On a Journey with God

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Kol Nidre 5779, September 18, 2018 – 10 Tishri 5779

Whenever I had a teacher growing up who rubbed me the wrong way and I wished they weren’t part of my life, I’d offer a very particular prayer to God. I never wanted any harm to come to them, so I remember lying in bed at night being annoyed by this teacher or that one and pray to God that they’d win the lottery. I figured that if my prayer were answered, it was a win-win situation. They would be rich and could retire and I wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore. Somehow, I felt that asking God to bring harm to another person fell outside the bounds of prayer in Judaism – although in the weekday Amidah, there is a prayer that asks God to destroy the wicked. Nonetheless, it always felt that if I prayed for someone to be better off and I would somehow benefit from it, then maybe God would answer my prayer.

It’s been a long time, though, since I have been able to offer that kind of unscripted, spontaneous prayer. I think there’s something about learning all of the rules of worship, studying liturgy in seminary, and being aware of the so-called proper ways to pray that hinders one’s ability to pray with that kind of sincerity. In Jewish worship, there are two overarching concepts: keva and kavanah. Keva is the fixed structure of the service, which prayers are said in what order, what additions or changes are made for holidays, even the melodies that are used for chanting certain prayers. Kavanah is the intention that we bring to prayer. In truth, sincere Jewish worship requires both, but for a long time I’ve had a much easier time with keva. Often, when we reach silent prayer in our worship services, I turn not to the words that are in my heart, even as I encourage the congregation to do so, but to the text that precedes Oseh Shalom, a prayer called Elohai N’tzor, a meaningful, yet formulaic t’filat ha-lev, prayer of the heart.

I am occasionally asked, as a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader, if I am able to pray while leading the congregation in prayer. It’s a bit of spiritual multi-tasking that takes some work. Often, I can, but it’s usually in the mode of finding meaning in the words on the page or the melodies we are singing. I’m not, of course, as able to let my mind wander and offer the prayers that are hidden within me while leading the congregation in what’s on the page. In recent years, especially since Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus were our Bernstein Scholars-in-Residence a couple of years ago, I have wanted to cultivate my own kavanah, my own intention, in prayer, not only in worship services, but also in my ability to offer spontaneous prayer that comes more easily to others.

So, at the start of my sabbatical and monthly ever since, I have been working with a mashpiah, a spiritual director, on a Jewish practice called hashpa’ah, often translated as spiritual direction, but better understood as a cultivation of my own relationship with God. My relationship has ebbed and flowed through my life and my rabbinate. So, on this day when we offer our most honest selves before God and engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an inventory of our souls, I felt I wanted to share the journey of my own relationship with God with you. Perhaps, if you struggle with a relationship with God hearing my story will help you feel camaraderie with me. And if you feel you and God have a strong relationship, then I hope that in the months ahead, I can learn from you.

As a kid, my relationship with God was solid. I don’t remember particular conversations with God, but I was sure God was there and I was sure that God and I had a connection. In my teen years, when I was involved in NFTY, the youth arm of the Reform Movement, I questioned my relationship with God more and more, influenced by my peers who were less sure of God in the world, by typical developmental behavior around theology, and by seeing evil in the world and not understanding why God would let it happen. I began to identify myself as agnostic. I never felt that I was an atheist; I just wasn’t sure about this whole God thing. When that really changed was in February of my senior year of high school.

On February 14th that year, my Aunt Liz died suddenly. I was devastated and beyond turning to my family for support, I turned to my NFTY community, my youth group, which had become my primary community in my high school years. I think largely because it was a Jewish community, I found comfort in Jewish theology. My Aunt Liz was 52 when she died. She had been the Volunteer Coordinator for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. She was the first person I ever knew who recycled – five bins in her kitchen: green, brown, and clear class; metal; and plastic – and was a force for good in the world. At 17-years-old, it felt blatantly unfair that her life had been cut short. In Biblical theology, why bad things happen to people is fairly problematic. Most often evil in the world is the result of punishment, a test, or it’s beyond our comprehension. When my aunt died, none of these explanations worked for me.

They didn’t work for the sages of the rabbinic period, either. It wasn’t until the rabbinic period that Judaism developed a concept of afterlife, the World to Come. In rabbinic theology the notion was that while bad things happened to good people and vice versa, God was not unaware and that in the afterlife, God would even the score. As a teenager, this theology brought me a lot of comfort around my aunt’s death. Her good work and her legacy had not gone unnoticed, the sages taught me, and she’d get the rewards she deserved in the World to Come. This solidified my surety of God’s existence, because without this evening of the score, life would be too unfair. It also made me more confident in my belief of an afterlife.

There are some aspects of my relationship with God, today, of which I am really confident. I take seriously the covenantal theology, that we are in a sacred partnership with God in which God relies on us to be God’s agents in the world. In a Reform context, this is how I understand commandedness. While I might not hold any number of the commandments to be binding upon me, I do believe that I am commanded to be God’s partner and God’s agent in the world. I have often said from this bimah that these hands are God’s hands and that your hands are God’s hands and that one of the most powerful ways that God is present in the world is through us. In this context, when a tragedy happens, God is not in the tragedy, but in the people who give of themselves to help others. As Mr. Rogers used to say, “Look for the helpers.” That’s where God is.

I also believe firmly that each person is created in God’s image, that each of us has a spark of the divine within us, and that our encounters with one another are opportunities for encounter with God. The renowned Jewish theologian Martin Buber published his book I and Thou in 1923,

originally in German. In it, he teaches his philosophy of dialogue and two types of meeting: I-It and I-Thou. An I-It encounter is one of experience and using, according to Buber. “For example, when a cab-driver takes a passenger to a designated place and gets paid for that service, the relationship between the two is one of ‘use.’ Each is using the other for personal benefit. Similarly, the relationship between a buyer and a seller, or a writer and an editor, falls essentially within the realm of an ‘I-It.’”1 I-It relationships aren’t inherently bad and they happen not only with strangers, but with our own family and friends, too, like when Kirk texts me and asks me to pick up milk on my way home. But Buber teaches of a higher goal, the I-Thou relationship.

Martin Buber, as I said, wrote the text in German and in German, the title – forgive my pronunciation – was Ich und Du. Like in Spanish, German has both a formal and an informal second person pronoun. In Spanish, they are Usted and tú, formal and informal. In German, Sie and du. Inherent in Buber’s title, which we lose in the English, is a sense of informality and connection. I-Thou, “refers to an intimate relationship with the subject (‘I’) and any other being or thing, including God. Buber speaks of ‘I-Thou’ as a higher relationship than ‘I-It,’ one in which the two parties fully accept one another. One does not ‘use’ the other; one does not judge the other. In this real encounter, there is mutual confirmation of their separate selves. It is as if the two have the capacity to feel each other’s pains and joys.”2

For me, this is really easy with other people. This is not to say that I’m always good at it, but as a concept, it makes a lot of sense to me. It is beautiful to me to think about the possibility that each encounter is an opportunity of mutual relationship, one that will ultimately connect me with God. Where I get stuck is in the notion of an I-Thou relationship with God, where we could feel each other’s pains and joys, in the mutuality of my relationship with God. At the same time, our High Holy Day liturgy speaks of God as Parent, Ruler, and Judge and I’d be much more comfortable with God as Dodi, Beloved, but I have had difficulty cultivating that relationship.

This is why I’ve been engaged in hashpa’ah, spiritual direction. For some of us, it’s easier to find God and holiness outside the synagogue walls, at the beach, on a mountaintop, or in the beauty of nature. And while some shun organized religion in pursuit of spirituality outside houses of worship, this kind of spirituality is deeply Jewish, as well. It’s called hitbodedut. “The verb, hitboded, means to seclude oneself. And the practice, which Rebbe Nachman of Breslov popularized, involves taking yourself away from others, ideally into some natural setting, and speaking your thoughts and longings out loud. The prayer is unstructured and spontaneous. The words come straight from the heart of the person praying, in her own language. There are no limits to the kinds of things one might talk about. There is no book or script. One simply speaks from the heart.”3

This, in fact, is the way our ancestors prayed. “Our rabbis tell us that Abraham would wake up early in the morning and go out to pray. Isaac walked out into the fields in the afternoon to pray. And Jacob prayed between the desert night sky. And, although their experiences are barely recorded, I am sure that our foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, whispered their prayers among the dunes and stones of ancient Israel. It’s actually Chanah’s unabashed weeping prayer that our rabbis consider paradigmatic of true, intentional davening.”4

They were good at it, but I’m not. Praying out loud, on my own, without a script, without a prayer book, has been an obstacle for me. While I feel that I can encounter God in relationship with others, with each of you, I don’t feel as comfortable encountering God on my own. And it’s something I am working to improve. With my mashpiah, my spiritual director, I’m learning to talk to God on my own with pure kavanah, intention, without relying on keva, the structure of Jewish worship. I expect that as I develop this aspect of my relationship with God, it will flow into every aspect of my rabbinate, and I am looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to journeying with each of you and learning from those of you who are further along on the journey than I am.

One of the most beautiful things about our tradition is that it is ever-changing and growing. Torah is the beginning of the conversation, but never the end. And wherever we are in our relationship with God, there’s always the possibility of deepening it and moving it forward. I’m eager for the journey. Shanah tovah.

1 Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, The Philosophy Dialogue of Buber, Finding God: Selected Responses. New York: URJ Press, 2002, pp. 88-89.
2 Ibid, p. 89.
3 Keilah Lebell, Go Out, and Then Come Back. IKAR, August 18, 2018.
4 Ibid.

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