Friday, September 8, 2017

Ki Tavo: God. And You?

Let's spend a little time talking about God. One of the things that I, as a rabbi, hear most often is that we don't talk about God enough in Judaism. Or at least not
in the Conservative Movement. Sure, we pray to God all the time. But do we TALK about God? Or perhaps the question should really be, vulnerably- and intimately-speaking, do we talk about our own, personal, unique, relationships with God? With the High Holidays around the corner, and with some seemingly conflicting God-references in our Torah portion, it seemed to me like the perfect time to chat about the Creator of the Universe. So let's start with an interesting question: Where is God?

Our parashah, Ki Tavo, knows the answer. It begins by instructing the Israelites that, when they enter the Holy Land (in the very near future), they are going to have
to bring sacrifices to God. The text tells us: "you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil... put it in a basket, and go to the place where God has chosen to cause God's Name to dwell" (Deut. 26:2). What does that second half of the verse even mean? God's Name is a "thing"? It has its own address? The Torah seems to be saying that God doesn't live there - in the Temple - it's "just" the place where God's Name resides. But then later in this same section, we are told that the priest puts the basket "in front of the altar of Adonai, your God." (v. 4) And soon after, the text adds, "You shall leave it (the offering) before Adonai, your God,  and bow low before Adonai, your God." (v. 10) So is God in the Temple or not?!?

To confuse us further, our parashah adds, just a few verses later, that the Israelite worshiper should add this blessing: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel..." (v. 15)
So God is IN the Temple, but not in the Temple, also in heaven, and only God's Name dwells in the Temple, but God is everywhere. Good, I'm glad we cleared that up. I guess one thing that may be comforting about these mixed messages is that our ancient ancestors were as ambivalent about God as many of us are today. Sometimes we feel God's close, intimate presence... and sometimes God is as far away as can be; if we even feel that God exists at all. Our High Holiday liturgy (also arriving in the very near future...) reflects this tension, when we first sing "Ki Anu Amecha, v'Atah Eloheinu" - "You are our God and we are Your people," which exuberantly lauds our close bond with Adonai! Then, on the very next page, we beat our chest and declare we have sinned and are far, far removed from the Divine. Back and forth we go, in an endless roller-coaster ride of emotions.

I began by asking about the personal relationships we each have - or don't have - with God, and I want to come back to that. What complicates this so much is that it's deeply personal and hard to change. If you feel God's Presence in your life,
you just do! And if you don't, it's incredibly hard, I would even say impossible, for anyone else to persuade you, or to somehow prove something incontrovertible about God. But I would also say that faith can be like any other muscle in our body. If you don't exercise it, you almost don't even know it's there. So have you tried flexing your faith muscles lately? Have you asked yourself these challenges belief questions, and opened yourself up to the possibility that you COULD have a relationship with God? In our parashah, we get lost in all the location-confusion, but at its core, our text is about gratitude. We are thankful to be alive, to be in good health, and to have sustenance for which we can be SO appreciative. And sometimes our utterance of "thanks" can be directional - TO God - and sometimes it's just expressed out loud, to no one in particular. As you prepare for this High Holiday season, try a little light stretching of a "muscle" you might not have used in a while. Is there room in there to talk about God, and maybe even to say a prayer or two? I guess we won't know until you try. It's time to start warming up...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Stebbes87 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Gila Brand on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris23 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sumita Roy Dutta on Wikimedia Commons

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