Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin
Shalom, Shana Tova, and welcome to tonight’s game of “Make Me a Match.” In this game, I will be introducing you to three contestants, and after we meet each of them, we’ll make a match! Let’s begin!
Contestant Number One is a Commander in the Army, and has spent the last five years working to protect our country from threats to our safety and wellbeing. This contestant is outgoing and has a memorable personality. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number One replied, “My relationships are very important to me. I protect the people I love. I want to be someone’s rock, their safe place in the storm.”
Contestant Number Two teaches at a local middle school and has spent the last decade shepherding students as they navigate the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. This contestant has a kind and gentle personality and wants to find a match who is interested in the work of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number Two said, “I like to share everything with my partner. I want to create a relationship of harmony and comfort, where my partner feels safe coming to me when they need help.”
Contestant Number Three is an artist and the creator of several world-renowned pieces of artwork. When you look at this contestant’s masterpieces, you see the incredible way that the colors come together to create visually striking scenes of the natural world. This contestant is idealistic and visionary. When asked what we should know, Contestant Number Three said, “There is no better feeling than finishing a piece of art and knowing that it will change people. When I reach that moment when I can look at my work and say, “now this, this is good,” it’s an indescribable feeling. I’m looking for a partner who wants to discover the magic of the world around us and who will inspire me to create something new each and every day.”
So, matchmakers, now it’s time to Make Your Match. Did any of the contestants appeal to you? None at all? Don’t be nervous, any answer is ok, because I’m not talking about finding your Love Match, I’m talking about finding your God Match! Yes, you heard correctly – your God Match.
Now God is a very difficult subject for most of us to talk about. Why? Because we can’t actually say all that much about God with any degree of certainty. So many of our books and movies and TV shows tend to portray God as an old man sitting in the clouds presiding over heaven and earth, but not everyone believes in that image of God. And when we don’t believe in that particular image of God, many of us are left without the language or the tools for how to think or speak about God.
Throughout history, human beings have struggled with this idea because in order to speak about God, you need to know something about God, which brings us back to my original point – many of us feel that we don’t really know God. But what we really mean is that we don’t know the God that the TV shows and the books and the movies show us. We don’t know the God that other people speak about because it isn’t how we understand God. But Judaism doesn’t have just one way to understand or connect with God – each and every one of us can and should have a different relationship with God.
In our game of “Make Me a Match,” I presented you not with three potential suitors, but with three potential images and understandings of God. Contestant Number One is the militant warrior God that we see throughout biblical literature. The psalms describe God as “my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer. In God I take refuge… and I am saved from my enemies.”
Contestant Number Two is the gentle, compassionate God who we lovingly imagine to be our shepherd in the wilderness of life. The prophet Isaiah describes God as a “shepherd that feeds the flock, that gathers lambs in God’s arms, gently leading them.”
Contestant Number Three is the creator God, the artist who created the heavens and the earth. God said “Let there be light, and there was light.” This is the God who looked at the work of creation and proclaimed, “v’hinei tov m’od” “and it was very good.”
Maybe you connected with one of these three versions. Maybe part of you connected with all three, or maybe you connected with none. But the connection is the key. In our relationships, it is our feeling of connectedness that creates the sense of intimacy that we feel. We want to feel that the people in our lives have similar values to ours, that we know what motivates them to get up in the morning, what inspires them to do the work that they do, what challenges them, what frightens them. In our relationships with God, we simply don’t know. We can’t answer any of those questions. And yet our relationship with God is, for many of us, one of the most intimate relationships in our lives.
For centuries, human beings have searched for ways to know and understand God. Ancient Greeks imagined multiple gods with unique powers, from Zeus who ruled the skies to Poseiden who ruled the seas. Our ancestor, Abraham, the world’s first monotheist, recognized that there was only one God, but we have spent centuries searching for ways to understand that one God.
Even here and now, we are still searching. Pop culture is bursting with examples of human beings’ attempts to know God.
Star Wars speaks of an energy field created by all living beings known as the Force. This metaphysical and ever-present power surrounds all creatures, binding them together, and drawing them to the light side or the dark side.
The wildly popular TV show, Game of Thrones, has many conceptions of God. It speaks of the old gods and the new gods, the lord of light, and the god of many faces. Each of these has their own representations of the Divine with their own sets of beliefs.
And while the Greek gods and Star Wars and Game of Thrones seem to be wielding vastly different religions from the ones we know, the truth is that they are all in search of the same thing: a way to know and understand God.
As is often the case, Judaism does not have a definitive answer of how to know and understand God. There are many, many ways. But the conceptions of God seen in our mainstream culture, like Star Wars and Game of Thrones, were not created in a vacuum; they bear striking similarities to some of our own Jewish theologians’ beliefs about God.
In Star Wars, The Force is the energy of the universe that pulls us in different directions, toward good but also toward evil. All of humanity is connected by the Force and therefore the actions of one affect the lives of many. Mordechai Kaplan, one of our modern-day philosophers thinks of God as a power or process. Human life, he says, is redeemed by God. Now, if that’s true, then Kaplan’s God is “the totality of those forces in the world that render human life worthwhile.” Here, as in Star Wars, God is the connective tissue that links us to one another and creates meaning in our lives.
In Game of Thrones, we first encounter the Old gods, who were manifest in nature – in rocks, streams, and trees. Worship of these gods involved communing with nature and finding peace in the presence and shelter of the trees. There is an element of the supernatural in the Old gods, an idea that they transcend time and space in ways that we cannot fully understand. Abraham Joshua Heschel echoes these ideas in his concept of what he calls “radical amazement.” When we gaze upon the beauty of creation – the trees and the flowers and the star-studded sky – we feel a sense of wonderment that we are a part of something greater than ourselves which we cannot fully comprehend. Heschel writes that we must embrace this sense of awe because it is on “the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable,” that “great things happen to the soul.”
The New gods in Game of Thrones are known as The Seven, whose multiple sides come together to form one god. Followers worship the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the Stranger—each representing a different aspect of God. As we consider our own ways of thinking about God, we often call God by different names depending on our needs. In our Midrash, we read:
“When I am judging created things, I am called “God,” and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called “Lord of Hosts.” When I suspend judgement for a man’s sins, I am called El Shaddai, Almighty God, and, when I am merciful toward My world, I am called “Adonai,” for “Adonai,” refers to the Attribute of Mercy…”
The many names that we use for God represent the many attributes we understand God to have. But Rambam, a medieval commentator, cautions us against taking these descriptions too literally. He reminds us that this language is metaphorical and that the expressions were adopted to help us as human beings, conceptualize God. But we cannot definitively say what God is or is not –God is simply beyond human comprehension.
The Many Faced god in Game of Thrones uses human beings to do his work. The Faceless Men worship the Many Faced god and do his bidding. It follows then, that a spark of divinity lives within each of us, a widely held Jewish view of God. The I-Thou theology of Martin Buber, another modern day thinker, tells us that when we intentionally connect with another, when we enter into a genuine and meaningful relationship with that person, we also find God.
Every single person in this room likely has a different understanding of God. There are as many ways to think about God as there are stars in the sky. Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that “Because by most definitions God is not limited or physical, and because many conceptions of God assert that God is infinite and inherently mysterious, it will be no surprise that no conception of God will be totally adequate to our experience.” But in considering these different ways of understanding God, it is my hope that it will prompt all of us to reconsider and reevaluate our own beliefs and find our connection. The important question here is not “what does it mean to know God?” but rather “what does it mean for me to know God?”
Once we begin to develop our personal relationships with God, we can begin to answer the other questions of how or if we interact with God on a daily basis, understanding the purpose of prayer, and whether we believe God to be omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipowerful.
But it’s not enough just to know God. We also have to engage with God, and we have to ask ourselves the most important question of all: What is God calling me to do? And how will I respond?
A word of caution: oftentimes more challenging even than responding to the call is knowing if we’re correctly interpreting what we’re being asked to do. Imagine for a moment, that you’re Abraham and God calls upon you to sacrifice your son, your only son, the one whom you love. I can imagine Abraham thinking to himself: “Am I understanding correctly? Is God really asking this of me?” We know that Abraham did indeed climb the mountain with Isaac, prepared to sacrifice him. What we don’t know is if he interpreted the call correctly.
How many times have we heard people claiming to be doing something “in the name of God?” And how often have we heard that phrase in conjunction with violence and destruction? Perhaps the story of the Akedah was meant to teach us a lesson, to show us that sometimes even the best of us may misinterpret what God is asking of us. As Abraham raised his knife to sacrifice his son, an angel of God called out, “Stop! Do not lay your hand upon the boy or do anything to him.” God does not want us to sacrifice our children, God does not want us to cause harm to others.
When we are listening for God’s call, God will never call upon us to inflict pain and suffering on another human being. God gave us the commandments to serve as our framework for living. We read on Yom Kippur, u’vachartah ba’chayim, choose life, that you may live. Part of knowing God is knowing that God will never call us to infringe upon another’s right to live.
So, then, what is it that God calling us to do? If we look at our texts, from Biblical to Rabbinic to Kabbalistic to Hassidic, we know that God calls upon human beings to be partners in creating and repairing the world, in taking care of the earth and its inhabitants, in creating holy community with one another. It is incumbent upon each of us to ask ourselves, “what are my unique gifts, and how is God calling upon me to use them?”
Throughout your life, God may call upon you in different capacities. Sometimes God may call upon you as God did Abraham, to lech lecha, to go forth into the unknown. To journey onward and leave behind everything that you know to be true about the world. To go with the understanding that others will disagree with you, will try to sway you from your beliefs, who see the world as it is instead of how it should to be. Go anyway. Stand on the edge of the precipice and don’t let fear hold you back. Go forth and walk into the unknown.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Moses, to stand up to those who would oppress others. To find the courage within yourself to stand up and demand justice for those who cannot demand it for themselves. To raise your voice in order to break the shackles of oppression even if you are afraid, even if you aren’t sure you’re the right person for the job. Stand strong in the face of evil and confront it head on.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Joseph, to be a visionary and a dreamer. To see the world’s complex problems and find new ways of solving them. To stand toe to toe with people who don’t believe in you and convince them to try something different, something new, something that has never been done before.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did the Prophets of the Bible, to hold the community accountable when we are at risk of succumbing to temptation and wickedness and modern day idolatry – placing more value on things than on people. To say what is right even if it is not what is popular. To point out our flaws and dare us to change our ways. To comfort the challenged but challenge the comfortable.
Sometimes God might call upon you as God did Queen Esther, to put yourself at risk for the safety and security of those you love. To proudly proclaim who you are and what you stand for. To fight for what you believe in and refuse to take “no” for an answer.
Sometimes the call will be obvious, sometimes more subtle. But rest assured, God does call upon us. The Torah reminds us that God calls to each of us and asks that we answer the call as Abraham did: hineini, I am here.
What is God calling you to do? And how will you respond?
The High Holy Days represent an opportunity for us to think deeply and intentionally about these questions. What does it mean for me to know God? During these Days of Awe, may we meet the Force that renders our lives worthwhile, may we see the world with radical amazement, may we ponder the immeasurable aspects of our infinite God, and may we remind ourselves that God can be found in our relationships with one another.
What is God calling me to do and how will I respond? The prophet Micah reminds us that the answer is simple. “What does God require of you? Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The rest, as they say, is commentary.