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Keeping The Faith

By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Rosh Hashanah 5768/2007
I would like to begin this morning by referencing a traditional Jewish dessert the fortune cookie. Actually, it is not so much the cookie that I am interested in, but rather the fortune.
The last time Corey and I had Chinese food, we were thrilled with our fortunes. Her's read: AYou will always live on mountain tops and in seaside resorts. Mine read: AFollow Your Beliefs! Perfect, we thought. We're set.
Like most people, we have our own fortune cookie routine. We read our fortunes, make jokes, comment on the occasional misspellings. Often, one of us will make up our own fortune as we pretend to read from the t iny strip. Then, of course, we take it home and Corey stuffs it in a box with a thousand other fortunes. How many of us take fortunes home? We may belittle them, but we still stuff them in a pocket. The ones that do not seem to apply to us leave us puzzled. The really good fortunes make us feel lucky or blessed in some way. Maybe they contain an inkling of truth. Maybe there really is a master plan for us that is known by the great and powerful writers at the fortune cookie companies. Maybe, it is even a message from God!
I realize that some of us may not be comfortable with this topic, but we mention God in our liturgy. We say the Shemac and Avot/Imahot and Kaddish, and we are OK with that. We are in the synagogue. . . in the sanctuary. . .a place that God belongs. Right? But to speak about God outside of these walls; to speak about all the things that go along with the idea of a belief in God. . .for many of us it sounds so. . .not-Jewish, pre-modern, irrational even.
Let’s take a poll: How many of us have wished upon a falling star, or thrown a penny into a wishing well or fountain, or made a wish before blowing out candles on a birthday cake?
Then I guess this ends my sermon. If we stood for any of these things we must already have faith. ABut no, we might argue, Athat's different. Is it? Faith is a belief that we hold regardless of whether we have any scientific proof. Obviously, when I speak of God and faith in God it is a bit different than blowing out candles. But how different? If we are making a wish, we must also be knowing or hoping that the wish, otherwise known as a prayer, is being heard. It may seem silly to make that wish over candles, but my guess is we do it for the just in case factor. We make that wish just in case it is heard. Just in case there is a power greater than us who hears who hears our prayers.
Children, somehow, naturally have an understanding of God. A friend of mine tells the story of when her daughter was born. On the second day home, the parents heard, through the monitor, the door to the baby's room open and they ran upstairs to see what the older brother was doing. Frantically they questioned him and to their surprise, that 2 year old boy answered that he had gone in to see his baby sister because he had a question about God: AI had to ask her about God. I forgot what God looks like.
Ask your children, ask your grandchildren about God. They will relish in telling you. They remember, and they are unashamed.
By the age of 7, 12, 15, something happens. We loose our faith. Part of it may be natural. When we are young we are constantly saying, AMommy come watch me do this. as we get older we say, Mom, stop watching over me. Leave me alone. Same with God. As children we know God is always with us we want God always with us. As we grow, we may want our space from God as well.
I think we also teach it out of our kids. We quiet our children when they speak of God in mixed company really, any company. It might sound too Christian, or too Jewish! We do not want to make too big a deal of the AGod issue. Even if we do not actively discourage it, rarely do we encourage it. And, partly because of this, our kids loose faith.
We teach our kids bible stories from an early age. Adam & Eve, Noah's Ark, Joseph and his coat of many colors. Our children eat up these stories. Eventually though, they learn that the Bible is not historically accurate at least not compared to their 5th grade text books. So, if we cannot prove these things happened, they must not be true. If the stories are not true, maybe God is not real. And, if God is not real. . .our kids loose their faith.
Kids miss the part of the lesson when we teach that the Bible is theology not history. Our ancestors had a much different concept of story telling. It was not to document facts. It was instead to teach a theology an understanding of God. Many adults have a difficult time with this idea and most kids cannot begin to grasp this concept until they are closer to age 13. But a gap exists between the time they start asking questions and the time they can understand some of the answers. It is a giant gap, and they fall right to the bottom. When they cannot get out, they loose their faith.
Recently, I ran into one of our congregants who said that she keeps running into a mutual friend of ours who has a terminal illness. She said: Ait's just one of those God things. It is so unusual to hear that around here that I had to question her: AWhat does that mean, >a God thing’? She explained that she had been thinking of this person a lot and that there must be a reason that they keep crossing paths. A God thing! Or, maybe just a coincidence.
So are we missing something if we do not believe? As someone who never spoke of God in my childhood home, who never discussed God with my friends, who never even thought much about God until my mid-20s, my answer is Ayes. We are missing something. It may be as grand as a sense of completeness. It may be as indescribable as a sense of Awe. And perhaps it is this sense of awe B more than a specific belief in God that makes the difference. Some Jews leave Reform Judaism as they search for Aawe. They join Chabad, Aish, and other Orthodox sects because they are looking for more than injunctions for ethical behavior. They seek a sense of wonder that is not always readily apparent within our synagogues. They seek not just God's name, but using God's name. They seek a life in a community where God is central, where God matters, where faith matters, where Aawe matters.
Sometimes Jews leave Judaism all together. For some, it is easier to just suspend all belief or to embrace the teachings of the Buddha or new age teachers, than to experience the Awe of Judaism.
I want us to take a moment to be totally honest with ourselves. How many of us fully, truly, unquestioningly believe in God? How many believe, after serious thought and study, that God exists, that there is something greater than ourselves on this earth, some sort of higher supernatural power? According to a Harris Poll last year, only 30% of Jews in a nationwide survey said that they were “absolutely certain” that there is a God.
As adults some of us will argue, AOh, I'm very science oriented. I don't believe in God. In fact some of the best selling books these days argue against God and against religion. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Even the recent publication of the letters of Mother Teresa makes us question.
But God, even for modern Jews, is not so far out of reach. Harold Kushner, in his book, The Lord Is My Shepherd offers a wonderfully accessible theology. He teaches us that while God may not calm every storm, God can calm every person who fears the storm. God may or may not affect our environment, our lives, but God can be with us for any event. We are not alone.
Earlier, we all stood up when I asked about rituals falling stars and birthday candles. There is something that tugs at each of us whether we are willing to admit it or not - that tug is our faith. There is something in each of us whether we recognize it or not that has a need to feel a connection. The word Areligion comes from the same Lat in root that gives us Aligament. A ligament forms a connection in our bodies. Religion forms a connection in our souls.
A few years ago, when I came here, I was working with a woman who desperately wanted to convert. We studied for months together and then she disappeared. I waited and waited, but no word. One day I saw her in the parking lot dropping her kids off for school. She very sheepishly apologized for not being in touch with me and not continuing her studies. She had become discouraged. The more she studied Judaism, the more she wanted to talk about religion. The more she learned about prayer, the more she wanted to talk about God. Her husband, though Jewish, was not so interested. He accused her of trying to make Judaism like Christianity with all of her AGod talk. She concluded that without his support, conversion was too difficult to pursue.
So far, there is nothing so peculiar in this story. I have seen it play out many times before. What made this different is the next part of the story. The husband's mother was diagnosed with an illness that everyone knew she would not survive. The doctors were doing their part. His siblings were doing their part. But the mother was on the East coast and this man felt like he was not doing his part. He had visited once. He got regular updates. But, he felt helpless. He felt alone.
I took a shot with him. I decided that if he was willing to tell me all of this while standing in our courtyard then he also might be ready for my answer. Of course, I told him to rely on his community here. I told him to speak with his mother as often as possible and to not throw away the time he had left with her, just because they were separated by space. And, I told him he should pray. AWhich prayer? he said. AAny prayer, I answered. AUse a healing prayer. Say the Shema. Pray from your heart. If you feel like you are helpless and alone, pray to God. I told him that the prayer was for his mother, but it would also be for him. I sent him into the sanctuary to sit, to contemplate, and to pray.
I have to confess, I checked back in on him. I saw him sit and then stand to leave and then walk around, looking at the memorial plaques and fidgeting as if he was uncomfortable in his own skin. . .really because he was uncomfortable in this skin (this sanctuary). And finally he sat again; he put his head in his hands, and he wept. In that moment, he was closer to himself, and closer to God.
He was not invoking the Ajust in case factor. Instead, he was opening himself up to real, true prayer. Ultimately, we need to realize that if we are in some kind of shadow of darkness, that means that somewhere else the light must be shining. Prayer can lead us into that light. It may even provide that light.
Later that week, this man came into my office and told me how surprised he had been that prayer had made such a difference for him. Even with his mother still so sick, he told me that that day in the sanctuary was the first time that he understood his wife's journey toward Judaism. It was the first time in the past 30 years that he felt a connection to his Judaism. The first time in 30 years that he felt whole.
God, prayer, healing. . .this is not an easy proposition for our modern, scientific and skeptical society. We like immediate results. We like results that we can see or touch. We look for empirical evidence. And frankly, Aneeding God does sound foreign. AGod hears our prayers does sound fundamentalist. Yet, non-Jews do not and should not have the market cornered on God talk!
This summer I started swimming again. I say again because swimming laps was a big part of growing up. Some of my earliest memories of childhood were created clinging to my father in our backyard pool. He would swim back and forth and back and forth for 30 minutes, an hour, maybe longer. And I would hang on to his shoulders, gliding along. I was a swimmer too. In fact,
I started walking and swimming around the same time. By my fourth birthday I was even competing with a traveling swim club. Like most children, my stroke was consistently awkward. But I would eagerly climb up on the blocks, listening to my heart pound as I waited for the starter gun, and then give it my all until I touched the finish.
At some point along the way I discovered that I was a back stroker. I do not remember if I was particularly fast at this stroke, but the feeling was amazing. Rather than on a starter block high above the water, back strokers start in the pool, curled up against the wall, waiting to explode. The gun goes off, I leap back, splash -- one arm, splash - the other arm, and. . . I find my stride. And it was at that moment that I was no longer racing in the water, but I had become part of the water. I could feel my body gliding between the lanes, reaching, reaching, for the wall. Knowing that if I swerved even slightly to the left or right my hand would smash down painfully on the plastic lane ropes. Knowing too that if I missed the count I would slam into the wall head first. But also knowing the peacefulness of the glide. Smoothly slipping through the water, oblivious to the sounds of the crowds partially muffled by the slapping water against my ears. Reaching, pulling, gliding.
For a number of summers after high school I worked as a life guard and swim instructor. I think that it was during those years that I lost my enthusiasm for the water and especially for swimming laps. I dabbled a bit a few years ago, but this summer I really got back in the water. And, although I had not thought about it in years, something was still drawing me to the back stroke. And one overcast morning, somewhere between one wall and another, I realized that swimming the back stroke was like believing in God. The first couple of strokes are splashes as I reach furiously upward, and then it smoothes out and I glide. All the while realizing that I could hurt my hand by slapping the plastic lane ropes; knowing that if I miss my stroke count – miss the visual landmark – that I could careen full speed into the wall. Faith is realizing all the possibilities – good and bad; breaking a record or breaking my head open on the wall. It is reaching into the unknown toward the unknowable. It is acknowledging that life has bumps along the way. There are both dangers that I can foresee and those that will sneak up on me. And yet, faith is also knowing that I can – must – continue. Knowing that all my questions may not be answered, that all my prayers may not be answered, but reaching, reaching, reaching. And, being embraced by the waters as I glide, as I glide.
So, here we all are on Rosh Hashanah. We are reading our liturgy ostensibly praying. Do we believe what we are saying? Do we have faith in God? Do we believe our prayers are meaningful? Or, are we just sitting here, mouthing empty words, because we feel we are supposed to come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah?
Who in here blows out candles and makes a wish? I would venture to say almost, if not all of us. Who in here believes in God, believes in prayer, believes in faith? I don't know. But I do know that we are all sit t ing here today. Some of us come to services throughout the year. Some of us not as much. But we are all here now reading, reciting, or just sitting and listening. All of us, each of us, has something in common with the man that I watched in the sanctuary. The man who sat in here with his head in his hands and his soul in God's hands. We are here. We have taken that step. Coincidence? Maybe. Obligation? It's possible. But here we are. Now what are we going to do?
If we can imagine that our penny makes a difference in a wishing well, we can believe that our prayers make an impact in our lives. If we can make a wish as we blow out a birthday candle, we can make a request from God as we grow another year older. If we can break open a cookie and read the words of the fortune writer, then surely we can break open our hearts and listen to the words of God.
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