Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!

Nearly two centuries ago an early Hasidic master told his disciples the following story: “One day my grandson David was playing hide and seek with a friend. David had hidden himself well, and sat waiting for his playmate to find him. After what seemed an unusually long time, David gave up and came out of his hiding place. His friend was nowhere to be found. Realizing that either his friend had left, or had not even looked for him from the beginning, he began to cry. David came running to me, tears flowing from his eyes. Holding my beloved grandson, I said: ‘My dear David, God says the same thing: “I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’”

I first heard this story many years ago, and it has long resonated with me. As I begin this, my thirtieth year in the rabbinate, I find myself reflecting back on the time I have spent over nearly three decades talking with and listening to congregants, colleagues, friends and neighbors.  While the themes of my thousands of conversations have varied, one constant has been God. Some people approach me, and other clergy and teachers, believing we must have the answers. We don’t. Others, scarred by life, feel certain there is no God. For some the subject is closed. Sometimes the opening sounds like this: “Rabbi, I’m not religious, but . . .” and then the conversation goes in one of a number of directions.  In preparing for the rabbinate I was not trained to hear confession, but there are times when it seems like that is a role I am called upon to play. Believe me, I am happy to listen . . . I’m still looking to have coffee with many of you, but please remember just as I don’t hear “confession,” I also can’t grant absolution.  That wasn’t a power they gave me at Ordination.  They gave me a copy of the Rabbi’s manual, a certificate declaring me a Rabbi, and their best wishes. At bedsides in hospitals, in houses of mourning, during times of crisis, I don’t have the answers to ultimate questions. I cannot judge another’s pain or loss. I’m not God’s customer rep. Last Winter I wrote an article in our Temple Bulletin in which I recounted a conversation with a member of our congregation in which, at one point I responded “Don’t Get Stuck On God.” I’ve heard more feedback from you to that article than on almost anything else I have written or taught in 29+ years as a Rabbi. Like many of you, I’m a seeker, and the many responses I received to my articles taught me that I’m not alone.  You have taught me at least as much as my teachers in rabbinic school about being a rabbi, maybe more.  I’m serious about that, and I still have much to learn.  I have spent my life asking questions I believe lead to paths worth exploring. My seeking has taught me not to pretend I have concrete answers! And I have learned that the journey is enriched through sharing it with others who have their own questions, certainties and doubts.

Gathering together here on this first morning of the New Year reminds us that we are on a shared journey. We come with different questions, concerns, and needs. We come with different dreams for the year before us.  Yet we come together, with our collective tapestry of beliefs, doubts, hopes, fears, dreams and so much more.  Travelling together through the year ahead I know we can find rich nourishment and strength in our tradition’s guidance and insights for the journey, even as we drink differently from that wellspring. In words some of you have heard me quote before, Rabbi Harold Kushner (who will speak here on October 14th) once wrote on the subject of communal prayer, “Prayer is not a matter of coming to God with our wish list and pleading with [God] to give us what we ask for. In congregational worship . . . I have come to believe that the congregating is more important than the words we speak . . . We don’t go to church or synagogue at a stipulated time because God keeps “office hours.” We go because that is when we know there will be other people there, seeking the same kind of encounter we are seeking.”  Whether it is for prayer, learning, a communal meal or cultural event, to join in an act of tikkun Olam, when we gather here at our home at Temple Shalom this is the landscape upon which our journeys intersect, and we can be enriched by sharing our journeys.

In this morning’s Torah reading we read about another journey, that of Abraham and his son, Isaac.  Like our journeys, theirs was a journey filled with a variety of emotions. We read this same story each and every Rosh Hashanah and I continue to see new dimensions each year. While studying in Jerusalem this summer, I found a different piece of the story calling to me.  As we read, God calls to Abraham, who responds Hineini – “I am here.” God then says, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Notice: Abraham raises not even one single question! Rather, he responds in the form of action, as we read, “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.” It is as if Abraham knows exactly what God wants, and without question he hastens to it. His hurried departure from the family home early the next morning speaks of a state of preparedness and confidence. Most of us would have so many questions! His faith is hard for many of us to understand, let alone emulate. I believe that today, we offer up, individually and collectively, our own Hineini, even if it is different from that spoken by our Patriarch Abraham. His Hineini spoke of trust and certainty.  He was ready to do what God called him to do, without a moment’s hesitation. We modern Jews approach this differently. We question, we discuss, we analyze, we Google! Let us remember that we have our rich heritage to help us along the journey. The Shofar this morning calls us to continue the journey and the search, for it is along the journey that we grow.

During my study this summer, a huge part of our focus was precisely on the challenge of faith in our complicated modern world.  Our teacher, Moshe Halbertal led us on an exploration of the meaning of faith, in Hebrew, emunah. Some of you may be familiar with Moses Maimonides’ 13 Statements of Faith, each of which begin with the words, Ani ma’amin b’emunah sheleyma – “I believe with complete faith…” What is emunah sheleyma – can any of us really “believe with complete faith?” Moshe urged us to remember that there is a difference between believing and knowing. “Faith,” he taught, “is not to claim that a thing is certain. It is to claim that something is possible and then to act, to live based on this hypothesis.” He reminded us that if we look carefully at uses of emunah in the Torah, again and again our text speaks not in terms of believing that but believing in. “Believing in” involves trust.  Citing William James, Moshe taught us, “to believe in something is not to say that it is true.”  Rather, it means “to adopt a position that leads to meaningful action based on the hypothesis in which we put our faith.” One of the greatest illustrations of this, he suggested, comes with the birth of a child. When we bring a child into this world we take a leap of faith that the child will live. We have no certainty that the child’s life will be good.  In choosing to participate in the holy act of procreation, we act on the proposition that the child’s life will be good, and worth living. Following William James, Moshe reminded us that our lives cannot be lived solely on the basis of things about which we are certain.

He went on to lift up Abraham as a model of one who demonstrates a willingness to act without certainty. Twice God calls him, saying Lech Lecha  — “go forth,” and twice Abraham responds, Hineini, and he sets forth as God instructs him, though he has no certainty about what will come from either journey, first to a new land, and then in our reading this morning, to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain. For Halbertal, Abraham is the living embodiment of a person of faith committing himself to meaningful action based upon a possibility. Moshe cautioned us, to act on everything without proof is the act of a fool, not a faithful person. But to act with faith means being willing to commit without certainty. Believers or non-believers, this is a tension with which we all live. Moshe offered that a scientist may rely on medicine. Yet many Jewish scientists still say mi shebeirach for loved ones who are ill. Our beliefs depend upon our role, and our roles change depending on our circumstances. “We don’t have to bring all of our different beliefs to our different roles.” As a practicing Orthodox Jew, and one of the greatest scholars of our time, Moshe says, “Don’t ask me in synagogue if there are 3 or 4 Isaiahs. I’m praying – let me read the singular Isaiah for now.” This is not only my teacher’s challenge.  It is also our challenge. On what beliefs do we base the decisions that guide our lives? How do we live with the tension that accompanies the impossibility of certainty in so many areas of our lives and the world we inhabit?

At another point this summer, my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman asked us one of his burning questions, which I too, have been asked hundreds, if not thousands of times in the past three decades:  “Do I have to believe in God in order to be a good Jew?” I have never been comfortable answering this question with a simple yes or no. I understand our tradition as being more concerned with deed than creed; with actions more than simple faith. Judaism is predicated on a faith journey begun by Abraham. Yet, it has never been a tradition that teaches that there is only one path along which we must journey in this world. Even within the segment of our Jewish community that holds to a traditional legal path of observance, there has never been only one voice or one way.

Donniel’s father, Rabbi David Hartman, with whom I first learned as a college student in 1977, recently turned 80. Keenly feeling life’s pains as his body is breaking down, he spends most of his days in wretched pain. Last winter, and again this summer he shared his struggles with his faith with our class with brutal honesty: “I have written all these books over the years trying to get closer to God. The journey I have taken has not gotten me any closer to God. I don’t want to talk about God anymore. I just want to take in a sunset without concerning myself with God.”  It was heart-rending to see our teacher in such pain, physically and spiritually. It was also a very powerful human lesson.  Wracked with pain, my teacher, an Orthodox Rabbi and theologian, is facing his own uncertainties as he faces his mortality. One needs only read David Hartman’s more recent writings to glimpse his journey and his wrestling. Like his son, Donniel, like his students, among whom I feel privileged to be included, like generations in our Jewish community – from Abraham at Mt. Moriah, to Jacob fleeing his brother Esau after having stolen his blessing as first-born; from Joseph in Egypt, struggling to maintain his identity in an alien and challenging world, to Rebekah and Hannah crying out to God in their barrenness; from Moses in his struggles first in getting the Israelites out of Egypt, and then along the journey to the Land of Israel as he struggles in leading the people; from the rabbis of the Talmud to the voices of each and every generation, faith and life have been an on-going struggle and journey. Each generation has wrestled; each generation has been challenged by loss and uncertainty; and each generation struggles to find answers, or even just questions.

We are not called to the faith of Abraham or Moses. We share neither one’s sense of preparedness and certainty. We don’t live in their world.  That doesn’t free us from asking the questions. If I have learned anything about our Jewish tradition over a lifetime of study, and nearly three decades as a rabbi, it is that our questions are often more important than answers. Questions show we seek understanding, knowledge, and new ideas.  Our tradition teaches that questions lead us on a journey, and journeys help us grow.  When we stop asking, we stop learning; when we stop learning, we become fixed in place. It’s the beginning of a New Year, a time when we renew ourselves, and our commitments.  Let’s be in – together, and let’s ask, let’s explore, together. Let’s share our questions, our doubts, and our journey – together. On this first day of 5773 I challenge us all: Let us approach this New Year with an openness of spirit that may help us continue learning – and I’m not just speaking in intellectual terms here.  Though many among us are far less certain– less certain about God, perhaps less certain about ourselves, we all wrestle with what it is we are called upon to do with our lives in this world.  Some of us seek answers or a path; others feel they have found a path to follow.  The tapestry that is our community has room for both believers and those with doubts.  Wherever any of us finds ourselves, this year let’s search, let’s wrestle together.

Like Abraham in our Torah reading this morning, let us each, in our own way, speak our Hineini at the start of this New Year, let it be a beginning, an opening, a starting point to really renew the journey in the year ahead. Let us speak our Hineini again and again as we join our hearts, hands, souls and minds in seeking to more deeply understand what we mean by Hineini in this New Year.

L’shanah tovah tikateyvu – May you – and your loved ones be inscribed for a year of learning, of questions and seeking, of joy and celebration, of healing and wholeness, of good health, of sweetness and of Shalom.


Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis
Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
September 17, 2012

This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them. Want to add your voice to the conversation? Publish your own post here.