As many of you know, I am retiring in 16 days. Instead of a perek from Pirkei Avot, I thought I’d share with you verses from Torah that have helped guide me on my journey. Many of these verses were part of my sermons during last year’s High Holy Days.
Genesis 28: “16Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ 17Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’”
June 14, 2019
11 Sivan 5779
Shabbat Naso Numbers 4:21-7:89
I remember the first class of my Confirmation year which would have been in September 1969. Washington Hebrew Congregation had a new senior rabbi to go with the other two Rabbis Seaman and Weinberg. His name was Rabbi Joshua Haberman. I loved all three of these rabbis and all three were incredibly influential in my life’s decision to become a rabbi. The youngest of the three was Rabbi Joe Weinberg z”l. He was the “youth” rabbi and in my mind the “social justice” rabbi. He was energetic and visionary. He was always present for us as teens and introduced us to Shabbat, youth group and activism. Hearing him deliver sermon after sermon against the Vietnam War energized us to protest as well in any way we could. I miss him. Rabbi Bill Seaman z”l was the young rabbi before Rabbi Weinberg came along. He played piano, sang, smiled and engaged with us in religious school. He was also the rabbi who helped prepare me for my bar mitzvah at age 19. I will always love him for his gentleness and compassion.
Rabbi Haberman z”l brought with him a presence that was huge and powerful and strong. He transformed Washington Hebrew Congregation from a classical Reform congregation into a modern Reform congregation. He died not too long ago in September 2017. It was his question to our Confirmation class that made me think about something that I had never thought about before: God! He asked us to write about our idea of God. I had never really thought about God before, but that moment, that paper, was like Jacob waking up in the quote above and saying, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Jacob realizes that God is in this place and that God will be in all places on his life’s journey. I, too, have come to realize, understand, and embrace this.
I can’t tell you exactly what God is. No one can. We can talk about a power in our lives that comes from some unknowable place. We can see God in the compassion and caring and love that people do each and every day. We can feel God urging us to make the right choice or the best choice for ourselves in the decisions that face us. We can feel God’s presence in those extraordinary moments when we are present at the birth of a child or a simcha on life’s journey. We can also feel God’s comfort when standing at a graveside. “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
There are those who doubt or deny God. Often, they want empirical evidence which I can’t give them. Believing in a higher power is a matter of faith. What I can tell you though, that trying to narrowly define God as belonging to one faith or religion or culture is absurd, and God would either laugh or cry at that idea. God transcends Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any other religion. There are many paths to God and none of these paths is absolutely the right one. The idea that we fight wars over religion—and most wars throughout history were religious wars—is ridiculous. Judaism has its ideas on how to live life and those range from Reform to Orthodox. Christianity has dozens upon dozens of denominations each with its own nuance on the path to God. Islam has different ideas embedded in its religion as well. There is just no one right way and God, I believe, is just fine with that. My wish is that you are open to the idea of God in your life and whether it is all-knowing, all-powerful, and/or all-good is part of your journey.
Thank you Rabbi Haberman for asking the question. Thank you Rabbi Seaman for the joy you brought my life as a Jewish youth. Thank you Rabbi Weinberg for your passion about making the world a better place and encouraging me to do something about it.
When you light your Shabbat candles this evening light one and let its light help open your eyes to the amazing world around you. Light the other candle and let its light help guide you on your spiritual journey.
Rabbi Jon Adland