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September 23, 2015

Inviting God Back to the Garden (Yom Kippur 5776)

Angela W. Buchdahl

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Just last month, my family and I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon. It was the first time my children or I had ever been there. On the afternoon we arrived, we began our hike thick in the trees, but after about a mile we arrived at the North Rim of the canyon. All of a sudden, the forest thinned out, the ground fell away, and the full grandeur of the canyon came into view.

It took my breath away. The canyon seemed to snake on forever into the horizon, with bands of vivid colors stacked up like a layer cake.

I turned to my teenage son and exclaimed, “Can you believe the beauty of God’s handiwork?”

His response?

“I think that’s called erosion, Mom.”

I felt like I had failed.

I probably shouldn’t take it so personally. He’s certainly not the only teenager who doesn’t readily see God in the world. But as someone in the God business, it hit hard.

How do I talk about God in a way that can make sense to my determinedly rational, science-oriented son? And for that matter, how do I talk about God in a way that makes sense to any of you?

I realize that I reference and pray to God before this community all the time, but you may have no idea what I mean by God. My understanding of God’s existence is rather uncomplicated; I know God exists in the same way that I know Love exists. But understanding God’s role in human affairs, reconciling a Good and Just God with all the evil in the world, and figuring out what God wants from us, that is a lot more complicated.

As a child, I had an unselfconscious relationship with God, as many young children do. We were in regular conversation. And singing to God—well that was one of my favorite things to do.  I became a rabbi primarily because I wanted to help others recognize God in their lives. 

But it’s difficult to express this intensely personal and ineffable experience to anyone else.  Our people’s very name—Yisrael, which means “one who wrestles with God”—expresses how hard this is to do. Let me tell you, trying to write this sermon about God this Yom Kippur has been a test of faith. 

I think God is harder for Jews than for other religious traditions that assume faith as a condition and a given. Belief in God is certainly not a requirement of being a good Jew. Judaism has no specific dogma when it comes to God. It doesn’t really tell us what God is or what God looks like. And without an easy image to see in our minds, most of us don’t know how to recognize God in our lives. It’s not a natural part of our vocabulary.

This summer, when a kindly Midwestern woman helped my husband find the cell phone he had dropped on the top of a mountain, the first words she uttered were “Praise the Lord!” How many of you would have said that, as she did: literally, and without a trace of irony?

But our inability to fully explain or understand God has never stopped our ancient ancestors from trying. God was a healer. A parent. A rock. The Sabbath bride. Our Creator. God was loving, caring, and protective; and God was jealous, angry, and vengeful.  God comforted us when we were sick, and God gave his people the plague. Our liturgy for these High Holy Days refers to God as our Judge; but also as Avinu Malkeinu—our Father, our King.

But the problem with all of these words is that they reduce God, the Infinite, to something much smaller. We know what a judge or a king or a bride looks like. And how can we believe in a God that wears a gown, or a robe, or a crown?

The problem with all of this imagery is that it attempts to transform the experience of God, a divine presence, into a divine being. And that does God a great disservice.

I asked a classroom full of Jewish adults, “How many of you believe in God?” and there were only a few tentative hands. But when I asked for a time people had felt a divine presence of some kind, every hand went up. Everyone could name or describe a sacred moment where a transcendent presence felt undeniable.

They shared…

The moment a first grandchild was born, and watching a son become a father.

The moment a full mountain panorama came into view after a long climb.

The moment a loving community encouraged a mourner back to living after the death of her husband.

We’ve all had those sacred moments—not just us, Jews of New York, but all people across cultures and languages, and across the generations.

We feel, at once, that no one could share this exact feeling we’re having, and yet we know they are the most universal to humankind. In the most joyous and thrilling, but also the most frightening and devastating of life’s experiences, we recognize that we are part of an eternal cycle.

In these moments, we feel profoundly connected to everything past, present, and future. We see how everything is connected. Those sacred moments that the Chasidim describe as when “heaven and earth touch each other.”

But it’s not always the big moments. I think we’ve also experienced these sacred moments when we least expect it, in nature or in everyday encounters.

It’s the moment you step outside after the first winter snowstorm. All the things that were dirty yesterday are under a soft, clean blanket of white. And in a city that never sleeps, everything is muted.

It’s the moment with a dear friend when suddenly you’re both laughing so hard that you’re buckled over; you’re feeling so deeply understood that you feel less alone.

It’s the moment when you finally look at what a child was trying to point out to you, and you realize he has discovered ants, marching in industrious lines, carrying enormous burdens on their tiny backs, and you see them through your son’s eyes and discover these extraordinary creatures again for yourself.

We’ve each had sacred moments where something makes us marvel. Chokes us up. We stop thinking and just feel.

These moments take us beyond ourselves and connect us to something much bigger.  It’s not that God endows us with these experiences. God is these experiences.  God can be as simple as a moment you can’t describe.  And just as hard.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I remember feeling this divine connection. I was almost five years old, and I had just moved to this country. Everything smelled and tasted different than it had at home in Korea.

Our first apartment in America happened to be right across the street from the one synagogue in Tacoma, the synagogue where my father and his father both had been raised. My father took me with him to services on Friday nights, but I didn’t speak any English yet, let alone Hebrew, and so the only prayer I could recognize was the Sh’ma, because we sang that at home at bedtime. Adonai echad. God is one.

One night my father took me outside to look for shooting stars. He lay down on the grassy courtyard outside our apartment and laid me across his chest looking up at the night sky. I kept impatiently asking, “Is that a shooting star?” No. “Is that one?” No.

“Just wait, and be still,” he said.

And I calmed down into his heartbeat and suddenly—I really saw the night sky. It was all I could see. It was thick with stars. And I felt so small and insignificant under this wide horizon, and yet I knew I was part a of it all—my father’s breath, the grass below, the stars above.

And then it hit me: this sky was the very same sky that stretched across the world to my old home. Everything was connected: sky, home, breath, family. Adonai echad. God is One.  It was a moment when heaven touched earth, and I knew that I was not alone.  That anywhere could be home.

Every once in a while, we have one of those moments, when it was as if your self fell away and you knew—really knew—you are part of something beyond yourself.  Then there is just One.  This is what I call God.

I invite you to recognize God—in the many moments of wonder, compassion, presence, transcendence, healing, and connection that you already know. That you’ve already experienced, in the big and small moments of your life.  Because when we ARE open to calling those sacred experiences of connection “God,” then our eyes are open to how much God is already in our lives.

And once we recognize this profound sense of connection, and presence, we begin to seek it in more places, in more relationships.  And our Jewish tradition helps us, with rituals and texts that help us create more sacred moments in our lives.

What is a baby naming, or a bar mitzvah, or Shabbat, but an opportunity to take a moment and make it a sacred moment—where God’s presence is felt?  When we talk about God, we enter a 3,000-year-old dialogue with our wisdom tradition, and struggle, like all the generations before us, to understand what God calls us to be.

It’s hard to be in dialogue with “erosion.”  But in this timeless conversation, we hear that God calls us to Be Holy.  To be our best selves.  To continue to seek out God—not only in the Sanctuary or on a beautiful snowy night, but on the streets of our cities, in faces on the subway, in the kindness of a stranger who is willing to help us on a mountaintop.

You may resist calling any of these moments God. I understand. It’s probably not the way you learned about God in Hebrew school, nor does it reflect the God presented in our prayers this morning.  But we have to try to resist the urge to define God down to something tangible and explainable, to force God to play a recognizable character. And this is challenging for us, the People of the Book, because our Torah itself, the sacred book at the center of Jewish life, can be a stumbling block.

Consider, for example, the well-known story of Adam and Eve, and God’s first encounter with human beings in the Torah. God has placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a perfect paradise, to till and to tend it. But God warns them, “You can eat from any tree in this whole garden. Except for the Tree of Knowledge. If you eat from it, you will surely die.”  You all know how the story plays out: a snake tempts Eve, and Eve persuades Adam, and as soon as they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they are suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they run and hide. As punishment, God banishes humankind from the Garden of Eden.

The God depicted in this story—a watchful being, fully engaged in human affairs, and vengeful—is challenging to accept. This God you don’t believe in—I don’t believe in either.  But this biblical view of God is not meant to be read literally, and it’s only one of many authentic ways our tradition has suggested we can understand God.

The kabbalists, our Jewish mystics, offer a very different version of this story in the Zohar, the foundational book of Kabbalah. The kabbalists believed that one of God’s names was Et, a Hebrew word made up of the first and last letters of the alphabet—the alpha and the omega of the Hebrew language, encompassing all of divine speech.

So when the Torah reads “Vayigaresh et ha-adam,” the Zohar translates it as “And he expelled God, Adam did.” What a radical and powerful notion: God didn’t expel humankind from the Garden of Eden: it was humankind that exiled God.

Consider the implications of this reading: We tasted the fruit from the Tree and fell in love with Knowledge; we elevated modern science, modern technology, and modern rationality above the simple beauty and intimacy that was in the Garden. This became our new Truth. We no longer had use for God. We no longer had time to recognize God. So we pushed God out.

And perhaps we could have been satisfied to remain in the Garden, living off the fat of the earth, content with our newly acquired knowledge. But at some point we realize we are alone.

And we realize that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is not enough. Because the fruit of science can explain how cancer cells reproduce in the body. And maybe even help find a cure. But it cannot assuage the terror and anguish of the diagnosis. Or help us die with dignity and peace. The fruit of physics can explain how the frequency of a sound wave determines its pitch. But it cannot explain why hearing a great symphony makes us weep.

The inadequacy of knowledge is that those truths alone can’t teach us how to stretch the capacities of our hearts. Or how to live courageously in our suffering. Or how to build relationships that go beyond the transactional to something transformational. Modern knowledge alone ignores our human yearning to reach beyond ourselves to discover the purpose and meaning of our lives.

As I read this kabbalistic text, our greatest error was not in eating the fruit—knowledge IS good. Our great error is failing to recognize that we are still in the Garden of Eden. We have insufficient appreciation, insufficient humility, insufficient awe for the beauty and the mystery that is right in front of us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple.”

More than belief, more than deeds, more than faith—Heschel considers AWE the primary outlook of a religious person. Because it is awe that helps us recognize the “intimations of the divine” that are all around us. Awe paves the way for God’s return to the Garden with us.

There is a famous parable from the midrash that is particularly fitting for these Days of Awe. A king’s son was at a distance of a hundred days’ journey from his father’s home. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said to them, “I am unable.” Whereupon his father sent word to him and said, “Go as far as you are able, and I shall come the rest of the way to you.”

This parable captures the crux of the High Holy Days: we may be distant from God, but we can always begin the journey to draw closer.

On Yom Kippur, we are asked to do t’shuvah—which literally means “to return.” What are you returning to? A broken relationship? Your better self? A purpose you are still trying to understand?

We might not know exactly how to get there. But the King says,  “Return to me, and I shall return to you.”

In the traditional reading of this midrash, God is Avinu Malkeinu. God is clearly our father and king; we play the role of the child, a hundred days’ distance away. But allow me to take the mystical read of this text, where WE are the ones sitting in the king’s garden, and God is only far from us because we have sent God away.  

So this Yom Kippur, perhaps we can begin the process of t’shuvah by inviting God to return to us. And as we both try to reach each other, as our deepest yearnings crack open heaven’s gates—and heaven and earth touch—perhaps we may recognize that God was here all along.