depth and purpose, then we truly find life. God is not missing, and we aren’t the one’s who lost him, and we are not in trouble like the two mischievous boys. On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed with richness of heart and spirit, as well as with material richness. Amen.