Friday, September 21, 2018

What's In Your Cup? Kol Nidre 5779

What’s In Your Cup?
Kol Nidre 5779
September 19, 2018
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL

There’s a hypothetical scenario that has been making its way around social media lately.  It posits:

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and shoves you or shakes your arm.  You then spill coffee everywhere.

Why did you spill the coffee?

“Well, because someone bumped into me, of course!”

Wrong answer.

You spilled the coffee because coffee was in the cup.  If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea.

Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out.

Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which will happen), whatever is inside of you will come out. It's easy to fake it until you get rattled.

So we have to ask ourselves…what's in my cup?

When life gets tough, what spills over?

Joy, gratefulness, peace and humility?  Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and actions?[1]  Is your cup—your demeanor—filled with hot stuff, or cold?

Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to reexamine our cups.  Where things have spilled over in anger and bitterness, we have the chance to clean up these spills and affix the lid more securely.  Where joy and peace have overflowed, we can learn to continue filling our cups with such abundant blessing.  The choice is ours.

Our sages remind us that a key part of the process of teshuvah—getting back on the proper path to prepare for a new year—is the act of cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  We are called to engage in self-analysis and figure out where we need to make modifications—to our cups and to that which we hold inside.

The coffee cup scenario helps to illustrate that oftentimes our response to a situation is colored not just by the specifics of that incident, but by the full complement of life experiences we’ve had up to that moment.  If we’ve had disappointments and feel the deck is stacked against us, then we are more likely to be suspicious of others’ motives. If we’ve lived lives full of love and joy, we are more readily able to extend our hands and hearts to others.

I recently heard an interview with actor/ director Dax Shepard.  Shepard is married to actress Kristen Bell, and he contrasted the different ways they each respond to stressful and frustrating situations:

Because I’m a [jerk] sometimes,” Shepard said, “I assume that everybody’s the same way I am.  I’m regularly frustrated in traffic.  When some guy cuts me off I go straight to, ‘This guy’s selfish.’  Kristen[’s instinct is to say] … , ‘Oh, he wasn’t paying attention’ or ‘He’s on his way to help his kid at school’ or whatever it is. And I realize the reason she does that is that she’s never cut anyone off trying to get ahead. So how could she even conceive that someone else would be doing that?  Well, … I’m a jerk…I try to take what’s not mine, I try to get more than I’m entitled to.  So of course I assume that the guy who just cut me off is doing the same thing I would do. I don’t think I’m a monster, but I do it.”[2]

Shepard returned to this topic later in the interview, acknowledging that his wife probably had the better approach in such situations, and stating that he has tried to shift his attitude:

“[It’s] a better way to go through life, assuming the best…the only person losing in this scenario is me.  I’m the one with the adrenaline dump, and I’m the one who’s mad for nine minutes after that interaction, not the other person.”[3]

At the conclusion of the discussion, Shepard noted that he has recently adopted a meditative practice.  It refocuses his impulse to react to something negatively so that instead he can calm himself down and respond more charitably.  He notes, “The brain is habitual by nature…you can make things instinctual just by repetition.”[4]

During the High Holidays, when we remove the Torah scrolls from the ark, we recount the thirteen divine attributes.  Among the list is “erech apayim—God is slow to anger.”[5]  If God’s anger can be tempered (usually), certainly we can learn to modulate our baser emotions.

If indeed it is a primal instinct for us to respond to a situation by comparing it to past experiences (and researchers seem to believe this is the case), then it would behoove us to find ways to overcome that knee-jerk reaction, to change our scripts and refocus our internal narrative. Where we’ve responded negatively to something in the past, perhaps we can retrain ourselves to react in a more measured way.  If we can attempt to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, we may understand the reason they took a particular course of action.  We still may not appreciate how such action affected our experience with that individual, but stepping back and taking stock of the situation, rather than acting in the heat of the moment, may indeed give us the needed tools to temper our response in the future if we are faced with a similar scenario.

I recently came across a quote that serves as a powerful lesson about human behavior. Much like the contrast between Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell’s responses to frustrating drivers, the statement reminds us that often it is not the actual details of the scenario that cause us to become upset, but how we process and absorb the situation.  The quote states, “The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg.  It’s about what you’re made of, not the circumstances.”[6]  Motivational speaker and writer Jack Canfield distills this concept into a mathematical formula: E+R=O…Events plus responses equals outcomes. 

Every outcome you experience in life,” Canfield writes,” is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life… If you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life.”[7]  Canfield notes that we rarely have the power to alter the actual events that cause us distress or angst, but we can change our habits that make us behave in ways that are ineffective, inappropriate for the situation, or even self-destructive.

On Yom Kippur, the voice of the prophet calls out to us, “Return, O Israel, to Adonai your God!”[8]  Returning is the literal translation of what it means to engage in teshuva. But perhaps that’s an oversimplification that does injustice to the actual work required for true teshuva. A call to “return” implies to me that there’s some point in our past where our behavior, our demeanor, and our interactions with others were perfect, and that if we could only recapture that moment, we would permanently be in God’s good graces.  But I don’t think that’s the case.  I believe that as humans, we are constantly striving to improve ourselves, that we are on a continual path toward realizing the divine possibilities that have been implanted within us.  Teshuvatherefore is not a return to some mythic past, but a re-imagining of ourselves in relation to the world in which we live and interact.
We might call it a re-positioning.  Repositioning is done frequently in the cruise industry, where it is neither feasible or profitable for ships to operate year-round on the same routes.  A ship that sails summer routes in Alaska, for instance, may be repositioned in the fall to sail in warmer climates, such as Mexico or the Caribbean.  Imagine if we allowed ourselves to do the same: if a behavior or position we’ve held has become untenable, or no longer brings us joy, or is dangerous to our well-being, then it would make sense for us to make every effort to “right our ships” and chart a new course.

We humans love routine. We fall into familiar patterns and have a hard time disrupting them.  Like most experiences, life can be habit-forming.  But Yom Kippur calls us to examine our routines and habits with a critical eye.  Unless we can find some method of disruption to break us from the negative habits and instincts that have held us back, we’re going to be unable to be truly effective in our teshuva, unable to make the changes that lead us on a path to our better selves.

Please know, by the way, that I’m not speaking here about issues such as addiction, which are usually deeply ingrained and nearly impossible to overcome on one’s own.  If you need assistance in overcoming a dependency or moving out of a cycle of self-harm, please contact professionals who can assist you with this.  If you need resources toward taking that first step, please contact me privately. Our conversations will be confidential and without judgment.  

If, on the other hand, after self-examination we find that there are more malleable aspects of our personas that would benefit from adjustment, well, that’s exactly what we can and should attempt to address through this holiday season.

Our tradition teaches that if we simply make the sincere effort to change ourselves in some manner, that God is ready to accept our efforts with love and to welcome us back into the divine embrace.  If, however, we take a lackadaisical approach to the task, giving mere lip service to the idea of self-improvement while already planning our slide back into behaviors that we know are wrong, then we need to understand that Yom Kippur will not magically absolve us of any guilt for these missteps.  

Teshuvais not a “one size fits all” process.  Individual mileage may vary.  We each live different lives.  We each come from different backgrounds and hold different beliefs.  The individuals who populate our life stories are different for each one of us.  Thus, each of our life stories inherently unfolds differently.  Therefore, there will be different chapters for each of us that we wish to rewrite through teshuva.

Many of us know the parable of the blind individuals and the elephant.[9]  Because of the elephant’s size, and the individuals’ visual impairment, they each only experience a portion of the animal.  The person who feels the trunk suspects that the creature is a snake; the one who touches the tail feels certain that it is a rope, and so forth. In some versions of the story, the people actually come to blows because each person’s limited perception of the elephant does not match their neighbors’ experiences.  The fable illustrates that “while one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of [reality].”[10]

Taking control of the contents of your cup requires recognition of this fact.  When we are upset at a situation, we are conditioned to respond in the heat of the moment.  Yet our response may only be related to our subjective experience of events, and not the total truth of the scenario.  In this new year, we would do well to seek ways to acknowledge that others may be simultaneously experiencing the exact same incidents, yet arriving at entirely different outcomes.  Effective transformation in this new year—true teshuva—can best be achieved not only by looking inward for self reflection, but also by training ourselves to look outward to discover how our family, our friends, and our neighbors are functioning in a given situation.

As we navigate through the year, keeping our coffee cups in precarious balance, let us be conscious of others’ cups as well.  When we encounter people with cups that are tinged with bitterness because of sadness or disappointment, let us strive to bring them sweetness.  When cups overflow with joy and celebration, let it spill over in abundant waves.

Like coffee cups, we are merely vessels—not to hold hot liquids, but to hold emotions, experiences, and all of life’s complexities.  May we, through holy acts of self-reflection, teshuva, and compassion toward others, learn to respond to each of life’s challenges with grace, humor, and compassion.

G’mar chatimah tovah,may we each merit to be inscribed in the book of life, happiness and blessing.

[1]This story has made the rounds of the internet without conclusive attribution.
[2]“Dax Shepard on Raising Arizona,” episode of the podcast “Movie Crush.”  Originally released on July 6, 2018.
[5]See Exodus 34:6
[6]Attempts to trace the source of this statement were unsuccessful. It appears to be linked to another anonymous parable about eggs, carrots, and coffee beans.  
[7]“The Formula That Puts You in Control of Success,” on Retrieved September 13, 2018.
[8]Hosea 14:1, which comprises part of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
[9]First attested to in the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, dated to about the mid 1st millennium BCE.

[10]Goldstein, E. Bruce Encyclopedia of Perception(Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 2010) p. 492

Thoughts and Prayers- Yom Kippur morning 5779

Thoughts and Prayers
Yom Kippur Morning 5779
September 19, 2018
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL

I’m getting out of the business of thoughts and prayers.

That’s not intended to be a political statement.  It may sound like an odd thing to say given the fact that I’ve just spent an hour or so conducting worship that was prayer-filled and hopefully thought provoking.  Certainly there can be an appropriate time and place for thoughts and prayers and the introspection that they afford.  I don’t mean to fully repudiate the power of prayerful supplication or thanksgiving; it is the majesty of our prayers and melodies, steeped in ancient tradition, that has drawn us together today.

But while this is a moment that is particularly dedicated to prayerfulness and introspection, other moments call not so much for platitudes or for entreaties to the divine, but rather for action.

I’ve shared with some of you before that one of my favorite worship experiences of my life came in a United Church of Christ congregation in Denver, Colorado.  At the conclusion of the service—a shared program between the congregation I was then serving and this church that had been our host in the early days of the Temple’s existence—we exited into the main foyer.  Inscribed on the transom, visible only as one left worship, was the phrase, “And now the service begins.”  There was an explicit recognition that the thoughts and prayers we offer during a service can only be fully efficacious if they are supported by practical deeds in our day-to-day lives.

We have a phrase for this in English: “Actions speak louder than words.”[1]  But the precept is also found within Jewish tradition.  In the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel opines, “Lo ha-midrash hu ha-ikar, elah ha-ma’aseh; it is not the study that is essential, but the action.”[2]  We can pore over the texts of our tradition from morning until night, but we cannot claim that we have fully understood their core meaning until we have put the teachings into action.

We of the species Homo Sapiens are known as human beings.  But I think perhaps this is a bit of an unfortunate misnomer.  We were not brought into existence and blessed to be created in the divine image merely so that we could “be.”  In fact, while other items in the narrative of creation are brought into existence with God’s proclamation, “Y’hi!- Let there be,” humanity is created with an active verb, “Na’aseh- Let Us create.”[3]  Immediately, it is made clear that the tasks with which our species shall be entrusted are active ones.  We are called to be faithful stewards of the earth, “to till and to tend.”[4]  We are expected to be partners with God, “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai; to complete the works of creation according to God’s ideal design.”[5]  We are asked to live in emulation of God—as we read in the Torah tomorrow: “K’doshim t’hiyu, You shall be holy, for I Adonai your God am Holy.”[6]  Thus, we are taught:

Just as God clothes the naked,…so too [should] you clothe the naked…Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, visits the sick,… so too [should] you visit the sick.  Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, consoles mourners,…so too [should] you console mourners.  Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, buried the dead, so to [should] you bury the dead.[7]

Our tradition is clear.  We must not content ourselves and feel that we have fulfilled our purpose in this world simply by “being.”  We must be human “do-ers,” taking an active role in our society to make holiness and peace and justice abound.

The prophet Jonah, whose story we will read this afternoon as our Haftarah—and who we’ll discuss in more depth in our afternoon study session—is a prime illustration of one who is content to “be,” rather than to “do.” He feels so certain that the mission for which he has been called—preaching to Nineveh to solicit their repentance—is an unnecessary errand, that he tries to flee from this responsibility.  He never appears to act willingly in the service of God, even after enduring his punishment in the belly of the fish, and comes across much more as a “be-er” than a “do-er.”  

Rabbi Steven Bob notes that unlike other figures in the Tanach who receive a divine call, Jonah never responds with the phrase, “Hineini.”  Had he done so, it would have signified not only an acknowledgment of the gravity of the task at hand, but also a willingness to be present as an agent of God, to be a “do-er.”  As Rabbi Bob writes, “When I say this word, I do more than simply describe my geographic location.  I proclaim my presence.  I am really here.  I am fully present.  I am here for you.”[8]

But Jonah cannot bring himself to answer in this way.  As Rabbi Bob states, “he is never…fully present to God…he has not committed himself to God’s cause.”[9]  The Book of Jonah ends somewhat abruptly and absurdly with the prophet moping beneath a withered gourd plant, seemingly having resigned himself to life as a “be-er” and not a “do-er.”

Why read from this text, then, on Yom Kippur, a day which surely spurs us to take active roles in the world?  I think our takeaway from Jonah is that his life is an object lesson of how NOT to use one’s prophetic voice.  Whether we feel personally called by God in the same manner as the classical prophets, or whether we navigate our way through life of our own volition, we are asked to interact with our world in a manner that does not merely satisfy our own selfish desires, but keeps our eyes, hearts, and mind open to the needs of others.

Being a prophet in the biblical period was undoubtedly tough work; I don’t envy Jonah and his peers feeling impelled by God to challenge the status quo and tell their fellow Israelites that God was displeased with their behavior. The majority of the messages that the prophets proclaimed were merely shouts into the wind during their lifetime—decrees that largely went unheeded.  It is only through the canonization of these prophesies in the biblical text that their words have survived and resonated with a wider audience.  As modern Jews, we can hear these prophetic voices—in synagogue or in the public arena—and feel stirred to action.  Thus, Amos’ cry to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,”[10]or Micah’s instruction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,”[11]to name but a few examples, serve as living charges and challenges to us in our own day.  They call us to act as do-ers and not merely as be-ers.

A traditional prayer recited on Shabbat morning asks God’s blessing for “kol mi she-oskin b’tzorchei ha-tzibbur—all those who busy themselves with the needs of the congregation.”[12]  There’s a recognition that synagogues would not function without people to “provide for their maintenance, [and arrange for] wine for Kiddush…, food for guests, bread for the hungry, tzedakahfor the poor, and shelter for the homeless.”[13]

Synagogues can measure their success by any number of metrics.  Some boast of their financial solvency, and certainly it is important to secure sufficient funds each year to support our congregation’s religious, educational, and social programming.  Some synagogues are constantly counting how many tuchises they can get into seats at various services and events, and this, too, is significant to consider. But I’d argue that the clearest indicator of the health of a temple—or any religious organization, for that matter, is how much people are willing to invest their time, energies, and passions toward supporting the institution.  

In many regards, Sinai Temple is abundantly blessed in this area.  When there is a special Simchaor a meal of consolation, there is rarely, if ever, a concern that we will be lacking in food.  A number of people are regularly present at Temple assisting with the upkeep of the building and its grounds, including the recent Labor of Love. For nearly forty years, the Egalitarian Traditional Minyan has been shepherded by dedicated volunteers.  The mailings that go out to the entire congregation are processed and sorted by a dedicated group of congregants.  The list of those who have discovered their niche—their means of acting as “do-ers” rather than “be-ers”—goes on and on.

But at the same time, there are important committees that are underpopulated or are seeking new leadership.  It is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves in the aforementioned blessing, to become “oskei be’tzorchei ha-tzibbur—busy with the needs of the congregation.”  The opportunities are manifold: serving on the membership committee to welcome new and potential members; helping out on the building committee to ensure the upkeep of our spiritual home; assisting with the delivery of our bimahflowers to those who are celebrating a happy occasion, or who have experienced an illness or loss.  In the broader CU Jewish community, our Chevra Kadisha performs the sacred tasks of helping to prepare beloved community members for burial.  During the month of October, our Sunday morning adult education series will be focused on the work of this important group, and I hope that many of you will come and explore this topic.  Of course, as our Y’sod Le’Atid- Foundation for the Future renovation project continues to take shape, there will be ample opportunities for gifts of time, energy, and money from everyone who is invested in some way in the ongoing health of Sinai Temple.

These are just some of the ways in which we can ensure that we are “do-ers” and not “be-ers” within our local Jewish community. Some tonight may feel inspired to be proactive, in which case you may contact me or Temple president Rob Ore to volunteer for a role.  If you can’t yet imagine the capacity in which you might serve, I hope that you will accept the honor of a volunteer position when you are called.

Some of you may recall the children’s story of the Little Red Hen.  In short, the Little Red Hen wishes to bake a loaf of bread.  But this requires harvesting wheat, milling it into flour, mixing the dough, and so forth.  As the Little Red Hen asks her fellow animals to assist her in these tasks, none is willing to do so.  Yet when the bread is finally baked, each wants to taste of the fruits of her labors. The Little Red Hen declines to share, because they did not participate in the process of making the bread.

The moral, of course, is that if the animals wished to eat the bread, they should have joined with the Little Red Hen in making it.  No institution or civilization can survive if all of its constituent members act as bystanders.  Each individual must find his or her own way to be a “do-er” so that the groups’ missions can be achieved.

This morning we will read from the final chapters of Deuteronomy.  In the opening sentences of this passage, Moses proclaims:

Atem nitzavim kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.[14]

Moses names these different categories of people specifically in order to show that every individual who finds a home within the Israelite community—no matter how elevated or diminished their status might seem—plays a part in upholding the covenantal relationship between God and Israel and ensuring its success.  As Constantin Stanislavski would say many years after Moses, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”[15]

In the coming year, may we each find meaningful ways in which we can “do”—for ourselves, yes, but also for others and for our community.  May we contribute whole heartedly to the betterment of our society and our world.  As we do so, may we be found worthy of having our names inscribed in the Book of Life and Blessing.  And someday in the future, when we are remembered with fondness and love, may it be not only because of who we showed ourselves to “be,” but also because of all that we have striven to “do.”

[1]A 17thcentury proverb, evidently first recorded in the U.S. in a speech by Abraham Lincoln
[2]Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:17
[3]See Genesis 1, particularly the creation of humanity at 1:26. There is much commentary on who constitutes the “Us” in this statement, but that is not germane to this particular sermon.
[4]Cf. Genesis 2:15
[5]A reference to the language of the Aleinuprayer. The Kabbalists of the 16thcentury were the first to shift the understanding of this phrase and apply it to human action.
[6]Leviticus 19:2
[7]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a.  The text provides citations for when in the Torah God performed each of these acts.
[8]Bob, Steven.  Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2016). P. 149
[9]Ibid., p. 150
[10]Amos 5:24
[11]Micah 6:8
[12]See , for instance, Feld, Rabbi Edward (ed.) Siddur Lev Shalem(New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2016), p. 176.
[14]Deuteronomy 29:9-11
[15]Stanislavski, Constantin.My Life in Art (Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis Books, 2008)

My Three Sons- Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

My Three Sons
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
September 10/11, 2018
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Rabbi Alan Cook

All of our children love to read; our youngest, Eden, is particularly fond of books.  Of course, because she is only two, she relies on more accomplished readers who can share these books with her.  Over Passover, we were visiting my parents in Denver, and she fixated on one book in particular: Yoga Bug[1], a small board book of kid-friendly yoga poses that are re-imagined as imitations of insects.  It’s a cute book—the first time you read it—and fairly simple; there are only about a dozen words in the entire text.  But Eden would sit at the bottom of the stairs and insist that someone read this book to her, over and over and over again.

Perhaps no Torah story is more explored, or worthy of exploration, than theAkeda, “The Binding of Isaac” that we read today.  Much has been written about the theological implications of this incident, not to mention the ways in which the choices Abraham makes as events unfold carry repercussions for his relationships with God, with Isaac, and with Sarah.  We know the story very well, having been exposed to annual repetitions of it: Abraham, having embraced the idea that there is only one God, now feels impelled by that deity to offer his child as a sacrifice. Most of us have already done our own analysis and identified for ourselves who the winners and losers are, what power dynamics are at play, and so forth.  

Some stories become tedious when we repeat them.  I can tell you that Yoga Bugis one of them!  Some stories, on the other hand, deserve to be revisited on a regular basis, for there are always additional nuances that can be uncovered and new insights that can be gleaned.  Certainly the Torah holds up to repeated exploration; as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”[2]  Even a story such as the Akeda, which most of us feel we have already fully processed, therefore bears some revisiting.

The poet Yehuda Amichai, considered to have been one of Israel’s greatest modern poets, offered his own take on the familiar story in his collection Open Closed Open.

Abraham had three sons, not just two.
Abraham had three sons: Yishma-ElYitzchak, and Yiv’keh.
First came Yishma-El, “God will hear,”
Next came Yitzchak, “he will laugh,”
And the last was Yivkeh, “he will cry.”
No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest,
The son that Father loved best,
The son who was offered up on Mount Moriah.
Yishma-Elwas saved by his mother, Hagar,
Yitzchak was saved by the angel,
But Yivkeh no one saved.
When he was just a little boy, his father 
would call him tenderly, Yivkeh
Yivkele, my little Yivkie
But he sacrificed him all the same.
The Torah says the ram, but it was Yivke.
Yishma-Elnever heard from God again,
Yitzchaknever laughed again,
Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.
Abraham had three sons
Yishma, “will hear,” Yitzchak, “will laugh,” Yivkeh, “will cry.”
Yishma-El, Yitzchak-ElYivkeh-El,
God will hear, God will laugh, God will cry.[3]

Two out of the three names Amichai invokes have biblical personages associated with them.  We “know” these characters and their life trajectories as spelled out in scripture and in the subsequent evolution of religious traditions around them.  By contrast, Yivkeh is a product of Amichai’s imagination, a figure created in the service of his modern midrash.

Let’s set aside for a moment, though, what we know—or think we know—about these individuals as played out in our tradition.  Let us instead think about what it means to have a relationship with a God who listens to us, who laughs with us, and who cries with us. We pray that we will never confront quite so heart-wrenching a dilemma as Abraham does during the Akedanarrative, but we hope that in our times of need—and in our times of celebration—we can forge a relationship with a God who meets us where we are[4]and responds to our emotional and physical needs.  

Yishma-el, God listens.  There is a reason that sanctuaries around the world are filled on these High Holidays: somewhere, perhaps in the vestigial regions of our souls, we cling to a belief that our prayers and our gathering with our community will be efficacious.  We embrace the tradition which tells us that during this period, God will “muster and number and consider”[5]each of us to determine our fates and fortunes for the coming year.  Thus we cling to the conviction that if we are earnest and fervent in our prayers, God will hear us and perhaps tip the scales in our favor.

Some of you know Rabbi Shlomo Schachter, who works at the University of Illinois Hillel as an Orthodox rabbi.  He is the son of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a charismatic rabbi who founded the Renewal movement within American Judaism.  Reb Zalman passed in 2014, and a few months ago, a minyanwas organized at Hillel so that Rabbi Shlomo could say kaddishfor his father on his yahrtzeit.  At the conclusion of the service, Rabbi Shlomo shared a memory: he recalled when he was a college student, and he and his father were traveling together.  They stopped in the corner of a parking garage in order to say their evening prayers.  Reb Zalman completed his prayers much more quickly than Rabbi Shlomo, who was not yet a rabbi and not as practiced with the liturgy.  As he concluded, he apologized to his father for causing them to be delayed.  

Reb Zalman replied that he could not possibly be impatient knowing that Shlomo was engaged in a holy act of prayer.  Indeed, Shlomo recalled, at that moment it felt like his father was introducing him to an old friend, as though he were saying, “This is my boy. I hope You will learn to love him and enjoy spending time with him as much as You do with me.  I hope that You will listen to the innermost prayers of his heart, just as You do for me.”[6]

When we seek out a relationship with God, we hope that we find a God who is Shomei’a Tefillah, who hearkens to prayer.  A listening God is not a God who magically responds to each supplication like a genie from a magic lamp.  Rather, we pray to establish a loving relationship with God so that God will give us guidance in trying moments.  We hold faith that when such trials occur, God listens to our internal dialogue and guides us toward an appropriate response.

Amichai’s poem reminds us that Yishmael was rescued by his mother, Hagar.  He is preserved; his name and his character live on.  Thus we are assured that God continues to listen.  In this new year, may God’s listening ears continue to be inclined toward each of us in mercy and love.

Yitzchak-el, God laughs.  There’s an old Yiddish proverb, “Mensch tracht, Gott lacht,” which means, “Humans plan, God laughs.”  This might suggest that God is a cynical prankster, laughing at us by upending our hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the sake of mere sport.  Indeed, Jewish tradition, drawing from a few Biblical references, imagines God laughing haughtily at those who fail to accept divine truths and at nations that seek to subjugate the Israelites.[7]  

Laughter is prevalent, yet problematic, in the narrative of Abraham’s family as the Torah spells it out.  Abraham laughed at the initial promise that Sarah would bear a son;[8]later Sarah herself laughs at the notion that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age.[9]  Sarah laughs yet again one Isaac is born, and Ishmael is cast out from the house because his laughing play with Isaac is deemed inappropriate.[10]  Thereafter, the laughter seems to cease.

Through all these episodes, God has appeared aloof with regard to the laughter.  At best, we might say that God is indifferent toward it; at worst we might say that God appears to disapprove.  But what would it mean to picture God with a true sense of humor?  What if God functioned like the classic comedians of old, who encouraged us to find humor in situations, rather than making fun of people? What if God’s laughter serves to unify, heal, and add perspective.  Can we imagine that God is alongside us, laughing with us rather than at us?

Pastor David Mathis, who serves a church in Minneapolis, writes, “Laughter, for God and for us, is a nonverbal form of communication. It acknowledges that more is going on than meets the eye — that more is happening than what is being captured into words.”[11]  While we know that laughter is frequently spontaneous and contagious, little is known about the biological mechanisms that underlie this trait.[12]  To the extent that laughter reveals an awareness of hidden layers of meaning underlying a particular situation, it may be comforting to embrace this picture of God laughing alongside us, bringing us into the divine confidence, as it were. We can laugh with God as we would with any of our earthly friends, sharing an inside joke whose meaning others may not be able to parse.  To envision this sort of intimate camaraderie with God is to acknowledge that having been created b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image[13]—we share a closeness with God that other creatures cannot attain.  

Turning back to Amichai’s poem, we find that Yitzchak, too, is saved from sacrifice. The angel intervenes, and so Yitzchak and his prized qualities endure.  A divine being has shown us that laughter matters.  And we, as Yitzchak’s spiritual heirs, have the audacity to hope that we have earned a place among God’s favorites, that we warrant special attention from God, that despite our faults, God can laugh at our human foibles and be favorably inclined toward us.

Yivkeh-el, God cries.  Some theologians and philosophers have used their writings to describe a dispassionate God who does not interact with or care about humanity.  Indeed, following the Shoahand other horrors of the modern era, there have been many who shunned God or described God as tremendously lacking in empathy.  But there is an alternate understanding of God that has prevailed.  It suggests that when there is sadness and suffering in the world, when humans act cruelly to one another, God sits beside us and joins in our weeping.[14]  This model shows a God who cries tears of love, understanding, and empathy.

midrashascribed to Rabbi Isaac can remind us that God cares about the workings of the world:

A man was travelling from place to place when he encountered a building on fire at the side of the road.  He stopped and wondered aloud whether there was an owner or caretaker to extinguish the flames.  A man looked out the window from inside the burning house and called out, “I am the owner of this home!”[15]

The midrash continues, likening the behavior of the owner of the home in the story to God’s function in our world.  The world is daily on fire with pain and suffering and sadness.  God looks out from within and relies on passers-by to assist. Just as the traveler confronted the owner of the house, it can be tempting for us to say, “Why aren’t you doing more to rectify the situation?”  But God calls back to us, “Why aren’t youdoing more to help me solve the problem?”

God acknowledges that there is brokenness in our world, and experiences significant heartache and sadness because of this realization (if we can be so chutzpahdikas to ascribe these very human attributes to God).  But God also relies on humanity to make a difference in this world and, in so doing, to assuage some of the pain.

You see, Yivkeh never gets saved. The Torah tells us that it was a ram Abraham ultimately sacrificed, but Amichai says that it was Yivke.  Our ability to appreciate God’s tears, the outpouring of love and compassion that God so deeply wants us to understand and appreciate so that we might be inspired toward that same degree of empathy—we might say that this was lost to the ages during the terrible and awesome episode of the Akeda.  Yet working as God’s partners, utilizing the gift of free will implanted within each of us, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to help make healing and love and justice abound.  

These three personalities that Amichai has named do not represent three separate attributes of God plotted far apart from one another on some graph of divine qualities.  Rather, we seek in God (and in ourselves) the exquisite tension of holding all of these feelings simultaneously.  And if, perhaps, your current personal theology does not allow for such an intimacy with the divine, then hopefully you’ve found a connection with a partner, spouse, or friend that can yield a similarly loving relationship. However we may parse it, we each want a God, a soulmate, a friend who can be alongside us throughout the peaks and valleys of our human existence: when we rail at the universe or when we wonder at its miracles and marvels; when we are elated from joy or when we are laden with sorrows.  

In this new year 5779, may we each be worthy of collaboration and closeness with God. God will cry: let us be there to dry the tears and provide comfort and consolation.  God will listen: let us find ways toward Godly conversations and toward interactions worthy of God’s attention.  God will laugh: may the majority of our experiences in this new year guide us toward moments of happiness and joy.

[1]If you absolutely must have it: Hinder, Sarah Jane. Yoga Bug(Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True Publications, 2007).
[2]Mishnah Pirke Avot 5:25
[3]From “The Bible and You, the Bible and You, and Other Midrashim,” in Amichai, Yehuda. Open Closed Open(New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)
[4]Cf. Genesis 21:17 and God’s intercession with Ishmael and Hagar.
[5]This phrase appears in a translation of the Unetaneh Tokefprayer by Chaim Stern in Stern, Chaim (ed.) Shaarei Teshuvah: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).  P. 108
[6]Author’s recreation of a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Schachter, June 18, 2018
[7]See for instance Psalm 37:12-13 or Psalm 59:8.
[8]Genesis 17:17
[9]Genesis 18:12 ff
[10]Genesis 21:6 and 21:9
[11]“God Laughs Out Loud to Quiet Our Fears,” on the Desiring God blog. Retrieved from August 13, 2018.
[12]“Laughter” from the online edition of Psychology Today. Retrieved from August 16, 2018.
[13]Cf Gen. 1:26-27
[14]See, for instance, the examples given in Paul Socken’s essay, “God Cries” for the Canadian Jewish News, October 24, 2014.  Available online at  Retrieved on August 26, 2018.
[15]Paraphrase of Midrash Bereisheet Rabba, 39:1