VERSES ABOUT GOD
EREV ROSH HASHANAH
SEPTEMBER 9, 2018
Rabbi Jon Adland
I started thinking about what I wanted to speak on during these last, officially working high holy days last winter. I did some math and calculated I’ve written and delivered over 120 High Holy Day sermons since I was ordained in 1982. Some were good and some not so much. Only once did my editor-in-chief Sandy say you need to start one over and that was the one I delivered on Erev Rosh Hashanah 2001 just a few days after 9-11. I had already written one sermon that got thrown away in order that I could address the events consuming all of us. She said I missed the mark. I had two days for a rewrite and she was correct; the second one was much better.
I also noticed that over the years my sermons got longer and longer. When I realized that I was getting bored delivering my own sermons, I knew it was time to tighten things up and shorten the message. Now, to be fair, my lengthy 25-28-minute sermons were no match for the rabbi of my youth’s 45-60 minute High Holy Day sermons, but I really didn’t need to compete with him and if I was bored….
So, no fear in this final official year that I am going to say everything I’ve always wanted to say since I was ordained. In fact, many months ago, I decided that I wanted to approach these sermons differently. In the past I would find subjects to write on and then find the Jewish thinking that went with the subjects. This year I’ve decided to speak about my favorite Torah or rabbinic verses that have inspired and motivated me on my rabbinic journey. I want to understand how our sages used and wrote about these verses and how they became some of my go to words over the decades. I’ve divided them into four categories, but those categories derive from the verses I’ve chosen: God, Social Justice, Torah and us, and blessing and community. As I did last year, I will place them in the service where they fit best, rather than as I did for most of my career after the Torah/Haftarah readings. And, I promise, they won’t be the longest sermons I’ve ever given.
The very first verse I put down on my list comes from Genesis 1.כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָֽם:
27And God created man in God’s image, in the image of God Adonai created him; male and female God created them.
The Etz Hayyim Torah commentary writes, “Every human has irreducible worth and dignity, because every human is fashioned in the image of God. The Second Commandment forbids fashioning an image of God. We do not need one because every person represents the divine. ‘A human king strikes coins in his image, and every one of them is identical. God creates every person with the die of the first human being, and each one is unique’ (BT Sanh. 38a).’” We all know that no two people are alike. Even identical twins aren’t exactly the same. It is the uniqueness of every human being that is exciting.
Each person brings to the moment that which is special. I’ve always believed that every person has a creative aspect. Sometimes it takes a long time to find it. Sometimes it is apparent when we are very young, but it is there. I’ve always believed that every person can make a difference in the world with their God given gifts.
The “B” part of the verse is just as important, but often forgotten when we focus on “B’tzelem Elohim—created in God’s image.” The “B” part of the verse teaches us that God created males and females at the same time. Yes! We have been taught that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, but that happens in Genesis 2, not 1, which is a different creation story. In our verse in Genesis 1 it reads, “in the image of God Adonai created him; male and female God created them.” Men and women were created at the same moment—equal!! The next chapters may proclaim a sense of subservience of woman being taken from man or a sense of cunning when she convinces Adam to eat the fruit, but in the beginning there is equality—an equality we need to return to or affirm in our present day whether in the workplace, the home, the world at large—wherever.
I believe that liberal Judaism demands equality between men and women. Whether it is ritual, study, leadership or clergy, women and men can and should have the opportunity to fill the same roles and, I will add, to receive equal pay for equal work.
There is a beautiful poem on p. 32 of “The Women’s Torah Commentary” that concludes with the Shekinah saying, “Be pure of heart and always know you are created in My image. Then she awoke woman.”
Even in our equality with each other, how do we stand in our relationship with God? In Psalm 8, beginning with verse 4, we read:
4When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and stars that You set in place,
5what is man that You have been mindful of him,
mortal man that You have taken note of him,
6that You have made him little less than divine,
and adorned him with glory and majesty;
In another place we are told that dust we are and to dust we shall return, but here in Psalm 8, we are elevated to a “little less than divine.” Seeing us almost “god-like” doesn’t seem to be a problem with the psalmist here. The Jewish Study Bible writes, “the discomfort of depicting humans as too God-like—a discomfort (is) surely not shared by this psalmist.” If we are created in God’s image, it doesn’t make us God and or look like God, but it does say to us that we have responsibilities as the most important creation in God’s world and we are expected to act as God would want us to act in our lives each and every day.
Thus, if we are created in God’s image and males and females are created simultaneously and equally, and we are placed just a little lower than angels amongst God’s creations, then we are also commanded in Leviticus 19:2:
קְדשִׁים תִּֽהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
“You shall be holy for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.”
Rashbam says, “Because there are so many commandments in this section, they are introduced by an exhortation to the Israelites to make themselves holy and observe.” Etz Hayyim suggests, “that holiness is most easily achieved in the context of a community. It is difficult for a person to live a life of holiness without others.” Abraham Joshua Heschel adds, “Judaism is an attempt to prove that in order to be a man, you have to be more than a man, that in order to be a people, you have to be more than a people. Israel was made to be a holy people.”
We are commanded to be holy. Holiness is a significant part of being created in God’s image. Living a life of holiness lifts us up to a little lower than the angels and God. Despite my failings at times: words said I couldn’t take back like an arrow going forth from a bow, I have tried to make this relationship with God paramount in my life. As I’ve written many times before, I see God as at the head of my life’s journey, not as an all-powerful idea that leaves me with no options. I see myself and others as created in God’s image. I see women and men as equal partners in this experiment we call humanity. I believe that aspiring to be holy as God is holy motivates me each and every day to be and do my best.
I like the idea Jacob expresses when he wakes from his dream of angels going up and down a ladder and realizes that “God is in this place and I, I did not know it.” He is surprised and delighted with God’s presence. The midrash teaches us that the angels going up the ladder had accompanied Jacob on his journey out of Canaan. Now that he was leaving Canaan those angels were returning to God and there were new angels descending the ladder to accompany Jacob. God was in this place with Jacob and now he knows they would continue to be with him.
The wonder of walking with God on my journey is powerful for me. I have felt God’s presence on my journey from city to city and congregation to congregation. I have felt God’s presence in the joys and sorrows of my life. I have felt God’s presence when things are going great or when my life is challenged. God is there with me.
And I see God working in the lives of people around me. Whether it is watching a student after months of study rise to the occasion at a bat mitzvah, seeing exhausted members look back at a Habitat house and think that she put up that wall or he hung a door, or watching an “aha” moment during study when a puzzling verse or Jewish idea suddenly becomes clear. God is in this place. Holiness is present, and we are a little lower than God.
There is one more moment in Torah that has always had a profound effect on me. In the book Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s face as a reward for all the hard work Moses did for God in the preceding chapters following the disaster of the Golden Calf. The passage reads:
“18Moses said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” 19And God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. 20But,” God said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” 21And Adonai said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock 22and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. 23Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
Rashi thinks this is the moment when God taught him the prayers. Rashbam sees this moment as an affirmation of the covenant between God and God’s people. Ramban sees this moment as enabling Moses to understand God’s goodness better than any other human. Etz Hayyim believes that this moment is an encounter with the reality of God when we experience God’s goodness in the world.
When I read this passage, I feel the peace of God’s presence as the glory of God passes by me and through me. I felt this once, a long time ago, when I stood at the top of the mountain believed to be Sinai watching the sun rise. I felt this moment under the chuppah with Sandy. I felt this moment at the birth of our children and at their namings, bar/t mitzvahs, and their weddings. I’ve felt this when our children have achieved and when my wife has achieved, and moments in my life when I knew I did what was right and good. God was in these moments, these places, reminding me that you shall be holy, that your work at times can bring you a little lower than the angels, and that being created in God’s image brings with it great challenges and responsibilities.
My hope and my prayer are that during these holy days maybe you can find a moment when something profound happened in your life and think about it as being a moment when God’s glory passed before you or through you. I have to believe that all of us have had a moment like that, but sometimes we just pass it off. Think about it and reframe it. Realize that God is in this place and every place. We are all created in God’s image. You don’t have to be deeply spiritual or observant to feel this presence. It can happen when you bring food for the hungry, hammer a nail at Habitat, give someone a smile, say thank you, welcome a stranger, pick up some trash, make a difference, love yourself, and embrace the world.
In Leviticus 19, it says, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” Holiness isn’t a given. It doesn’t say “you are” holy but “shall be.” We have to achieve it through the way we live our lives. My hope in my life is that I will always strive for holiness by remembering the words I say have power and the acts I do can be transformative. My hope is that God will always see me as a little lower than the angels and that I will not disappoint. My hope is that being created in God’s image will inspire me. My goal is to stand on the rock where Moses stood some day and feel God’s presence pass through me.
Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.