You Are Not Alone | Kol Nidre Sermon 5777
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Last Yom Kippur, I told you a story about my father’s stroke. I told you that when I was eleven my father had a massage, had his neck cracked, and collapsed. And how life changed after that.
Tonight, I want to tell you another part of the story. Several months after his stroke, my father was in physical therapy. I went to be with him. The physical therapy room was in the basement of the hospital. It was a terrible place: cold and full of injured people grunting and wailing.
As I crouched next to my terrified father, who was bent backward over a bolster, unable to move though the physical therapist shouted for him to raise his paralyzed arm, everything seemed desperate and doomed. I felt small and crushed, like I couldn’t breathe.
Suddenly the world became still, silent. A great quiet calm came into me. It was as if, flailing and falling through space, I landed and it was soft and safe, and I knew that everything was actually OK. Of course it wasn’t OK – my father would never walk or run or read or do any of the things that had defined him until then, but it was OK in an ultimate sense, unrelated to outcome or conditions, or life or death, but more true.
When my father saw the change in my eyes, his whole body unclenched. I said, “Dad, it’s OK, I love you. Reach out and hold my hand.” His eyes locked onto mine and, seemingly without effort, he moved his paralyzed arm in a full arc over his head and held my hand.
The most important part of this story is not that my father moved his paralyzed arm. The most important part of this story is the fearlessness. The sudden certainty that it would be OK even though the outcome wasn’t what any of us wanted. The most important part of the story is what came over me and then over my father.
I later came to think of that moment as my first encounter with God.
When I was 23 years old, I was living in San Francisco with Felicia. I had started a peer hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. I knew what I was going to do with my life: I was going to dedicate myself to making the world more just. I was very satisfied with that plan.
And then something happened that I couldn’t explain. Whenever I wasn’t working, I was gripped by a question so urgent, so persistent, that sometimes it kept me awake through the night. The question presented itself like this:
“What is the meaning of my life…. and, by the way, do I believe in God?”
What?!? Where did that come from? I did not grow up with God. I grew up going to synagogue, but … my parents did not really believe in God. I’d been told that belief in God was a rejection of science. I’d been told that God was something ignorant people used to help them make sense of a confusing world. I’d been told that God was a crutch for people who were suffering or afraid of death.
God was probably the most taboo concept in my life. God was being used as a weapon against the people I was working so hard to care for. LGBT youth had the highest suicide rate of any group in the country, and religion was a big reason why.
In the national program I founded, there was a 16 year old boy from Indiana who was beaten unconscious with a Bible by the kids in his class while the teacher watched – because he was gay. I met countless youth who thought they were worthless, sinners, going to hell, all because of ideas about God. In the circles I traveled in, religion was the enemy. God was wielded to shame, dehumanize and kill.
But to paraphrase the Song of Songs, God was knocking, God was peering through the lattice. And to paraphrase the Psalmist, (Psalm 139) there was nowhere I could go to escape.
The God taboo did not only exist in 1990s San Francisco. The God taboo exists everywhere I’ve ever lived. It exists in every Jewish community I’ve been a part of, every intellectual community.
When I use the word God, I think I can feel half the room turn off. I can feel a sigh of disappointment rippling across the congregation, something like, “Can’t we talk about something relevant, something real, something important? It’s Kol Nidre and we’re going to waste it on God?”
I’ve talked to many CBE members who say that you are here in spite of God. You would strongly prefer to leave God out of it. We could talk about tradition, values, psychology, social justice—if we just pretend that God’s not part of Judaism, we could be such a nice Jewish community.
Because I know this about so many of you, because I’m trying to help you relate, I find myself avoiding the word God. The prayer says “It’s good to give thanks to God.” And I’ll say, “It’s good to give thanks.”
The prayer says, “You’ve loved us with a great love, Adonai our God.” And I’ll say, “You are loved by a great love.”
But every page of the machzor and siddur – every page – talks about God. We are speaking directly to God, even if we pretend we’re not.
We have made God a taboo in God’s own house.
On the High Holy Days, we speak about the transgressions we’ve committed in the year that has passed. Rarely do we focus on the big underlying transgression, which is that we have turned away from God. We’re busy turning away from God even as we’re saying the prayers that are supposed to be about turning back.
You can live a long time in modern life without really having to confront the question of God. Especially if your rabbi lets you. But this is a day of ultimate questions, and I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors by avoiding God.
So tonight I am asking you to consider a new openness to the possibility of God or, to those of you who are already open, a deeper, more active relationship with God. I want to talk to you about what we mean when we say God and about whether there’s a place for you in that conversation.
Let me be clear: Some of my very best friends are atheists. If you feel certain there is no God, there will always be a place for you in this sanctuary. I will never, ever, judge you for what you believe or don’t believe. But there also must be room here for the pious, the devout and the devoted, the believers and the questioners, the wrestlers and the doubters, the mystics and the seekers, the God lovers and those whose hearts long and ache for a connection to the Divine, and those who avoid this question but might someday find it essential. I need to be able to use the word God without excluding anyone, without cutting us off from one another.
When I say God, what do you imagine? Many people see the Sistine Chapel, or Zeus. The white beard, the flowing toga, the staff, the throne. The man in the sky. When we’re children we learn the stories of the Torah, and God is a character in the story, the big guy above who speaks, acts in history, has a set of rules He wants us to live by, and rewards and punishes based on our adherence to those rules.
But there are many diverse concepts of God in Judaism, beyond gender, beyond anthropomorphism. God is called HaMakom, the Place. Ein Sof, Without End. Shekhina, Indwelling Presence. Mekor, Source. HaRachaman, the Compassionate One. HaShem Yitbarach, the Blessed Name. HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Holy Blessed One. Our main name for God is Yod Hey Vav Hey, which in Hebrew is the verb “To Be.” Moses at the burning bush asks for God’s name and receives: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh I am What I Am. I will be what I will be. When you hear someone say, “Hey, It is What it is,” they’re invoking a Jewish name for God.1
As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says, “God’s name is synonymous with absolute being, existence in its rawest form.”2 The early Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Nachum3 taught that God is the aliveness within all that is.
It is important to understand that both the Torah and the prayerbook are operating in the realm of metaphor. They are written in words and concepts that our ancestors could relate to.4 Maimonides asks us not to give God attributes. He says that the anthropomorphisms in Torah are designed to ease us from idolatry to a more subtle and abstract awareness.5. The trouble is that this many generations later, those descriptors are still with us, and when we take them literally, they become obstacles.
On these Holy Days, we describe God as a shepherd and we’re the sheep, God as a king and we’re the subjects, God as a father and we’re the children. God is not literally a shepherd, a king, or your father. These metaphors say more about us than they do about God – they are expressing our fragility, lack of control, mortality, desire to be loved and protected.
There’s a great Hasidic text about the first prayer in the Amidah, when we say HaEl HaGadol HaGibor v’HaNorah. God, the Great, the Powerful, the Awesome. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev6 imagines God having to hurriedly make costume changes to show up in the ways we describe. “Now I’ll dress up to look Great, now I’ll put on the Mighty costume, now the Awesome costume.”
You don’t have to believe literally everything the Torah says about God to relate to God. You don’t have to believe literally everything the prayerbook says about God to relate to God. You certainly don’t have to agree with everything I say about God to relate to God. You only have to be true to your own lived experience to relate to God. And then use the words and concepts of the tradition as portals to that lived experience.
Rabbi Art Green says, “We people of faith have nothing we can prove. To attempt to do so only diminishes what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove. Our strength lies …in the ability to transport the conversation about existence … to a deeper plane of thinking.”7
In his beautiful, posthumously-published memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist described his evolving relationship to God. “I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, a… scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes… The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning – to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.”8
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote a book called Surprised by God. In it, she describes the aftermath of her mother’s death. She says, “My shell had been broken by grief and for the first time in my life I was unguarded enough to perceive a force that, for all its power, is quite subtle in day to day existence.”9 She began to “feel something within start to stir” and realized that [she] “had been unconscious, sleepwalking.” She describes “Pure, rushing, vibrant presence.”10 “Dense lightness” A “radiant expanse that made me feel so utterly safe and loved.” “I had once thought I was smarter than religion,” Ruttenberg said. Now I “wondered vaguely how I could have ever lived without this.”11 She describes “strange luminous rushes—the sense of being outside time, the sense of stepping into eternity, the sense that my self as I understood it seemed to melt away into the moment…”12 and “slipping into the place where the air vibrated, where rocks and leaves seemed to pulse with opalescent light.” She “felt for a moment as if things are exactly as they ought to be.” “The crucial leap of faith,” she says “was not that [my] mother wouldn’t die, but… that it’s OK.”13
I relate to everything Ruttenberg describes. Not the kind of OK that means things will turn out the way we want them to, but an ultimate safety, of being held through whatever comes, even death. When we say in unetaneh tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die,” when we consider the inevitability of our deaths, we must also remember the deep peace we’ve seen on the faces of the dying, a peace that is real.
Emunah in Hebrew (the same word as Amen) is often translated as faith, but it means something more like “faithfulness.” I’ve had many experiences that indicate to me that there is more going on here than meets the eye. Perhaps you have too.
To me, faithfulness means that I will not abandon my own lived experiences of the sublime, of the transcendent. I will not cut off that part of myself, even though it’s a taboo. I will not give up on being whole. Instead, I will dedicate myself to what those experiences taught me. Because it’s a layer of truth that illuminates the surface of life.
As Bahya ibn Pakuda said, “Where, God, can I find you? Where can I not find You?” As Moshe Cordovero said, “the essence of Divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists.” As the Baal Shem Tov said, “There is nothing but God.”
Rabbi Art Green writes “Transcendence does not mean that God is out there or over there somewhere beyond the universe… transcendence means rather that God – or Being – is so fully present in each moment of the here and now that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence…There is no ultimate duality here, no “God and world,” only one Being and its many faces…. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings.” “This underlying oneness …reveals itself to humans… as the deeper levels of the human mind open to it.”14
If you’re skeptical about ideas of God, do you believe in a web of life? Do you believe that you are one cell in an ecosystem that is vastly larger than you? Do you believe that you are connected to other life by the air you breathe, the food you ingest? Do you believe that that ecosystem sustains you moment by moment? Do you believe that your awareness of that ecosystem obligates you to certain behaviors, not just to survive but also to contribute to the well-being of the system itself? For me, this is just another way of talking about God.
An atheist who prays can substitute the word “Life” for the word “God.” The integrating, connecting, and unifying factor in our ecosystem. It doesn’t matter what you call it. We’re talking to the same thing.
Whatever you call it – you need it. We need God. We need a transcendent meaning of our lives. We need an understanding of ultimate unity. We need to be reminded of our scope and scale, how very small we are and how vast it all is. We need to pour out our hearts on a regular basis. We need an ever-present source of love.
How do we live in a world with so much pain? How do we find hope, return to hope again and again? How do we love in an indifferent world?
Emunah/Faithfulness gives us an anchor: Tapping a deeper level of reality characterized by love gives us the ability to look squarely at evil, to see our own complicity with the conditions of the world, our own responsibility to them, and also our limits. To know we are not in it alone.
Everything in our lives is affected by whether we are in active relationship with God. A measure of psychological and emotional health is the ability to see beyond oneself, to hold two realities at once. We habitually think that we’re at the center of the world. But if we remind ourselves that there is something much larger at play, we become small players in the great unfolding of life. And then we can live our lives in service to that unfolding. We can dedicate ourselves to the cause of greater well-being, and when we do we’re not in it alone.
Even those of us who believe in God, who have a strong relationship with God, often forget about God. Most of us walk through the world as if everything depends on us alone. Parker Palmer called that “functional atheism.” Of course nothing in the world depends on us alone. We’re not isolated individuals acting on the world, with the weight of the world on our shoulders, but part of an intricate web of being that is moving through us and beyond us.
To be a “God person,” to have Emunah, is to trust that intuition, to let it become as loud as our atomized, doubting, planning, worrying minds. To trust that there is something wise running through us. To look for glimmers of the holy in every living thing and connections among all that is. To see the dignity of every human creature. To remember awe. To remember gratitude. To remember redemption – its promise and obligation. To dedicate our lives to what’s bigger than us– goodness, growth, God.
Can you imagine being a person who talks to God during your day? The Rabbis in the Talmud recommend saying 100 blessings per day—this would be 100 times a day when God becomes real to us. Can you imagine starting the morning with Thank you, thank you for this life? Thank you Adonai for another day, for breath, for my eyes that can see, for the beautiful human beings I love. Thank you for making me a Jew.
Imagine walking down the street caught up in thinking about work and suddenly remembering: Mekor HaChayim, Source of Life, thank you for that tree, for that magnificent cloud in the sky, for these feet that carry me. Thank you for the marvel that is the New York subway system. Thank you for the wonder of skyscrapers, for this elevator, for this splendorous view.
Imagine being at work, frustrated, scattered, stressed, overwhelmed. Please, HaRachaman, Compassionate One, help me be of use. Give me a moment of calm, of clarity. Help me choose words wisely. Help me to be kind, patient. Help me see the holiness in my coworker. Help me be OK under this pressure.
And at the end of the day, Please, El Shaddai, give me rest, let me sleep.
Thank you, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, for the work I do in the world. for giving me a chance to contribute, to express myself, to give, to make the world more whole.
And when we’re truly suffering, in grief, in fear, in confusion, in isolation. Imagine turning to God for help. Please Tzur Yisrael, My Rock, help me know that I’m not alone. Remind me that I’m loved. Hold me even as I’m collapsing.
But Emunah is not only acceptance of What Is. Faithfulness is also protest, when we rail against the events of our lives and the conditions of the world. When we say “No, God! This is not right.” “I do not accept this. I will not go silently.” Protest is God learning.
God consciousness is precisely the antidote to the hate and violence we see around us. The 18th Century Hasidic Rabbi, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, says that when we see others as cut off from their root, from their Source, (from God) they become objects to us. We can be consumed with greed or lust, seeing others in terms of their use to us, or with hate, seeing others as obstacles. But when we can see each creature’s connection to its Divine Source, each creature as a vessel of that Source, we see the inherent blessing and dignity of each one.>15
We call this (coming together to pray) a “service,” because in it we are dedicating ourselves to serve that which is much bigger than the narrow confines of the self. The time we spend here is about reorienting our lives to that service.
Imagine if every time you came into this sanctuary you were connecting with something that deeply mattered to you. Imagine how meaningful that would be. Imagine if you were dedicating yourself to what is greater than you when you are here. Imagine if you were reaching out and feeling held, knowing you are not alone. Imagine how this process of prayer could be a realignment with a deeper truth that’s already in you.
I don’t know why the question of God took hold of me when I was 23 and wouldn’t let go.
But it eventually changed the direction of my life.
And still, every day, it takes effort, it takes remembering, to return to God.
At the end of the Aleinu prayer we sing of God’s oneness and say v’hashevota el levavecha.16
Return this to your heart.
You’ve known of God’s oneness all along,
you’ve known this,
you just forgot.
return this to your heart.
That is what the essence of teshuva is meant to be:
returning God to our hearts.
The prophet Hosea calls to us, Shuva!
“Return, Israel, return to God.”
Please, Holy Blessed One, help us return.
1 Thanks to Rabbi Irwin Keller for this idea.
2 Ruttenberg, p. 86
3 Meor Eynayim
4 Rabbi Ishmael in his debate with Rabbi Akiva, also Abraham Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:2
5 Guide for the Perplexed
6 Kedushat Levi on Vaetchanan, “Shma Yisrael”
7 Radical Judaism, p. 19
8 When Breath Becomes Air, p.
9 Ruttenberg, p. 46
10 ibid, p. 50
11 ibid, p. 88-89
12 Ibid. p. 52
13 Ibid, p. 36
14 Radical Judaism, p. 18
15 Kedushat Levi, Pekudei
16 Thank you to Irwin Keller for this.