Encounters With the Divine

on Thursday, 08 December 2016.

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5777

Encounters with Gd Part I

Shanah Tovah, a good year to everyone. I am glad to see so many people here on this awesome and holy day. Our tradition tells us that on this day, the gates of repentance are open, that everyone is judged for good or for ill, that this is the day when we are most able to restore our connection with Gd and with each other. While modern Jews tend to view those ideas as more metaphorical than actual, it is still one of the few days that we devote almost completely to religion, to prayer and self-reflection.

Hopefully we are here because this service helps us in some way. Hopefully we are here because we find some meaning in our religion. But what is it that religion is supposed to do for us? 

Some say that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does that mean? Perhaps it means this: Religion supports the afflicted, those who are poor, unhappy, or ill, and criticizes the comfortable, those who are rich and happy. And why does religion criticize them? Because they are so happy. They are not made uncomfortable by the misery of others. If they were, they would work harder to end the poverty of others. If the rich were good people, they would be miserable because of all of the suffering in the world. 

Now, if that were were really the meaning of that saying, it would mean that according to religion, everyone should be miserable. Not a very encouraging attitude, and not likely to bring the crowds in. 

In fact, that is not what that quote means at all. Religion is not something that condemns the rich and neither is it something that helps the poor. Yes, most religions encourage charity, and in other ways help the poor. Those are, in a sense, side affects of a religious worldview. But those are not really the problems with which religion deals.

The problems that religion sets out to solve are more along the lines of: "Who are we? Who should we be? How do we become something more than we are? Why do we exist? What should we think about death? Is there meaning to existence, or are our lives ultimately meaningless? And if there is meaning, what is it? What kind of lives should we be living?

Religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. People who are comfortable are people who ignore these vital questions, who are able to pretend to themselves that the important thing is being promoted, or making money, or looking fabulous, or being famous or powerful. Those people should be afflicted. Afflicted by being reminded of the important questions. They should be reminded what matters in life. That is what it means to afflict the comfortable. And to comfort the afflicted means to provide answers to those questions.

I am not criticizing people who work hard, who buy nice clothes, or play games. No one can constantly focus on the big questions. There is work to be done. There are dinners to cook, floors to sweep, bills to pay. And we deserve to take a little time off, to enjoy ourselves, watch a little TV. But we cannot always look away either. There are times when we are forced to confront these great questions of meaning and existence.

When a baby is born, when you realize your child is almost an adult, when you are struck by the almost unbearable beauty of the world. When two people decide to commit to one another forever. When someone you love is seriously ill, or close to death. These are the times when we cannot ignore the big questions. These are the times when we need to know what it all means. These are the times when our hearts are sorely afflicted. It is not a coincidence that these are the times we connect to our religion.

Because religion has an answer to all of those questions. That's right. Religion will answer all of the questions of your inmost soul. That's the good news. The bad news is, the answer is even more difficult than the questions. Here is the answer:


The answer is Gd. Not an old man sitting on a throne in the clouds. Not a superman who grants wishes. But the Answer. The Giver of meaning. The Way to fulfillment. What that word 'Gd' means, I can't tell you because each person must understand Gd personally, his or her own self, or not at all. Gd is not a thing, not a part of the world. To even partially understand Gd means to have an encounter with Gd, and once you do, there are no more words.

Religion is here to afflict the comfortable. To remind you of those questions. Why are we here? What does it mean? How do we create meaningful lives? The modern answer, the scientific answer, the atheistic answer is that it doesn't mean anything. There is no fulfillment, the atheist might say, except for basic biological needs.

But that answer doesn't feel right. It doesn't pass the smell test. I feel deep within myself that there is more to life than eating and sleeping, that there is, somewhere, meaning. And so have the vast majority of human beings since there were human beings. And so do you. Which is why you are here, hoping that religion will give you the meaning of existence.

It will. Religion will comfort the afflicted. Religion will give you the answer to all the questions of meaning. The purpose of religion is to reveal Gd to you, and for you to reveal your heart to Gd. Religion will not do it for you. It will train you to do it yourself. 

Coming to synagogue and saying prayers is not having an encounter with Gd. It is an exercise that will prepare you for your encounter with Gd. The Torah is your map of the way. It guides you with hints and signs. It will give you directions, but they are not easy to understand. They are hidden in stories and in commandments. We listen to our stories again and again. Sometimes the Torah is like a lens for your eyes, and the path suddenly opens before you.

There is a story we tell every year at this time. It is one of a million clues to the answer. The Binding of Isaac. Gd tells a man, Abraham, to take his son, his only son, the son that he loves, to a place that will be revealed, and offer him up there as a sacrifice. The man proceeds with alacrity. He wakes up early and starts off with his son and two servants.

Already we have more questions. Why does he go? Why doesn't he protest? Why does he go quickly? How does he know where to go? What kind of relationship does he have with Gd, that this story can make any kind of sense?

We know that Gd has already, in almost exactly the same words, told him to leave his home. And he left his home. Did this make him rich or famous? Did it give him land or treasure? No. Abraham is only moderately successful. The only thing he has gotten out of it is that very son he is now told to sacrifice.

Promises were made. And yes, a miracle happened. The man and his wife had a child, although they were too old to have children. Gd made promises that were to be fulfilled through this boy. Kings will come from you. Your descendants will be as the sand of the sea, as the stars of the sky. This beautiful land will belong to your offspring. People will bless themselves in your name. All of that will come through his son. 

And then Gd tells Abraham to sacrifice this son, and Abraham takes Isaac to a mountain and binds him there to the altar. Why does he do it? What does Abraham know about Gd? Having encountered Gd before.

Abraham knows this: He knows that Gd may demand that you leave your home, and your family. Gd may demand that you find your own way. Abraham also knows that Gd is just. He knows that Gd has the power to create and to destroy. And that Gd is the giver of meaning. Gd has promised him that it will all make sense in the end, even if that end will come long after Abraham is dead. Abraham believes it, because he has encountered Gd before.

So he takes his son and travels to the mountain. To find the answer. To find meaning. When Gd told him to leave his home in parasha Lech L'cha, Abraham didn't know where he was going. Somehow he ended up in the right place. Here too, Gd will not tell him where he is going. Gd doesn't tell him because you cannot know until you are there, but as soon as you are there, you know it.

And what does Gd ask Abraham to give up? His future. His love. His son. Except that is not what Gd asks him to give up. We know that, at the end of the story, Gd will not ask Abraham to give up his son, because fulfillment, meaning, peace, joy, none of that can come from such an action. 

Abraham is afflicted, and Gd will give him the answer to all his questions. Gd answers by manifesting Himself on that mountain. Gd is the angel and Gd is the altar. Gd is the knife. Abraham has his final and most intense encounter with Gd there on the mountain, and it will last the rest of his life. 

Every person who encounters Gd changes, and never returns to the person she was before. Abraham never goes back to Avram, Sarah never returns to Sarai. The two of them will never go back to Ur. Once Gd tells you to leave your home, you have a new home.

What Gd asks Abraham to give up on Mt. Moriah is his self, the self that he thought he was. The self he was before the encounter with Gd. The self that was afflicted with questions and doubts. Abraham binds his whole life on the altar, and he gives it up to Gd. The knowledge you thought you had, the person you thought you were, prepare to abandon it completely in the encounter with the Divine.

Abraham offers it up, and Gd says now I know that you are completely willing to abandon everything for an encounter with Me. To encounter Gd is to change, and Abraham is changed. What do we make of the ram, discovered in the bushes? The rabbis did not believe that it was an ordinary ram, that just happened to be caught in the bushes. They said it was created directly by Gd for this purpose, in the last moments of creation.

The difference between the two sacrifices, Isaac and the ram, is critical. To sacrifice Isaac is to sacrifice yourself, to give up the essence of your being. Sacrificing the ram is giving up what is external, what comes and goes. Sometimes we mistake the two. In Victor Frankl's book Man in Search of Meaning he deals with the question of what can be taken from a person. What is internal and what is external? What is the self, and what is other? Frankl's possessions, his profession, his home, his name-- everything that he thought was an essential part of him was taken away. And it all turned out to be external.

Abraham does sacrifice Isaac on the altar. He sacrifices himself. He sacrifices that self that is separate from Gd, the self that does not know. Because an encounter with Gd forces you to deal with the part that is internal. What is really you. Your love, your hate, your goodness, your true face. Offer it up on the altar. Give it to Gd. Let Gd wake you up.

When we see the world in this way, suddenly a lot of Judaism begins to make sense. Take the book of Job. Job looses everything external. He looses his flocks, his wealth, even his health. He looses his children, and he cries out to Gd, what did I do that you are punishing me in this way? His friends come and tell him that he must have sinned to be suffering this way.

This is a childish view of religion. You are a good person, so you will be rich, you'll be lucky, you'll be happy. Bad things will never happen to you. Job is one of those comfortable people who needs to be afflicted. He is happy, he is kind, he is rich. He is content to think that things will continue along like this forever. He is content not to face the bigger questions of life. He is ripe for affliction. And affliction is what he gets.

When his friends tell him to confess his sin and Gd will reward him again, they are wrong. At the end of the book, Job gets his true reward for his goodness. He has an encounter with Gd. It changes him. It changes him completely. He no longer expects to be wealthy because he is a good person. He no longer expects to be healthy because he is kind. He no longer thinks that his behavior will keep tragedy from his door. He knows Gd. And that is his reward.

All of Torah is about the radical change that comes when human beings encounter Gd. Our story, the Binding of Isaac, is only one example of this ancient text giving us this message. Abraham encounters Gd, and Gd says to him "Now I know that you are ירא אלקים אתה," now I know that you are a Gd-fearing person, a person who is able to open himself up to Gd, "because you have not withheld your son"-- meaning yourself, your inmost self--, your love, "from Me."

Abraham names that place ײַ יִרְאֶה, which means Gd will see, or perhaps, Gd will realize, because, the Torah tells us, on the Mountain of the Eternal, Gd will be seen. So to see Gd and to be seen by Gd are the same thing. All actual life, as Martin Buber said, is encounter. To find true meaning, to answer the crucial questions, to live our real lives, we must encounter the ultimate Truth of the universe.

Abraham is the father of the Jews because he got an answer to those important questions. Who am I? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? What should I do? What does it mean? Abraham was afflicted, and Gd comforted him.

If you are asking yourself those big questions, that's good. One of the reasons we have the Days of Awe is because people don't ask those questions enough. If they keep you up at night, that's good. You are afflicted, and religion will comfort you. 

But if you never ask those questions, you are a little too comfortable. I want to remind you to ask them. I want to afflict you. The answer to those questions is Gd. If you open your heart to Gd, Gd will see you. If you do not withhold your inmost self, if you are willing to look beyond everything external-- yes, Gd will see you. And that encounter is the answer to all your questions.

Religion is a way of dealing with the big questions of life. There is an answer. There is meaning. Follow the map. The map of Torah. Climb the mountain. Build the altar. Offer yourself up. The Answer is waiting for you.

May you be sealed in the book of life, the book of questions, and also the book of answers. Shanah Tovah tikoteivu.