Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Ki Tisa
Have you ever had one of those moments when you must take a deep breath and exclaim in exasperation, “God, I don’t get it (or worse … adding all sorts of expletives)?” Even the most devout of acclaimed atheists have these moments; they just don’t use the word “God.” As I grew up studying history, I ran into many of these moments. Vicariously, I ached, as I read the stories of those whose lives ripped at the seams because of war, oppression, and the forces of nature gone awry. It took many years for me to figure out that there existed a direct correlation between the severity of the trials people face, and the decibel level of their cries that there must not be a God.
Religion teaches that in times of crisis, one should find solace in the love of the Creator. There is a sardonic line that Jews point to: “The world says that we are God’s chosen people. God … choose someone else next time!”
Certainly, we are not the only people in history who have so deeply suffered that we have to question the purpose, role, even the existence of a God. Having had the blessing/challenge of counseling with survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust), the September 11th terror attacks, bombings in Israel, and myriads of less public and deeply personal trauma, I came to understand that it was not that people lacked faith. They were incredibly angry at the God in whom they professed not to believe. Despite their words of resolution and resignation, they still made it through each day, and showed up for their scheduled conversations. The trauma put a fence around their faith, it didn’t destroy it. People in trauma are often just too traumatized to be able to access faith, and default to the answer … it does not exist. And still … they keep showing up.
Eight years ago, on the holiday of Purim, my first wife died of a heart attack. I do not know if my training helped me through maintaining a connection with faith, or whether my faith helped me maintain an awareness of my training. I do know that even in the hardest moments, often dispassionately (and admittedly often awkwardly), I found myself able to pull things back together. I never questioned why God did this to me, though, I still sometimes get sucked in to asking why God did it to Cindy. It is in these moments that I realize my own failures in faith. God does not do these things, or at least, no God I can believe in does these things. As scripture teaches, the Prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life, having been zealous representing “God’s righteousness.”
Then a powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before God, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire came the kol d’mama … the still small voice.” God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” When Elijah answered that he was being zealous for God, God responded that he should go back to from where he came and get back to work.
We pin a lot of blame on God. In blaming God, we stifle ourselves and somehow forget that we are still alive and presented with opportunities for blessing every day. God is not in the fire.
This week’s Torah portion teaches this same lesson from a slightly different perspective. Using the character of “God” as the metaphor for pre-determination, Moses and God argue over the golden calf. God is angry and threatens to destroy the people Israel. In one of the great soliloquies of Biblical literature (Exodus 32:11 et. seq), Moses implores to God’s face, excoriating God for freeing Israel from Egypt only to kill everyone in the wilderness. He goes further to ask how God could be distrustful, promising to make of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a great nation and then destroying them to start over with Moses. Moses changes God’s mind. Standing up for what is right … reminding God of the blessing of integrity and faith … this is what saved Israel.
In our High Holy Day liturgy, we read that everything that will happen for the next year is pre-determined on Yom Kippur. The prayer then goes on to tell us that we have the power to change any such decree if we only pay attention. The message of the day is not to fear the potential decree of destitution, but to be in awe of the potential that life brings us each day. In every engagement with life, we have the potential to find blessing.
So, it snowed on Purim … the country is covered in snow. Every year, on Cindy’s yahrtzeit, it snows. Sometimes on the secular date and sometimes on the Hebrew date; you can bet that it will snow. Snow was important to her … for a host of reasons– it was very important. It snows every year on at least one of these dates. She has not left this world, nor has anyone we love who has passed on physically … however they left us, we still hold them, and we hold onto the Source from where they came. I am reminded that we are connected with forces way beyond what we can fathom, never mind, explain. The confluence of the Torah portion, the holiday, the yahrtzeit, and the many pieces of our tradition that come to mind on this day; each reminds me that God is not in the earthquake or the fire.
Whatever God is, it is in a faith beyond what I know or can begin to explain and that helps me appreciate the power of divinity in which we all share. It allows us to love the intangible. It allows us to move past the moments of “I don’t get it.” It allows us to restore ourselves and seek blessings, even in the midst of the greatest of challenges. The fire symbolizes the spiritual challenges that we face. The fire does not consume our spirit any more than it consumed the bush that first called to Moses at the beginning of his quest for righteousness. He had to move past his fear of the fire to experience the blessing.
Chaka Khan may or may not have been speaking about the pursuit of God’s embrace, but as I heard this song this morning, it was the only message I could take, “Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall, just to be with you, I’d gladly risk it all. Through the fire, through whatever, come what may, for a chance at loving you; I’d take it all the way … right down to the wire, even through the fire.” God was not in the fire.
With it all, I know that the blessing of life and the opportunities that it affords me are absolutely tied to the lives who touch mine, and to the forces describable only as divine that bring us together. Shabbat Shalom.