Arguing With God
Yom Kippur 5763
When we were children, my brother and I adopted a pet guinea pig named Einstein. He had long hair, brown, white and tan splotches. He loved to crawl in our shirts and nibble at lettuce. He was a harmless, innocent animal. And then he died, after maybe, maybe 6 months.
Now they say guinea pigs are supposed to live at least a few years. Not out guinea pigs. Maybe six months.
When Einstein died, I was distraught. How could a compassionate God let such an innocent animal die so young, and animal which had never done any wrong, except maybe crawling too far up my shirt? How could he create an animal which would only live for six months? It seemed unfair, even crual.
I was deeply angry at God, shocked at his injustice, his cruelty. And eventually I got over it.
We sometimes think that religion demands that we passively submit to whatever decrees God sends our ways, that no matter when happens we are supposed to smile and say, this is for the best. And to be sure, there is a tradition of doing that even in Judaism, of finding the positive to everything, of trying to see every experience, every tragedy as somehow a gift from God.
But there is another approach, too, in our tradition. When three Angels visit Abraham and inform him of God’s plans to destroy the entire city of Sodom, Abraham is shocked and confronts God directly: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are 50 innocent people in the city? Will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike? Shall not the judge of the earth deal justly?”
Does God take it as impetuousness, as do Job’s friends when Job questions God’s ways? Is this a sign of rebellion, questioning God’s ways? No, God answers, gives in to his demand: “If I find fifty innocent people there, I will forgive the entire city for their sake.”
And Abraham keeps bargaining: Now what if there are just five missing from the 50? Will you forgive for forty five? Sure, I won’t do it for the 45.
Will you forgive for forty? Sure.
Now don’t get angry, but what about thirty? Sure.
If I may ask, how about twenty? Sure.
Don’t get angry, but how about ten? Sure.
What hutzpah! I reach my limit after giving Hannah three extensions on her bedtime and 1 extra story. It seems that God has no limit—Abraham just keeps pushing and pushing! Sadly, of course, there aren’t even ten innocent people, but the angels do warn Lot and his family so they can leave.
So why did God tell Abraham? Why did he send the three angels? Genesis 18:17 says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him? For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and posterity to walk in the ways of the lord by doing what is just and right.”
Abraham is the human who embodies what is just and right, he is the conduit of blessings for the rest of the world. I know Abraham will argue with me, and that’s why I am going to tell him. I want him to argue with me, I want him to stand up to me.
Ramban, the great 14th century French Talmudist and kabbalist, explains: if I don’t tell him, and give him the chance to argue with me, people will say that Abraham was cruel for not speaking up for his neighbors, and they won’t realize what a truly righteous person he was.
The opposite of Abraham in this regard is Noah, who when he found out that God was going to destroy the earth. God tells him to build a boat, he does. Get the animals in, okay. Take your family in and close the earth, okay. Everyone else on earth is going to die, okay.
He sounds righteous—he did exactly what god said. But the Torah calls the flood the “waters of Noah,” it blames him for the flood. Because he didn’t question God’s command. He never stood up to God, spoke up in defense of all the people and animals. God wants us to argue with him.
The great inheritor of this tradition in the modern era was the Hassidic rebbe, Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, the Kedushat Levi. It is said that on one Yom Kippur, he took some hair from a local woman who had been assaulted by kossaks. He said to God, place all of Israel’s sins on one side of the scale, place this lock of hair on the other. Doesn’t this suffering, this injustice, outweigh all of our sins?
A healthy relationship is an honest one. We say after the shema, adonai eloheychem emet, The lord our god is truth. God is not present in a relationship with dishonesty, with disingenuousness. Some people say “Hi, how are you,” and you know the right response is “fine.” That does not create a holy relationship. When we sit down with each other and ask “so how are you doing,” and show we want to take the time to find out, that is a holy relationship.
A healthy relationship with God is an honest one. If all we ever do is say the words we are supposed to say, pretend to feel the things we are supposed to feel, we are just giving lip service. Bahya Ibn Pakuda, author of Duties of the Heart, said rahmana liba ba’ey, God wants our hearts.
The Piazetsner rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman of Shapira, outlines a practice called hitbodedut, which is spontaneous outpouring to God. You find a space where you will be uninterrupted, and you will have a good chunk of time to be spontaneous with God. Maybe you start with some psalms, or just the phrase “Master of the universe” repeated over and over, or a melody. But then you try to hear and express what your soul yearns to say.
He likens our souls to a body buried beneath a pile of trash, with only the pinky sticking out. The more we wiggle the pinky, the more we free it from the rubbish pile. The rubbish pile is all the unimportant things, the trivial things, we get caught up in throughout the day, which obscures what is truly important. We get so caught up in these things we cannot hear the call of our soul, the urge to act in ways that are deeply good and generous. So he says we should just pour out spontaneously what we have to say to God.
There are a lot of words to say from the prayerbook, and they are well written and can be inspiring. But they are a jumping off point, a starting point to a conversation with God about the deepest things in life. What are my hopes for myself for the upcoming year? What if I were to die next year, how did I live my life? Where have I fallen short, and how do I feel about it? What are my hopes and dreams for the world, and where have I fallen into frustration?
As we journey through this Yom Kippur together, I invite you to take the time for this reflection,
For honest, heartfelt conversation with God.
I hope you have a meaningful day or contemplation, of prayer, of cheshbon nefesh, soul searching and repentance.
I want to talk a little about what our plans are this year for the synagogue. If you looked at our program flyer, and I hope you have, you will see that we have a new emphasis on programs. We have a lot going on.
First of all, we are working hard on providing services and programs to those of you who have been coming for decades and supporting the shul. Our primary focus here is weekly Shabbat services, as well as the daily minyan. I have also been teaching at daily minyan. In the mornings, we are studying the laws of interpersonal ethics, and in the evening minyan we are studying Mishnah.
We also are running the monthly Torah breakfast club, a Sunday morning bagel breakfast and class, which I am focusing this year on contemporary social issues; our next session will be focused on the controversy over Golden Farms. We are offering weekly classes during the daytime, including Hebrew, Halacha, and Jewish Ethics. We are running a monthly lunch-n-learn, at which I plan on opening up some theological issues, such as creation and Torah from sinai. We have a monthly Sisterhood meeting as well as Koffee Klatch, which are nice ways to spend time with each other during the week. We are also branching out, creating social opportunities, opportunities to have fun. We are offering Israeli dancing, Zumba, and outings to Broadway. We’re going to have a lot of fun together.
We are introducing a monthly Movie night. This past week we watched “Food, Inc.,” and we have a great lineup for the year. These are not just social; they are educational, covering serious social topics and Israeli topics.
We are also offering a couple service formats which break out a little from the traditional format. We are offering a monthly Dinner Under the Stars, a singalong-style Friday service in the round followed by a brief childrens’ story and then dinner. Some people have the impression this is only for young families; it’s not, it really is intergenerational—we count on the sisterhood ladies for a full house-- so please, come! We are also offering a free Traditional Friday Dinner, with a kabbalat Shabbat service led by Hazzan Schwartz. And we are starting a Singable Mussaf, which we hope will have everybody singing along enthusiastically; the music is available on our website.
We are also offering a rich array of programs for families with children. We will run a Kids’ Club during the movie night and Torah Breakfast Cub, so parents can bring their children, and both parents and children will have enriching experiences. We will be having holiday celebrations, such as the sukkot hootenanny, a barbeque and singalong, as well as the simhat torah family celebration. And we will be offering Tot Shabbat every other week, as well as a monthly “family ruach service,” a participatory service targeting families with elementary school children.
Finally, we have an exciting opportunity to run our new Hebrew School program at the Windsor Terrace Y, which will be an entry way for the families involved in their after-school program to become involved with FJC. We are breaking from the traditional classroom format, and planning a dynamic program housed at the Y on Prospect Ave, using art, drama, and music to teach jewish values and holidays. The program is Thursdays at 4:30 for children age 5-8, and it’s free for FJC family members, so please tell anyone you know who might be interested. We already have a number of students who were previously uninvolved with the synagogue. It is a great opportunity for outreach and growth.
This is going to be an exciting year at FJC, and I hope that each of you will continue to be a part of it.
Gmar Hatima Tovah.